Taiwanese delegation heads for Eastern Europe to pick off ex-Soviet states in battle with China

·4-min read
Taiwan's presidential office in the capital, Taipei - EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Taiwan's presidential office in the capital, Taipei - EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

A Taiwanese delegation of government officials and business leaders is to visit Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Lithuania in October, challenging Beijing’s attempts to diplomatically isolate Taipei, and seizing on growing international support for Taiwan in the face of Chinese invasion threats.

A government announcement this week said the 65-member group aims to promote trade ties and investment, but the symbolism of the trip has gained outsized importance amid shifting global alliances that increasingly recognise the strategic importance of protecting the democratic island of 24 million.

On Friday, the US and Australia pledged to “strengthen ties with Taiwan” on the back of a landmark US-UK-Australia security deal, dubbed Aukus, and which is seen as targeting Beijing's growing aggression in the Indo-Pacific.

Europe has stepped up its own efforts to counter Chinese economic influence, and this week launched its “Global Gateway” scheme to compete with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, its global infrastructure project that aims to boost its connectivity and influence in major markets, including the West.

But European recognition of Taiwan’s growing international status is being led by small, former Soviet and Eastern Bloc states. Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Lithuania have all given coronavirus vaccines to Taiwan and have shown signs of wanting closer relations.

Lithuania's foreign minister met this week with the US secretary of state - Reuters
Lithuania's foreign minister met this week with the US secretary of state - Reuters

Vilnius, in particular, has been at the forefront of fighting Chinese attempts to prevent Taiwan forging closer trade and political ties within Europe.

Taiwan is officially recognised by only 15 countries although it operates like any other nation with its own government, military and currency. It is claimed by the Chinese Communist Party, which has never ruled there.

Beijing has stepped up its military intimidation of the island, blocked its participation in international institutions, and sought to undermine Taipei’s attempts to forge diplomatic links with other countries. It has threatened to invade if Taiwan does not agree to unify with China.

When Taiwan announced in July it was setting up a representative office in Vilnius under the name "Taiwan" instead of "Taipei,” in a significant diplomatic departure from standard practice, Beijing withdrew its ambassador to Lithuania, and demanded Vilnius do the same.

The economic retaliation followed, with reports of China halting trade and export permits for the country’s producers, and suspending rail freight to Lithuania.

Lithuania has continued to stand its ground.

The David versus Goliath battle of the tiny Baltic nation of 2.9 million against China’s economic and political might, has won plaudits for Vilnius in Washington, which also views Taiwan as an important strategic partner.

During a visit to the US this week by Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Lithuanian foreign minister, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, pledged “ironclad US support” and greater trade ties in the face of “attempted coercion” by China.

China has recalled its ambassador to Lithuania - Valda Kalnina/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
China has recalled its ambassador to Lithuania - Valda Kalnina/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Janez Jansa, the Slovenian prime minister, stressed Lithuania’s sovereign rights in a letter to EU leaders this week, urging them to back the country and calling the use of “trade as a weapon in a diplomatic dispute” a “reprehensible event” that would impact EU-China relations.

Tom Tugendhat MP, chair of the Foreign Affairs select committee, said the tone of how to interact with China over Taiwan was being set by smaller countries, and suggested it had been spurred by a backlash against Beijing’s belligerent approach to foreign policy, known as “wolf warrior diplomacy.”

“They [China] got this very badly wrong. They thought that they could bully countries into compliance but many countries like Lithuania know what the price of freedom is and know what dictatorship and tyranny from others feels like, so they are not willing to accept it,” he said.

Memories of Soviet rule and experience of dealing with “threats, intimidation and disinformation” from Russia influenced the approach of Baltic nations towards China, said Dr Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a Taiwan expert and former political advisor in the European Parliament.

But she added that Beijing’s handling of the pandemic and disappointment over its “16+1” economic cooperation deal with central and Eastern European countries had also damaged China’s image.

There was an overall shift in how the European Union perceived China influence, she said. “We are slowly but increasingly more aware of the influence that China has acquired and what that means for our national security.”

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