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Lithuania learns of observing one-China policy the hard way after stunt over Taipei

By Tom Fowdy | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2022-01-28 21:00

Photo taken on July 21, 2019 from Xiangshan Mountain shows the Taipei 101 skyscraper in Taipei, Southeast China's Taiwan. [Photo/Xinhua]

Lithuania is now contemplating backing down in its row with China over the opening of a "Taiwan Representative Office"-- a provocation which violated its commitments to the one-China policy and provoked a diplomatic and economic backlash from Beijing, according to a Reuters report on Jan 25.

The move comes amidst significant pressure from German industries to change course, private diplomatic urging from the United States according to the Financial Times, as well as the country's own president who publicly declared it a "mistake". The growing doubt over the decision is ultimately a political victory for China, and also a clear affirmation that the Democratic People's Party (DPP) leadership in Taipei cannot succeed in pushing a pro-independence agenda.

Emboldened by the United States, since 2019 current leader in Taipei Tsai Ing-wen has pursued a strategy of what is described as "provocation diplomacy" that being: a gradual attempt to push against and salami slice Beijing's red-lines by actively eliciting growing support for the Taiwan island. This campaign has involved a public relations blitz, an active funding and courting of Western politicians to visit the island, unrealistic pledges of economic support i.e "Taiwan can help", and of course the push for more "Taiwan representative offices" in countries sympathetic to its cause, such as Lithuania.

In pursuing this strategy, the DPP had made a calculation that Beijing would protest such moves, but ultimately had no options to do anything about it short of war, and that increased support from Washington, whom also having backtracked on "One China" through the Biden and Trump administrations, would provide sufficient cover and constrain Beijing's response. In other words, as long as it didn't make huge provocations, Taipei would be able to gradually nullify Beijing's position and shift the status quo through lots of small and incremental gains. Beijing's angry retaliations would in turn, only help push their narrative.

It is clear in doing this, the DPP became overconfident and in turn successfully convinced Lithuania to open a "Taiwan representative office" in Vilnius, a development which crossed all of China's red-lines.

However, they had in fact completely miscalculated on several premises. Firstly, Beijing sees the one-China policy and matters of national sovereignty and territorial integrity as non-negotiable, built on a historical legacy of having such frequently violated by Western powers. As a result, it is prepared to go to any length to sustain its position, even if it means enduring costs. Thus, its response to Lithuania was far harder than they anticipated.

Secondly, the DPP underestimated Beijing's economic importance to Europe, and falsely assumed other countries in Europe would rally round Lithuania. They did not. Instead, Vilnius has found itself isolated within its own proximity as even its neighbouring countries are cooperating with China.

This wades into Taiwan's third mistake, that it also overestimated its own importance both politically and economically. In pushing an "independence agenda", the island has persistently attempted to market itself as an alternative source of trade and investment to the mainland, despite having a population smaller than Shanghai.

A satirical image seen on social media Weibo mocks Taiwan's inflated sense of self-importance, showing the island enlarged to fill the Pacific Ocean. The claim they can replace the Chinese mainland, including panicking and making a loan to Lithuania, is a poor sell and not based in reality, which is part of why their strategy is now falling apart on the matter.

So what are the implications? Taipei and Lithuania authorities duly miscalculated in underestimating Beijing's determination to defend national unity. The DPP believed they could escape the one-China policy by doing this and embarrass the mainland, but Vilnius's pending U-turn and the multilevel backlash against the country's decision has revealed it to be a dead end. This demonstrates that Beijing is willing to hit back and defend its red-lines, it should not be underestimated, and likewise that the DPP are not going to be able to change the status quo, even with sort of US support.

When Beijing says pursuing "Taiwan independence" is a "dead end" -- this is not hyperbole or rhetoric, it ultimately means it, and Lithuania has learnt the hard way.

The author is a British political and international relations analyst. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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