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Behind Lithuania’s all-in Taiwan bet

Lithuania’s Taiwan pivot became the most high-profile example of the country’s proclaimed values-based foreign policy. Behind the layers of rhetoric, the emerging picture hints at other motives behind the move.

September 15, 2023 - Benas Gerdžiūnas - Articles and Commentary

Photo: J. Stacevičius/LRT

Using charm offensives, he attracts smiles among journalists and diplomats. Peppering his language with English expressions and dialogue excerpts from his meetings in Washington, Lithuania’s foreign minister, Gabrielius Landbsergis recounts the praises he receives abroad, shaping himself to appear at the centre of Lithuanian foreign policy that is increasingly becoming global.

And, to an extent, he has taken Lithuania worldwide.

Vilnius was among the first to send modern weapons to Kyiv on the eve of the invasion, enjoying the bittersweet ‘I told you so’ moment once the Russian tanks rolled in. For years, Lithuania had been perceived as a Russia hawk, a one-topic country, until it was proven right about the Kremlin threat.

The most influential foreign policy initiative was the Landsbergis-led pivot away from China – first by leaving the 17+1 investment forum, then by forging closer ties with Taiwan. In 2021, Lithuania allowed Taipei to open its de facto embassy in Vilnius. China was outraged, but Lithuania held firm.

In interviews with international media, Lithuania officials portrayed the country as a “freedom-loving” outpost in an increasingly authoritarian region, using the same rhetoric to explain its standoff with China. It worked – the trumpeted values-based approach was applauded by international media, as well as foreign officials and diplomats, making the country, as well as its minister, celebrities.

Values became Lithuania’s “brand”, according to Margarita Šešelgytė, director of Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science with an inside knowledge of Lithuania’s foreign policy apparatus.

But this is as far as the values rhetoric took Lithuania, according to Alvydas Medalinskas, a former politician, now a lecturer and Ukraine-based political analyst.

“I can say what has been achieved – a characteristic of a brave country, or brave, young politicians who pursue such brave politics,” he said. “There are few other positive factors, especially for Lithuania.”

Taiwan affair

For this article, LRT spoke to six unrelated sources – and more who provided background information – who worked at, or with, the Foreign Ministry. Together they have shed light on the implementation of Lithuania’s value-led programme.

The milestone of that policy was, arguably, Taiwan. “The minister saw a window of opportunity and this was an [improvised] step,” said Šešelgytė.

The conservative Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) party was elected in 2020, before forming a ruling coalition with two minor partners. Landbsergis found himself in a uniquely powerful position – he was the chairman of the ruling party and was on the same page as the prime minister, and the coalition had a parliamentary majority, even by a narrow, 73 to 68, margin.

What checks and balances can we talk about, said Šešelgytė.

At least two unrelated sources said Landsbergis was relentless in pursuing his vision, ignoring briefings and largely flying solo. This version of events, however, was challenged by several staffers who saw a group of people, albeit small, leading the Taiwan charge, with the rest of the institution also playing its part.

Lithuania, however, does not have the resources of a large country. Multiple people at the Foreign Ministry recall being completely unprepared to handle the Taiwan events that were arguably, at least for a while, at the centre of global politics.

According to sources with close knowledge of the Taiwan pivot, everyone had expected China to react loudly, but mildly. Some economic losses were also anticipated.

But China’s reaction caught them off-guard, including the minister.

In November 2021, confident about weathering China’s wrath over Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Vilnius, Landsbergis said in one meeting with journalists – that’s it, Beijing will go no further.

Just days later, China removed Lithuania from its customs registry, blocking shipments and imposing de facto trade sanctions. The standoff would only escalate in the following months, with Beijing pressuring international businesses to leave the Baltic country.

Doorstep interviews at the Seimas revealed a completely different Landsbergis, fumbling anecdotes and inserting awkward smiles when faced with difficult questions.

Media reports at the time indicate diplomats in Brussels were also criticising Lithuania for going at it alone but then pleading for bloc-wide support when things went south.

“Did we go into this having done our homework? We had no people, no know-how, nothing,” said Šešelgytė.

According to one source, the Taiwan move was supported by what they called the “deep state”, an ad-hoc collection of people with authority from within the foreign policy apparatus.

Although Landsbergis played down the role of the former deputy minister, Mantas Adomėnas, at least several people said he was crucial in bringing the values-based line to the table. He declined requests for an interview.

Meanwhile, the lack of know-how on the institutional level may have opened the path for Taiwan to throw Lithuania under the bus, despite the rosy – and boozy – displays of a budding friendship.

What first triggered China was Lithuania allowing Taiwan to open its de facto embassy under its own name – The Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania. Beijing claimed this was akin to recognising Taiwan as a sovereign country. Elsewhere, such trade missions are named after Taipei, the self-ruled island’s capital.

