Taiwan has opened a de facto embassy in Lithuania in a diplomatic breakthrough for the self-ruled democratic island that China, which described the move as “egregious”, claims as its own territory.
Taipei announced on Thursday it had formally opened the office in the Baltic state – its first in Europe in 18 years – in defiance of a pressure campaign from Beijing.
Taiwan’s foreign ministry said the opening of the “Taiwan Representative Office in Lithuania” would “charter a new and promising course” for joint ties, noting the huge potential for cooperation, particularly in technology.
“Taiwan will cherish and promote this new friendship based on our shared values,” the ministry said.
In August, China demanded Lithuania withdraw its ambassador to Beijing and said it would recall China’s envoy in Vilnius after Taiwan announced the name for the office. Its outposts elsewhere in the world are usually called Taipei Economic and Cultural Offices, with China chafing at any use of the word Taiwan for fear it lends a sense of legitimacy to the island.
China responded angrily to Thursday’s opening and threatened unspecified consequences.
“The Lithuanian government, in disregard of the Chinese side’s strong objection and repeated dissuasion, has approved the establishment of the so-called ‘Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania,’” Beijing said in a statement.
“The Chinese government expresses strong protest over and firm objection to this extremely egregious act. The Lithuanian side shall be responsible for all the ensuing consequences.”
China has put increasing pressure on other countries to limit cooperation with Taiwan since President Tsai Ing-wen was first elected in 2016, and only 15 countries now have formal diplomatic ties with the island.
Beijing has also been angered by Lithuania’s decision to open its own representative office in Taiwan, although no firm date has been set.
Many other countries maintain de facto embassies in Taipei, including several of Lithuania’s fellow European Union member states, Britain, Australia and the United States.
Taiwan’s new office will be headed by Eric Huang, who is currently Taipei’s chief of mission in neighbouring Latvia.
“We are very happy that we have the opportunity to be a facilitator and promoter for the relations between Taiwan and Lithuania,” Huang told Agence France-Presse news agency.
On the significance of using the name Taiwan, he said it was “of course very meaningful”.
“We will not emphasise too much about the geopolitical context. As the representative office of my country, what I am focused on is to promote a substantive relationship.”
The opening of the Vilnius office is an indication that while Lithuania wants to engage more closely with Taiwan, that does not mean it is moving away from European Union policy on China.
The use of Taiwan rather than Taipei for the name of the representative office, “indicates that the intention on both sides is to reflect that bilateral relations are comprehensive including, economic, research and development, cultural, political aspects, which is possible and does not require nor indicate a move away from Lithuania’s adherence to the EU’s one China policy,” Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a postdoctoral researcher in Taiwan and former political adviser in the European Parliament told Al Jazeera. “Vilnius wants to engage China in a 27+1 format, and expand ties with Taiwan at the same time.”
Lithuania is one of a number of Baltic and central European countries that have shown they are prepared to seek closer relations with Taiwan — even if it upsets China.
Politicians in the Czech Republic and Slovakia have also pushed for closer ties with Taiwan.
In 2019, Prague cancelled a sister-city agreement with Beijing and signed one with Taipei, while a high-profile visit to Taiwan last year by Czech senate leader Milos Vystrcil infuriated China.
Last month a delegation of Taiwanese officials visited Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Lithuania, sparking anger from Beijing, while a seven-member delegation from the European Parliament made a historic trip to Taiwan.
In May, Lithuania announced it was leaving China’s 17+1 cooperation forum with central and eastern European states, calling it “divisive”.
“We believe that the economic relations established with democratic states are more sustainable and long-lasting, they are more based on the principle of the rule of law, therefore they are more in line with Lithuania’s interests,” Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters on Thursday.
With reporting by Erin Hale in Taipei