Hard Cash or Soft Values? Assessing the ‘Lithuanian Model’ of Eastern European Relations with China and Taiwan

Written by Dominika Remžová.

Image credit: 11.29 總統接見「波海三國國會友台小組主席及國會議員聯合訪問團」 by 總統府/ Flickr, license: CC BY 2.0.

Over the last year and a half, Lithuania has been at the forefront of the EU’s improving relations with Taiwan and worsening relations with China. This culminated with Lithuania leaving the 17+1 framework of cooperation between China and 17 (now 16) eastern European countries on the one hand and the opening of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius on the other. 

The two events occurred in May and November 2021, respectively, with the latter being particularly controversial, as China argued that the denomination ‘Taiwanese’ breached the EU’s One China policy, which led to the imposition of Chinese economic sanctions on Lithuanian products. However, as Lithuania’s economic relations with China are negligible, at least when compared to western European countries, Beijing made the unprecedented move of targeting EU-wide supply chains that contain Lithuanian products. This effectively escalated the bilateral disagreement to the EU level, with the bloc filing a WTO case against China. 

Amidst the ongoing dispute, Taipei started providing financial support to Vilnius, whether in the form of investment and credit funds, product purchases or negotiations about a potential semiconductor plant. This is noteworthy, as following Taiwan’s rather unsuccessful diplomatic offensive in the Baltic and other eastern European countries in the 1990s, the Sino-Lithuanian dispute provides a fresh opportunity for Taiwan’s outreach to the bloc’s eastern members, and by extent, the EU as a whole. 

Indeed, Lithuania is not the only eastern European country that is currently courted by Taiwan, with Czechia and Slovakia being other noteworthy examples, as seen in the prominent visit by the Taiwanese trade and investment delegation to Bratislava, Prague, and Vilnius in October 2021, which coincided with a visit to the latter two by Minister of Foreign Affairs Joseph Wu. Shortly thereafter, Lithuanian, and Slovak delegations paid official visits to Taiwan, with the now-famous Czech delegation headed by Senate President Miloš Vystrčil visiting in September 2020. 

I, therefore, argue that there are at least three eastern European models of relations with China and Taiwan. The ‘Serbian model’ (or the ‘Hungarian model’) of strong relations with China and weak relations with Taiwan; the ‘Czech model’ of gradual strengthening of relations with Taiwan and gradual weakening of relations with China; and the ‘Lithuanian model’ of a seemingly abrupt pursuit of relations with Taiwan at the expense of those with China. 

I focus on the ‘Lithuanian model,’ which prompts two major questions: why did Lithuania leave the 17+1, marking the first turning point in the Baltic state’s relations with the two East Asian countries; and why did it pursue stronger relations with Taiwan, allowing Taiwan to open a representative office under the denomination ‘Taiwanese’, which marks the second turning point. I argue that we need to consider three factors: economy, security, and norms. Moreover, we need to assess the impact of these at both systemic and domestic levels, with the systemic level accounting for the behaviour of states and international organisations (or rather, regional blocs such as the EU, NATO and the 17+1), and the domestic level accounting for the behaviour of elected officials and government departments.

Systemic Level, Structural Constraints, and the Importance of Security

I see security as the most salient systemic-level factor behind Lithuania’s departure from the 17+1. The 2017 Sino-Russian drills in the Baltic Sea, NATO’s 2019 reference to China as a ‘challenge,’ and Lithuania’s 2020 MoU on 5G security with the US constitute major structural developments that are conditioning Lithuania’s decision to leave the China-led framework. 

The economy is another salient factor, albeit less so than security – and not in the way that is most frequently discussed – with the US-China trade war and the EU’s increasing reference to China as a ‘competitor’ (or even ‘rival’) having a more profound impact on Lithuania’s decision than the frequently cited lack of economic benefits brought by the 17+1. The former represents a more recent change, whereas the latter has been the case for some time, with the Baltic states being at the bottom of China’s investment and trade interests since the framework’s establishment in 2012. 

The impact of such developments becomes even more pronounced when considering Lithuania’s status as one of the most pro-EU, pro-US, and pro-NATO countries in Europe. However, when it comes to normative values, these are arguably the least salient systemic-level factors, with the US’s and EU’s criticism of China’s authoritarianism and human rights abuses referring to well-established matters of fact that both the US and the EU were aware of prior to their recent change of mind, which marks a shift from emphasising economic interdependence to highlighting security threats. 

A similar assessment can be made about the opening of the Taiwanese Representative Office. The US’s and EU’s emphasis on the role of Taiwan’s semiconductors within their pursuit of supply chain diversification, which was developed by the pandemic-propelled global chip shortage that impacted the EU’s automotive industry, indicates the saliency of the economy as a systemic-level factor. 

