De Facto Embassy in Lithuania Could Trigger Movement to Recognize Name “Taiwan”
On July 20, 2021, Taiwan’s foreign minister announced a plan to open the “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania,” a de facto embassy in one of the three Baltic countries with which Taiwan has no diplomatic relations. The office opened in Vilnius the following August. This is the first “Taiwanese” representative office in the world, so it is a story of significance.
Until now, Taiwan’s de facto embassies around the world have been under the name of the city of Taipei, such as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO). Originally, Taiwan was the “Republic of China” and fought with China (People’s Republic of China) for its legitimacy, asserting itself as the real China. In this battle, smaller Taiwan was defeated.
After China joined the United Nations in 1971, Taiwan rapidly lost its influence in the world. In fact, Japan was the first to betray Taiwan. In 1972, then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited China, normalized relations between the two countries, and broke off diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
Even though Taiwan’s influence has diminished, Taiwan still needs facilities that function as embassies. Thus, in Japan, it set up a representative office of the Association of East Asian Relations (AEAR). The same facility that was set up in Taiwan by the Japanese government was called the Interchange Association (now Japan–Taiwan Exchange Association). The name was so cryptic that there are anecdotes of people mistaking it for a matchmaking agency.
After China joined the United Nations, Taiwan could no longer use the name “Republic of China.” For China, it is out of the question that there are two Chinas in which the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China coexist. The Constitution of the Republic of China stipulates that the entire Chinese mainland is its territory, and if the Republic of China is recognized, that would mean the People’s Republic of China will no longer exist.
China also warned countries against using the name “Taiwan.” The use of the name gives the island an appearance of a country to the international community. China wants to prevent Taiwanese independence, so it cannot accept the “one China, one Taiwan” policy. Therefore, China has put pressure on other countries not to use the name Taiwan in diplomatic relations.
This is how AEAR was established. The public had no idea what kind of organization it was, and some people thought it was a trading company.
Since this was inconvenient, in 1992 the Tokyo branch office of the AEAR was renamed the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Japan,” to specify the region. Since Taipei is the largest city in Taiwan, the assumption was that people would now know that this was an office for economic and cultural exchanges between Taiwan and Japan. Following this, foreign offices of Taiwan named after the city of Taipei spread all over the world.
However, even this caused some inconveniences. For one thing, 90 percent of Taiwanese are not from Taipei. If a person from, for example, from Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s capital city, finds the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Japan, they may expect to find a Kaohsiung counterpart.
China’s bullying has forced Taiwan to use the name Taipei in the international community for the past 20 years. Taiwan can only participate in the Olympics as “Chinese Taipei.” However, this time, it was the “Taiwanese” Representative Office that was set up in Lithuania. The Taiwan side seemed to be fine with using “Taipei,” but it seems that the Lithuanian side was eager about using “Taiwan” in the name. This was deeply related to the situation in which the country of Lithuania had been placed.
The Reasons Behind Lithuania’s Pro-Taiwan Stance
Taiwan sent 100,000 masks to Lithuania in April last year, when the world ran out of masks due to the Wuhan virus epidemic. Therefore, Lithuania was very grateful to Taiwan.
Lithuania also has a large trade deficit with China. In terms of annual trade, Lithuania’s exports to China amount to 400 million USD, and its imports from China amount to 1.7 billion USD. If imports from China expand further, the damage to the domestic industry will be great. There are no benefits for Lithuania to have close relations with China.
At the same time, China’s bullying of Taiwan has recently become flagrant. A member of the former Soviet Union, Lithuania gained independence in 1991. Having been oppressed by dictatorships in the past, the Lithuanian leaders have sympathy for Taiwan which is facing a similar predicament.
In fact, Lithuania’s president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament were all student leaders of the independence movement 30 years ago. They have a successful experience in fighting against a dictatorship and winning independence. They once fought against the former Soviet Union forming human chains where tens of thousands of people held hands. That is why the Lithuanian leaders have a sense of affinity with Taiwan and support it.
By the way, Lithuania’s relationship with neighboring Belarus is now strained. The Belarusian dictatorship drew international condemnation in May this year for forcing a passenger plane en route to Lithuania to land in Minsk to detain its anti-government journalists on board. The international community responded by sanctioning Belarus, but in retaliation, Belarus deliberately sent refugees to Lithuania.
