Lithuania hopes to open its trade office in Taiwan this autumn, as the Baltic state tries to carry out its value-based foreign policy

In an interview, Lithuania’s Minister of Economy and Innovation said the Baltic state is aiming to open its trade office in Taiwan this fall. Experts think Lithuania’s receive moves to build closer ties with Taiwan reflects its value-based foreign policy and it also shows they are trying to diversify their diplomatic partners in Asia.

After Lithuania’s Foreign Minister announced on July 1 that the Baltic state plans to set up several representative offices in Asian countries, the country’s Minister of Economy and Innovation, Aušrinė Armonaitė, revealed that Lithuania hopes to open its trade office in Taiwan in October or November. She says relevant legislative process will be underway soon.

Since coming into power last October, the Lithuanian government has been trying to enhance the relationship with Taiwan. Last month, the country announced the plan to donate 20,000 AstraZeneca COVID19 vaccines to Taiwan and during the announcement, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the move shows that people who treasure freedom should look out for each other.

Aušrinė Armonaitė said the move to establish a trade office in Taiwan is not entirely just about trade relationship, because it also reflects the friendship that Taiwan and Lithuania has established in the early 1990s. Armonaitė mentioned how Taiwan supported Lithuanians and people from other Baltic states to transition from being ruled by the Soviet Union to liberal democracy and market economy.

Additionally, she said Lithuania was also thankful for Taiwan’s move to donate 100,000 masks to Lithuania at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, when most European countries were struggling to get enough masks and other medical supplies.

“I visited the EU’s trade office in Taiwan two years ago as a member of the parliament and I also noticed that our neighboring country Poland also has a trade office in Taiwan,” said Armonaitė. “I thought why Lithuania is not there yet because we do have a strong friendship and businesses from both sides are interested in having more partnerships and contacts.”

As an export-driven economy, Armonaitė says her mission as the Minister of Economy and Innovation is to actively engage in opening up more representative offices in new markets, especially in Southeast Asia. “What I’m trying to do as the Minister of Economy is to look for new markets for our businesses,” she said. “We will highlight our high-tech industries and laser producers.”

Armonaitė said another incentive to establish even closer trade relationship with Taiwan is triggered by the lack of microchips that Lithuania and other European countries are facing. As one of the major chip manufacturers in the world, Armonaitė says Lithuanian businesses have been encouraging its government to move faster when it comes to establishing partnerships with Taiwan.

Last Friday, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it welcomed a proposal by Lithuania to set up a trade office in Taiwan. The ministry’s spokesperson Joanne Ou said the ministry is open to the possibility of maintaining exchanges with like-minded countries and continues to seek opportunities to strengthen substantive cooperation.

She also expressed gratitude to Lithuania for its offer on June 22 to donate 20,000 doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to Taiwan, saying it was an indication of the close relationship between the two countries.

Why is Lithuania building closer ties with Taiwan while distancing itself from China?

Some experts think Lithuanian government’s move to enhance bilateral relationship with Taiwan not only fits the new government’s value-based diplomatic blueprint, it is also an extension from Lithuania’s relationship with China over the last few years.

Konstantinas Andrijauskas, an associate professor in Asian studies at Vilnius University, said the plan to strengthen bilateral ties with Taiwan is part of the trend of foreign policy diversification.

“The current consensus in the country is that the economic part of the relationship with Beijing hasn’t really brought enough to Lithuania in terms of the actual opportunities and agreement,” he said. “If you consider the human rights situation in China and the increasing assertiveness on the international arena, Lithuania’s relationship with China is pretty troublesome in itself.”

Andrijauskas thinks that when Lithuania tries to deepen its diplomatic relationship with countries other than China, Taiwan is a country that presents economic opportunities and fits the purpose of the value-based diplomacy.

“ The value-based diplomacy has been part of the current government’s position and they have implemented it into the program,” he said. “In this regard, the government is merely following the principles that they have already outlined.”

Additionally, compared to other European countries, Andrijauskas thinks the economic cooperation between Lithuania and China isn’t deep enough, so it’s hard for Beijing to use economic leverage to pressure Lithuania. “The level of bilateral trade between Lithuania and China is way below the expectations and way below other countries of similar sizes within the EU,” he said.

As for Lithuania’s decision to open a trade office in Taiwan, Andrijauskas says the Lithuanian government doesn’t view it as a provocative move since many other European countries also have representative offices in Taiwan. However, since no European country has done so in recent years, China will still view the move as a provocation.

“It happens to be the case when a smaller European country does that and in particular the one that has recently opted out of the 17+1 forum,” he said. “The Lithuanian government understands the achievement and success stories that can come out of this move of building stronger ties with Taiwan over the last few months.”

Maintaining trade relationship and human rights principles

In May, Lithuanian’s Foreign Minister announced that the country is withdrawing from the 17+1 forum made up by China and Central and Eastern European countries. He said the plan had the potential to divide the European Union.

In the interview on Monday, the Minister of Economy and Innovation, Aušrinė Armonaitė said Lithuania believes that all EU countries should have a united dialogue with China and points out that having the European Union divided into Central and Eastern Europe is not something that Lithuania thinks is worth pursuing.

“We are interested in dialogues with China but we think that having a united and comprehensive European approach is something that’s worth doing,” she said.

Armonaitė said as a Lithuanian citizen, it’s important not to ignore what’s happening in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and other places. “Some of the news that reaches us doesn’t go in line with human rights approaches,” she said. “This is something we can’t ignore and that’s why we are trying to build more economic relations with a diverse range of countries and regions.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.