March in Eastern Europe: could relations with Taiwan help the region divest from Beijing’s influence? 4 min read
Earlier this month Lithuania became the latest country to engage in the ongoing competing campaign for friendship and recognition between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (Taiwan). (Our eagle-eyed readers would have noticed this story featured in our newsletter.) A sign perhaps that the PRC may be losing its influence in the region and certainly the cause of much ire from Beijing.
The episode centred around Lithuania’s decision to open an enterprise office in Taipei as a means of countering the PRC’s growing influence in the region. More dramatically the ruling coalition explicitly stated that this was part of an effort to support ‘freedom fighters from Belarus to Taiwan’. This comes at a time when countries across the world have begun to more openly criticise the regime in Beijing, fuelled by accusations of genocide in Xinjiang, undermining democracy in Hong Kong, and a growing awareness of the potential consequences of the economic and political reach of Xi Jinping’s regime.
It may come as a surprise that a country such as Lithuania should stand up to the might of the PRC, where many larger Western countries have failed, though perhaps seeking closer ties with Taiwan shouldn’t be such a surprise. This is a story that has much deeper roots. Taiwan may have gradually lost widespread diplomatic recognition following the establishment of the PRC; however, this hasn’t stopped it from using diplomatic, cultural and economic engagement to gain friends across the region. This is especially so for those countries wary of communist regimes following years of experience living in the Soviet yolk.
Latvia, for example, has maintained quasi-diplomatic relations with Taiwan, hosting the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Riga despite Beijing’s protests. Indeed, it was only the latter’s freezing of relations with Latvia in 1994 which persuaded the then government from extending diplomatic recognition to both entities. Taiwan has sought to repay this friendship, most recently intervening with mask diplomacy, delivering 70,000 medical masks to Latvia at the beginning of the pandemic. Even in those countries with no official Taiwanese representation you can see evidence of Taipei’s endeavours to improve relations through economic aid.
Taiwan has close allies in Estonia too, with a pro-Taipei parliamentary group issuing a statement in January calling on Beijing to stop ‘interfering in Taiwan’, citing the ‘cultural, scientific and economic ties’ between the two countries and rather pointedly describing Taiwan as a ‘highly developed and progressive society’. Whilst there is a lack of official recognition, the message seems clear that Taiwan would be a preferred partner, a fact some are becoming increasingly brazen in implying.
The Balkans have also long been a site of the battle for representation between Taiwan and PRC, with Enver Hoxha’s regime in Albania leading the charge to grant China’s UN seat to the PRC in 1971. More recently Albania was offered $1 billion in aid from Taiwan to swap recognition in 1999, an offer only refused due to the PRC’s counteroffer of investment as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. North Macedonia and Kosovo too have been the recipients of Taiwanese aid, with the former maintaining diplomatic relations with Taipei from 1999-2005 in an attempt to gain further financial investment. Again, this was rescinded when the temptations of PRC investment became too great.
Taiwan has not only been an economic donor to Kosovo but was also the first country in Asia to offer recognition to Pristina. The PRC’s continued refusal to recognise Kosovo, both because of and enhancing its more strategically important relationship with Serbia, has meant Kosovo has remained one of the few areas in Europe truly free of Beijing’s influence. This has opened the door to Taiwanese investment, but the temptation of potential economic investment from Beijing in the future has thus far prevented reciprocal recognition.
Whilst some countries such as Serbia seem to have invested fully in ‘Brother Xi’s vision for the region, reaping the rewards of PRC investment in infrastructure and more recently through vaccine diplomacy, many others remain surprisingly underexposed to Beijing’s influence. Romania has recently surprised the world by not only forcing Chinese companies out of key sectors but also by refusing to send high-level representation to the 17+1 initiative- Xi Jinping’s project for influence and cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe. Bucharest wasn’t alone in skirting the 2021 summit, the Baltic states, Bulgaria and Slovakia also refused to attend. Whilst the Covid crisis may be partially to blame, the government in Bucharest made few attempts to hide their dislike for Beijing’s attempts to impose their model on the region, likening their behaviour to that of Moscow under the USSR.
It must be said that Taiwan’s capacity to influence vis-à-vis the PRC is severely limited. Latvia and now Lithuania are the only two countries to maintain even quasi-diplomatic relations with Taipei. However, as many governments seek to gradually divest their interests away from the PRC’s political and economic control, could Taiwan be a useful ally in fulfilling the investment shortfall. In return could the region be Taipei’s ticket to a resumption of international recognition.