However, it wasn’t the English or Lithuanian versions that were the most problematic.

Vilnius and Taipei had discussed the name’s English iteration, which puts emphasis on “Taiwanese”, ie the people of Taiwan. In Mandarin Chinese, however, the name spells out “Taiwan”.

In a February 2022 meeting with Canadian reporters, Taiwanese representative Eric Jiun-Yaw Huang was blunt when asked whether the Chinese translation of the embassy’s name was discussed with the Lithuanian side – “No,” he answered.

Beijing had previously declared the acknowledgement of Taiwan to be its red line. Sources suggest China offered to lift sanctions in exchange for changing the name. And although there was at least one, unnamed diplomat in the ministry who wanted to back down, Lithuania did not fold.

If the use of the name Taiwan was truly at the core of the dispute with China, this shows that Taipei merely used Lithuania to pursue its foreign policy objectives – to gain international recognition as a sovereign state, despite Beijing considering the self-ruled island as part of its territory.

This also derailed Lithuania’s goal of making the Taiwan pivot appear primarily an economic move.

The task of establishing a trade mission in Vilnius was given to the country’s Economy Ministry, with members of the Foreign Ministry forming part of the working group.

However, at least one source at the foreign ministry challenged this version of events, saying the Taiwan move was managed by them.

An insider revealed that Lithuania’s understaffed team struggled during the negotiations to get Taipei to commit to even basic trade deals. The lack of hands on deck slowed the talks and even the Taipei side questioned Lithuania’s ability to muster enough people to sit at the table.

Inevitable contradictions

Taiwan was the most high-profile example of Lithuania’s value-based foreign policy. But the debate over what that policy actually entails stretched beyond China.

Despite the value-driven foreign policy pledge, Lithuania still mostly adhered to the same realpolitik, even if Vilnius officials criticise countries like Germany and France for doing the same.

And while officials including Landsbergis claimed moral high ground over Belarus and Russia, Vilnius officials have pushed themselves into contradictions.

Thus, Lithuania will condemn the occupation of Ukraine, but will toe Washington’s line on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Landsbergis will scold Hungary, but will not publicly criticise Poland, a “strategic partner”. Despite condemning China’s human rights violations, Lithuania continued to build ties with non-democratic countries like the United Arab Emirates and Singapore that maintain good, or even strategic, relations with the US.

In a 2020 interview just after assuming his post, Landsbergis dodged questions about whether he would condemn rule of law transgressions in Poland, despite naming “good relations with neighbours who respect the rule of law” as the core values of Lithuania’s foreign policy.

“The sentence about the rule of law was not addressed to Poland, it was addressed first and foremost to the Belarusian regime,” he answered.

Landsbergis later defended Lithuania’s Poland approach, saying he did raise the rule of law issue, including in bilateral meetings.

Team America

In private and increasingly public conversations, Vilnius officials are never shy about explaining the reason for the move against China – it was done in the name of getting under the security umbrella of the United States.

According to Šešelgytė, this comes down to the existential national security question being the all-encompassing foreign policy priority.

“Before NATO membership, we sold ourselves as an exporter of military forces, which helped find the path to Washington’s heart,” she said. “We are now looking for other recipes.”

Precisely for that reason, Lithuania was vocal in supporting the US invasion of Iraq and made an outsized contribution to the war in Afghanistan.

“Taiwan’s decision was supported by the fact that we would get US attention, in the same way, that we tried to get their attention with our active involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Šešelgytė. “It used to open doors for us in the Pentagon and the White House. As far as I hear from Lithuanian diplomats and civil servants, the Taiwan issue now does the same.”

“How did the Taiwan issue end up on our desk – we wanted to be useful for the Americans whose attention is moving from us to the Indo-Pacific region,” she added.

Lithuania published its Indo-Pacific strategy document in the days before the NATO summit in Vilnius, generating another news round of praise in the foreign press.

“If you want to be visible and draw attention to your security problems, you have to jump above your height,” said Šešelgytė. “If getting into an argument with China means more US attention and involvement in our security, then I would rather get into dispute with China.”

But there is also a danger of going all in against China, according to Medalinskas, the political analyst.

“We have to anticipate what will happen if the policy of a partner like the US changes and we are left alone with our own highly defiant – in the early stages – policy from the EU and NATO countries to confront China, when the challenge of Putin’s Russia in particular is important for us,” he said.

“In Lithuania, it is often ignored that China is also playing its own geopolitical game, and in some places, such as Central Asia and Siberia, these games are being played bypassing Russia, and the interests of Beijing and Moscow do not necessarily coincide,” Medalinskas said.

