Lithuania's 'name battle': Can the US end it in a dignified manner?

The row continues between China and Lithuania over the naming convention “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania” as China continues to exert pressure via export blocks on Lithuania. The Lithuanian president has also chimed in, calling for the name of the office to be changed. However, this reeks of being a proxy war between the US and China over Taiwan. Han Yong Hong explains.
The Taiwanese Representative Office sign in Vilnius, Lithuania, 20 January 2022. (Janis Laizans/Reuters)
The Taiwanese Representative Office sign in Vilnius, Lithuania, 20 January 2022. (Janis Laizans/Reuters)

After over 108 days at sea, 20,000 bottles of Lithuanian rum finally arrived last week at Taiwan’s Keelung port. Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp (TTL) bought up this lot of “stray” liquor that was blocked from entering mainland China. However, the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania that Taiwan was so proud of for a while may not last for much longer.

While this may be true, how Taiwan and the US — as one of the major players and the mastermind respectively in this tussle — will resolve the issue is a big question.

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Workers of Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation display bottles of rum imported from Lithuania in Taoyuan on 22 January 2022, after the state-run liquor company snapped up some 20,000 bottles of the spirit that were blocked from China after a diplomatic row broke out between Beijing and Vilnius. (Sam Yeh/AFP)

Political battles behind a naming convention

The rum issue is just a punctuation mark in the overt and covert tussling over the past six months between Beijing and Vilnius (Lithuania’s capital), Taipei, and Washington. But the intensity of the tug-of-war between the various parties is better highlighted by the incident over the naming convention of the “Taiwanese Representative Office”.

Under strong pressure from Beijing, it is reported that Lithuania has softened its stance and is discussing changing the Chinese name of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania — which was officially established in November 2021 to Beijing’s anger — from 驻立陶宛台湾代表处 (referring to Taiwan the territory) to 驻立陶宛台湾人代表处 (referring to the Taiwanese people).

The one-word difference gives it a different meaning and the new Chinese name would then be consistent with the English name. In fact, the English name used the word “Taiwanese” but its current Chinese translation is “Taiwan Representative Office”.

It is not clear whether this was due to Lithuania's s lack of proficiency in the Chinese language or some other reason. In any case, for countries that have diplomatic ties with mainland China, it broke the convention of using the name "Taipei" for representative offices of Taiwan, and also seemed to hint that Taiwan is a country.

Beijing immediately cited Lithuania's violation of the "one China" principle and the undermining of political commitment as reasons, and downgraded its diplomatic engagement with the country to the level of chargé d’affaires.

It also imposed a general restriction on Lithuanian exports to China, including blocking products containing materials or components from Lithuania. The German automobile industry has component production lines in Lithuania and has taken a heavy hit, with German automobile giants putting pressure on Lithuania to give in to Beijing, warning that the entire industry could lose hundreds of millions of euros.

Apart from safeguarding the “one China” principle that Beijing sees as its core interest, it also has the strategic need not to show any weakness.

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A Continental sign and German and Lithuanian flags are seen on the factory in Kaunas, Lithuania, 17 December 2021. Continental is one of the companies affected by China's block on Lithuanian exports. (Alius Koroliovas/Reuters)

The mainstream view in the US and the West is that by wielding big-country power, Beijing is using its strength to exert political and economic intimidation on weaker countries. Last year, the New York Times praised Lithuania for proving that “even tiny countries can create headaches for a superpower”; Lithuania with its population of fewer than 3 million and economy only 1/270 of China’s has not been frightened by Beijing, reflecting a “wider backlash against China’s aggressive ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy”.

Months later, there is yet no winner in what the US media sees as a David and Goliath battle, but “David” seems to be thinking about giving up.

China must not show any weakness

Why has Beijing dealt such a heavy blow on Lithuania? Apart from safeguarding the “one China” principle that Beijing sees as its core interest, it also has the strategic need not to show any weakness. Lithuania’s actions may trigger a domino effect in Central and Eastern Europe.

Last November, Lithuania visited Taiwan with lawmakers from two other Baltic states, Estonia and Latvia. Lithuania said that it would be enhancing relations with Taiwan, and even expressed empathy with the latter for being the neighbour of “a large authoritarian regime”.

The US’s role in the matter is clear as well. Last September, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken received Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis in Washington. He then spoke on the phone with Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte in December 2021 and the foreign ministers of the Bucharest Nine in January 2022, reiterating US support for Lithuania in pushing back against Beijing. Cross-strait issues have long become a part of China-US rivalry.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen poses for pictures with a delegation of lawmakers from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, 29 November 2021. (Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via Reuters)
Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen poses for pictures with a delegation of lawmakers from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, at the Presidential Office in Taipei, Taiwan, 29 November 2021. (Taiwan Presidential Office/Handout via Reuters)

However, the US seems to be wavering in its support for Lithuania. The Financial Times reported on 21 January that US diplomats have apparently asked Lithuania to consider changing the name of the “Taiwanese Representative Office” because the use of the word “Taiwanese” has “opened the door to Chinese coercion that risked undermining the expansion of ties with Taiwan”. However, a spokesperson for the National Security Council denied that the US has made such a suggestion.

While Beijing may have been forced to retaliate against Lithuania, small- and medium-sized countries do not wish to see major powers — be it China or the US — using their own markets as weapons to achieve diplomatic goals.

UK stuck between a rock and a hard place

These contradictory messages reveal that the US is stuck in a dilemma. Amid an escalating Ukraine crisis, the US perhaps wanted to put the brakes on the naming issue of the “Taiwanese Representative Office” in Lithuania to avoid burning the candle at both ends. Furthermore, the European Union only verbally supported Lithuania with no practical moves. Some European countries have even privately complained that Lithuania has dragged Europe into this dispute.

Following worsening China-US relations in recent years, many are worried that a proxy war may break out between the two great powers. The “name battle” centred on Lithuania already reeks of a potential proxy war and reveals the roles that various parties may play. It highlights the US’s reluctance to see the ultimate reunification of both sides of the Taiwan Strait and its hope that the international community would by and by be less seized with the “one China” concept.

While Beijing may have been forced to retaliate against Lithuania, small- and medium-sized countries do not wish to see major powers — be it China or the US — using their own markets as weapons to achieve diplomatic goals. Thus, small- and medium-sized countries must be vigilant against large countries.

The world is waiting to see how the US will bring this “name battle” to an end in a dignified manner.

This picture taken on 18 November 2021 shows the lobby of the Taiwanese Representative Office with flowers in Lithuania. (Petras Malukas/AFP)
This picture taken on 18 November 2021 shows the lobby of the Taiwanese Representative Office with flowers in Lithuania. (Petras Malukas/AFP)

It seems that the Lithuanian government, which was the first to fight back against China’s reprisals but has since found itself in a predicament, has improved its Chinese. It wants to add the word “people’ (人) to the Chinese name of the representative office. But Taipei may not agree to such an embarrassing compromise, and may probably choose to close the representative office altogether. The US will likely not want to send such a signal to the world as well, that China’s “economic coercion” is effective and the US’s support is ineffective. This is the last thing the US wants to see.

Amid the pressure exerted on its economy, Lithuania’s decision to stop resisting Beijing hinges on whether the US would decide to stop supporting it or the US's need to divert attention from other issues. Lithuania has overestimated itself and underestimated the opponent’s resolve. The world is waiting to see how the US will bring this “name battle” to an end in a dignified manner.

Related: Did Lithuania do a U-turn on the ‘Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania’? | How Beijing should respond to Lithuania’s signals on Taiwan | Japanese academic: The politics behind the name 'Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania' | A low-confidence US, an unconvincing democracy summit