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US Backs Lithuania in Row With China Over Taiwan

FILE - Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu speaks about exchanging representative offices with Lithuania during a press briefing in Taipei, Taiwan, July 20, 2021, in this image taken from video.
FILE - Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu speaks about exchanging representative offices with Lithuania during a press briefing in Taipei, Taiwan, July 20, 2021, in this image taken from video.

The United States is backing Lithuania in the face of what American officials describe as China’s “coercive behavior” after Vilnius recently became the first European country since 2003 to allow Taiwan to open a representative office.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis met for talks at the State Department. The meeting followed a call on August 21 in which Blinken “underscored ironclad U.S. solidarity” with Lithuania in the face of China’s “coercive behavior.”

“Lithuania and the United States are very strong partners in NATO. We stand together for collective defense and security. We stand against economic coercion, including that being exerted by China,” Blinken said Wednesday.

Wednesday was the United Nations’ International Day of Democracy. Landsbergis said it’s “truly symbolic” that the NATO allies “reaffirm our commitment to defend democracy, liberty, human rights across the globe.”

Members of Congress have also expressed support for Lithuania’s position on Taiwan. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez in a tweet praised “Lithuania’s courageous efforts to stand up for Taiwan, as well as democracy activists in Belarus, Russia and Cuba.” Menendez met with Landsbergis on Tuesday.

China has long had a policy of urging countries not to develop closer ties with Taiwan, and this week a spokesperson in Beijing pushed back against American officials’ characterization of Beijing’s tactics.

“The label of coercion can never be pinned on China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said during a Tuesday briefing.

“The U.S. should immediately stop ganging up with others to wantonly smear China and stop provoking confrontation and disputes. Such tricks wouldn’t work on China,” Zhao said.

In July, Lithuania became the first European country to allow Taiwan, a self-governed democracy, to open an office in Vilnius with the name of “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania.” Other nations often designate such offices with the name “Taipei Representative Office” or “Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office” to avoid offending China, which claims Taiwan as part of its territory.

The Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania is set to open this fall, marking the first time in 18 years that Taiwan has opened a new representative office in Europe. The last time Taiwan established a representative office in Europe was in 2003, with the name of “Taipei Representative Office in Bratislava, Slovakia.”

Lithuania’s move has already led to repercussions and economic retaliation from China. In August, China’s government asked Lithuania to withdraw its ambassador to Beijing while recalling its own envoy to Vilnius. In a statement, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged “the Lithuanian side to immediately rectify its wrong decision, take concrete measures to undo the damage, and not to move further down the wrong path.”

The Baltic Times reported on August 22 that Beijing had stopped approving new permits for Lithuanian food exports to China. The report cited a Lithuanian official saying the country's talks with China on export permits for feed, non-animal products and edible offal had stopped.

China has also reportedly halted direct freight trains to Lithuania.

A Lithuanian Railways spokesperson, Gintaras Liubinas, told Newsweek: "We have received information through our customers that several freight trains from China will not arrive in Lithuania at the end of August and in the first half of September. Meanwhile, transit trains pass through Lithuania in the usual way.”

On September 3, Lithuania recalled its ambassador to China. The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry expressed regret over China’s actions, but said the Baltic country is ready to develop mutually beneficial ties with Taiwan. The top EU diplomats in China also met to show solidarity with Lithuania Ambassador Diana Mickevičienė as she departed Beijing.

The meeting between the top diplomats of the United States and Lithuania follows Monday’s call between U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė of Lithuania.

Sullivan reaffirmed strong U.S. support for Lithuania as it faces attempted coercion from the People’s Republic of China, according to the White House.

In another move to show solidarity with Lithuania, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa has urged the EU to stand with Lithuania against Chinese pressure. Slovenia holds the six-month EU presidency.

Jansa said in a letter, dated Monday, that China's decision to withdraw its ambassador to Lithuania over a dispute about Taiwan was "reprehensible" and would hurt EU-China ties, according to Reuters report.