“Nobody wants World War Three and the US will probably look for some kind of contact point with China without offending Taiwan’s interests. We need to know what our interest is in this policy if suddenly all the parties to the conflict find points of agreement,” he added.

In the interview, Landsbergis defended the Taiwan policy as a primarily economic move.

“First of all, the decision [on Taiwan] was about reducing China’s economic clout and finding new partners,” he said.

Yet Landsbergis admitted the policy carried a PR angle.

“What is clear is that you are also visible to those big countries and strategic partners. They sometimes recognise their ambitions in our foreign policy, […] they recognise the desire for freedom in a small country like Lithuania,” he said.

“This allows us to shape the image of ourselves. Despite the criticism, this is not a political idea, it is a Lithuanian idea. Lithuania is a freedom-loving country. It would be very difficult for a politician to give voice to something that does not exist in reality.”

“Rhetorics shape politics, especially in foreign policy. Sometimes it only takes one interview to shape the direction of foreign policy,” he added.

He was also candid about the know-how the country should, and had, acquired.

“We are certainly capable of tackling an issue like the Indo-Pacific [strategy]. Again, I would not deny that we need to develop expertise,” Landsbergis said.

In one example of Lithuania’s hard-earned lessons, it held off on the opening of its own trade missions in Taiwan, as it was the last remaining leverage in increasingly difficult negotiations with Taiwan.

At that point, the 200-million-euro investment pool pledged by Taiwan for Lithuania was reshaped to include the whole of Eastern and Central Europe. According to one source with close knowledge of the talks, Taipei was pushing Lithuania to hand over its own advanced laser tech in exchange for vague joint-venture promises.

Once Lithuania’s office finally opened in November last year, it carried the name of “Lithuanian Trade Representative Office in Taipei”. The name of Taiwanese, or Taiwan, was gone.

Lithuania had stepped back.

“Every country, every actor has the right to decide for itself about the name,” said Landsbergis. When pushed, he repeated his answer without elaborating: “Because that was the decision we made.”

Although Landsbergis said the Taiwan pivot was purely economic, the results paint a different picture.

Lithuania recorded a threefold drop in annual exports to China, from 350 million euros in 2020 to 100 million euros last year, Vidmantas Janulevičius, president of the country’s Confederation of Industrialists, said in August. The exports to Taiwan now amount to just several million euros a month, nowhere near offsetting China losses.

Yet, a breakthrough in early 2023 may help justify Lithuania’s va banque Taiwan move. Teltonika, Lithuania’s leading semiconductor and Internet of Things company, announced in January it had signed a deal with Taiwan on the transfer of its world-leading semiconductor technology.

According to the company reps, this was the first time in 50 years that Taiwan had handed over its strategic tech to a foreign country, claiming that the manufacture of the semiconductors could eventually amount to 5 percent of Lithuania’s entire economic output.

However, it’s unclear what tech exactly the Taiwanese side agreed to hand over. All details are currently classified.

LRT attempted to contact Taiwan’s Industrial Research Institute (ITRI) for comment, but without success. Teltonika representative also declined to provide more details about the agreement.

Risk and reward?

There are signs that Landsbergis’ push did have global significance, even if it’s difficult to define which factors were most important – the US, Lithuania, Brussels, or China itself.

In July, Italian Defence Minister Guido Crosetto echoed what Lithuanian and Baltic officials had been saying for years – Chinese investment promises are hollow.

While Lithuania only came close to joining the so-called Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Italy got on board in 2019. Speaking to the country’s media, Crosetto said the decision was “atrocious”.

However, Italy is unlikely to take drastic action. “The issue today is: how to walk back [from the BRI] without damaging relations [with Beijing]. Because it is true that China is a competitor, but it is also a partner,” Crosetto said, according to the Guardian.

Similarly, France and Germany are largely unable to make unilateral steps to limit contact with China due to the tight economic links, something which Lithuania never had to sacrifice – the Baltic countries were not reliant on exports to China or Beijing investments.

“The French and Germans themselves have told me that it’s good what has happened because it allows the EU to move the policy toward China in a more critical direction,” said Šešelgytė. “The EU has a higher competence than individual countries in external trade relations. When the EU says something, Germany and France can fold their arms and say, ‘there is nothing we can do about it’.”

The same people are now saying that Lithuania gave a chance “to put China in its place by saying how it can and cannot behave with EU countries”, according to Šešelgytė. “Lithuania has succeeded in pushing the EU policy in a slightly tougher stance toward China.”

“It seems to me that our diplomats do not fully grasp the significance of the step they had taken.”

This text was republished through the partnership between New Eastern Europe and LRT English.

Benas Gerdžiūnas is an editor at LRT English. 

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