The saliency of security is constituted by the US’s increasing criticism of China’s activities in the Taiwan Strait and incursions into Taiwan’s ADIZ and the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy. It also shows the saliency of normative values by the increasing framing of Taiwan as a ‘like-minded partner’ that provides a democratic model for managing pandemics and countering disinformation. Nevertheless, it is questionable how any of these developments conditioned Lithuania’s strengthening of relations with Taiwan. Hence, the systemic-level assessment applies mainly to the first turning point, which marks Lithuania’s departure from the 17+1 and thus a shift in Sino-Lithuanian relations.

Domestic Level, Government Agency, and the Importance of Norms

Although there are domestic-level structures, such as the tradition of values-based foreign policy, the agency of Lithuania’s new coalition government that came to power following the 2020 parliamentary election sets this level apart. There’s an undeniable shift from seeing China as an economic partner, which led Lithuania to join the 17+1 to diversify its economic relations following the financial and Eurozone crisis, to seeing China as a competitor, culminating with Lithuania leaving the 17+1, citing the lack of economic benefits. 

However, this shift is conditioned by the systemic-level developments mentioned above, with Lithuania justifying its decision to downgrade its participation at the 2021 17+1 summit in terms of China’s insignificance as its economic partner, be it on a multilateral or bilateral basis. Similar conditioning applies to a shift from seeing China as a security partner that could have helped to balance against Russia to seeing China as a rival that cooperates with Russia, as constituted by the Lithuanian State Security Department’s 2019 description of China as a ‘security threat’. This was followed by a large-scale exclusion of Chinese companies from Lithuania’s critical infrastructure projects and the National Cyber Security Centre’s public advice to discard Chinese phones due to their in-built censorship capacities. 

I, therefore, see the saliency of normative values as dominating the domestic level, which despite being a part of Lithuania’s foreign policy tradition, intensified following the 2019 clash between pro-Hong Kong and pro-China protesters on the streets of Vilnius. Indeed, it is at the domestic level of norms where Lithuania goes further than the international organisations by moving from following to leading the EU—as shown by the country’s continued emphasis on replacing the divisive 17+1 with a united 27+1 approach towards China—the latter of which is, unlike the former, supposed to represent the interests of all EU member states. 

The saliency of normative values is even more pronounced when it comes to the shift in Lithuanian-Taiwanese relations, as seen in the agency of the incumbent government that came to power on a values-first platform promising to “defend those fighting for freedom around the world, from Belarus to Taiwan.” Moreover, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Gabrielius Landsbergis, is a grandson of a prominent figure behind the country’s fight for independence from the Soviet Union, and the Freedom Party, which is part of the governing coalition, even included support for Taiwan’s independence in its election programme. Therefore, the domestic level assessment applies mainly to the second turning point.

From Structure to Agency and Beyond 

As indicated by the title of this article, the two turning points are often explained in terms of economic and normative factors at the domestic level. Nevertheless, I argue that systemic-level structures best explain Lithuania’s departure from the 17+1, with security being the major factor around which normative and economic justifications are constructed, whereas the domestic-level agency of the coalition government best explains the pursuit of stronger relations with Taiwan, with Lithuanian political elites moving from following the EU as a normative power to taking on the role of ‘norm entrepreneurs’ at the EU level. 

All of this then prompts further questions, including the scale of potential implications of the Sino-Lithuanian dispute for Taiwan’s outreach to the EU, as well as the applicability of the ‘Lithuanian model.’ The EU is undergoing a systemic shift in its attitude towards China, which is being hastened by China’s ambiguity on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

As the criticism of China is increasingly extending beyond the walls of the European Parliament, which has published its first-ever standalone report on EU-Taiwanese relations in October 2021, Taiwan will continue benefiting (at least in the short term) from this unprecedented opportunity. More importantly, with the ongoing convergence of economic, security and normative factors within the bloc’s eastern members, the eastern European countries will continue providing the most favourable ground for Taiwan’s outreach. Whereas China prioritises the great powers in western Europe, Taiwan can benefit most from its continued cooperation with the small eastern European states, as shown by the case of Lithuania. Indeed, with the Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Lipavský calling for closer relations between the EU and Taiwan, citing, amongst other things, normative values, the difference between the ‘Czech model’ and the ‘Lithuanian model’ could further diminish, especially as the values-oriented Czech government is due to start its Presidency of the Council of the European Union in July. 

Dominika Remžová is an ESRC-funded student of MA Social Science Research (Politics and International Relations) at the University of Nottingham. She holds another Master’s degree in Taiwan Studies from SOAS, University of London, and is a Junior Researcher at the European Institute for Asian Studies (EIAS). She is also affiliated with the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) and has previously interned with the Global Taiwan Institute (GTI). 

This article is published as part of a special issue on European Association of Taiwan Studies.

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