The authoritarian state of Belarus is on good terms with China. In the era of Deng Xiaoping, China had avoided making enemies, but President Xi Jinping has abandoned omnidirectional diplomacy and clearly distinguishes between allies and enemies. Therefore, China fully supports its ally Belarus, which automatically makes China antagonistic to Lithuania, an enemy of Belarus. As a result, Lithuania is approaching Taiwan, under the logic that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
As such, the “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania” was established. Currently, the U.S. Congress is deliberating renaming the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO) in Washington, D.C. The bill is expected to pass this year.
There is a reason to believe that the U.S. was behind the establishment of a Taiwan representative office in Lithuania, ahead of the passing of the bill, intending to test China’s reaction. In fact, the U.S. immediately expressed its support for Lithuania when the matter was announced.
China Is Unable to Break Off Ties with Lithuania
Not surprisingly, China strongly opposed the establishment of the “Taiwanese representative office” and decided to recall the ambassador to Lithuania. It is common in diplomacy to temporarily recall an ambassador as a means of expressing displeasure. However, the “summoning” of officially recalling an envoy implies a serious protest. The Global Times (the Chinese edition), under the People’s Daily, the communist party-affiliated newspaper, even called on the government to cut diplomatic ties with Lithuania.
However, even if China were to break off with Lithuania, it would not be such a problem for the Baltic state. Rather, Lithuania may be happy to then start official diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China cannot make a rash decision.
Thus, China is putting all sorts of pressure on Lithuania. After Taiwan announced in July that it would establish a Taiwanese representative office, it took about 20 days to open one. During that time, Lithuania had to endure the diplomatic offensive from China, pressuring it to scrap the opening, and calling it to keep a distance from Taiwan.
Until now, the international community including Japan has pretended not to see Taiwan as “Taiwan.” The countries disguised de facto Taiwanese embassies by using names like “the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office.” However, Lithuania was the first country in the world to ask why it cannot call Taiwan, “Taiwan.” If Lithuania can maintain the Taiwanese Representative Office, other countries will likely follow suit and start using the name “Taiwan.”
Recently, in addition to Lithuania, other Eastern European countries, namely the Czech Republic and Slovakia, are forming closer ties with Taiwan. The three countries have sent Taiwan tens of thousands of vaccine shots each when they faced supply shortages due to China’s influence. These countries that once suffered from the terror politics of the former Soviet Union may have wanted to show support for Taiwan in its fight against the dictator regime by sending the vaccines. The open support for Taiwan by these Eastern European countries may suggest a beginning of a major trend.
If most of the countries recognize the name “Taiwan,” Japan should follow suit. In the process, the idea that “Taiwan is a part of China,” advocated by China will collapse. The only basis for China’s assertion is that the international community recognizes it as such. However, historically, the People’s Republic of China has never ruled Taiwan even for a single day. Thus, it is quite unreasonable for China to claim that Taiwan is part of China. Until now, the international community has kept China’s face with Japan stating that it “understands and respects [China’s] stance (Japan-China Joint Communique),” helping to establish the myth that Taiwan belongs to China.
However, if Lithuania becomes a start of a widespread movement to recognize Taiwan as Taiwan, we should see the international community accept Taiwan’s existence at once, and China’s policy toward Taiwan will be greatly damaged.
Unexpected Entrance at the Tokyo Olympics Ceremony
There is also a sense among Taiwanese people that they want to be called properly by the name “Taiwan.” For that reason, many Taiwanese were deeply moved when an NHK announcer introduced their team as “Taiwan” on a live broadcast during its entrance at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics.
Taiwan participates in the Olympics as “Chinese Taipei.” Since the countries are called during the opening ceremony in the order of the Japanese syllabary, Taiwan was supposed to enter after the Czech Republic. However, since that would put Taiwan very close to China, the organizers, who perhaps thought that this might be a bad idea, decided to place Taiwan after the Republic of Korea. Chinese people don’t know the order of the Japanese syllabary, so they didn’t think much of it. However, the Taiwanese people were overjoyed by the thoughtfulness of the Japanese organizers.
Three years ago, Taiwan held a referendum on whether to participate in the Tokyo Olympics under the name “Taiwan.” They rejected the idea with some people insisting that it might jeopardize the athletes’ participation in the Olympics. There is a movement to reissue a referendum asking whether Taiwan should participate under their name in the Summer Olympic Games in Paris two years from now.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is commonly known as England (UK). Similarly, in the future, countries around the world may put the official name of the “Republic of China” aside and start using “Taiwan.”
This is a translation of the Japanese article originally published in the October 2021 issue of Seiron magazine.
Akio Yaita is Sankei Shimbun’s Taipei Bureau Chief.