The small Baltic nation of Lithuania last week announced that it would accept a Taiwanese representative office in its capital, Vilnius, and that it would establish its own trade office in Taiwan by the end of the year.
This was more than a welcome announcement to Taiwan and goes far beyond the normal establishment of trade relations.
Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis summed it up succinctly, boldly saying: “Freedom-loving people should look out for each other.”
With these words, Landsbergis was purposefully going beyond normal diplomacy; he was also presenting a moral challenge and reminder to other democratic nations.
A look at Lithuania’s recent past reveals what lies behind the new trade offices.
As a nation of 2.8 million people, Lithuania can definitely be considered minute, especially when compared with medium-sized Taiwan’s 23.5 million people.
However, despite its size, Lithuanians still have a clear concept of national identity and democratic goals. They know what their identity is and how democracy can be challenged and taken away.
In 1940, following the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact by which Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to divide eastern Europe, Lithuania was unwillingly annexed by the Soviets.
It remained under Moscow’s rule until March 1990, when Lithuanians took the advantage of having a say in their future.
Then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had instituted reforms that allowed democracy in the many Soviet states. Lithuania did not hold back and chose to become the first of the Baltic states to reject Soviet membership by plebiscite. As the Soviet Union subsequently collapsed in 1991, Moscow accepted that rejection.
However, Russia has remained an imposing giant neighbor to Lithuania, and independence did not remove the reality of Russia being a constant military and economic threat. To maintain its independence, Lithuania set about making sure that at least economically, it would never become reliant on Russia. This was important: Despite its small size, Lithuania still does not want Russia or any other nation to exercise undue influence on its politics.
Three decades have since passed, and it is amazing that Lithuania and the two other Baltic states have been able to maintain their independence. This is a lesson that other nations should note and learn from. It is important because that same issue arises not only as regards Russia, but also as regards the economic behemoth of China.
An increasing number of nations are flocking to link to Beijing to benefit economically from trade with China.
However, with economic benefits come a price, particularly for democratic nations.
Living on the edge itself, Lithuania knows that and is standing by Taiwan, a kindred nation, which lives on the edge due to threats and claims from its hegemonic neighbor China.
Taiwan learned its lesson and in 2014 countered China, when Taiwanese began to realize that the proposed Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) with China had too many strings attached to simply give it a blanket approval in the legislature.
Following the Sunflower movement protests, voters insisted that legislators go over each of the ECFA’s many items to see which were beneficial and which were not. As a result, the many pitfalls and dependency traps in ECFA were revealed and the agreement eventually died.
There is, of course, more involved between Taiwan and Lithuania.
A separate symbolic factor of this mutual establishment of trade offices is the naming of Taiwan’s office, which is set to become its first office in Europe that bears the name of “Taiwanese Representative Office.” Other offices’ names usually begin with the diminutive name of Taipei.
Despising the name and how it implies the de facto independence of Taiwan, China prefers the more disrespectful and diminutive implications of names such as “Chinese Taipei” and tries to insist on them being used in international organizations.
As China continues on its hegemonic path, it will naturally press on with its insistence that Taiwan belongs to it, and there is no doubt that a time will come when other democratic nations will have to choose whether they stand by Taiwan’s democracy.
As an example of its ambition, China constantly plays word games with other nations, dangling the offer of lucrative economic trade as bait. Nomenclature also plays a part when Beijing tries to get other nations to accept what it calls the “one China” principle, by which it falsely claims territorial sovereignty over Taiwan.
If that fails, Beijing usually settles for a vague, deceptive “one China” policy, which because of its phrasing, still implies its sovereignty over Taiwan.
This is the challenge for other democratic nations: How much do they believe in democracy, not only for themselves, but also for others? Would they sacrifice Taiwan’s democracy to gain trade opportunities with China?
Lithuania is a tiny giant in this regard. It is looking out for Taiwan, and stands as a beacon and model to others. Its message is clear: “Our principles and actions are before you. We have resisted the undue influence of Russia and China. If we can do it, so can you.”
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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