Two years after Taiwan opened a representative office in Lithuania, officials from both sides stress progress in bilateral relations while analysts cite risks that the deepened engagement could be affected by domestic political shift in Lithuania.
“After two years of engagement with Taiwan, we have some specific agreements with Taiwanese companies and organizations, especially in the field of semiconductors, but we shouldn’t neglect the risk of some changes in Lithuania’s current relationship with Taiwan and China caused by domestic political shifts,” Tomas Janeliunas, an international relations professor at Vilnius University, told VOA by phone.
He said that while the progress in bilateral relations has largely concentrated on deepening economic and trade exchanges, the overall trend is backed by the current Lithuanian government’s desire to expand cooperation with democracies.
“Before the parliamentary elections in 2020, the current government declared that they would like to foster relationships with democracies around the world, including expanding the relationship with Taiwan,” he said. “It included some economic prospects and cooperation in the field of technology, too.”
Over the last two years, Taiwan and Lithuania have opened trade offices in both capitals, Taipei and Vilnius, and trade between the two countries grew 50% from 2021 to 2022. One of Lithuania’s leading tech companies, Teltonika, signed an agreement with Taiwan’s Industrial Technology Research Institute, a government-funded institute, that would help it launch domestic semiconductor production in 2027 using Taiwanese technology.
In addition, Lithuanian companies involved in specialized laser technology agreed to work with the research institute to set up the Ultrafast Laser Technology Research and Innovation Center in Southern Taiwan, focusing on medical and industrial applications.
“So far, the cooperation has been fruitful and brought both sides some economic successes and benefits,” Karolis Zemaitis, Lithuania’s deputy economic minister, told VOA in an interview in Vilnius. “We are focusing on high-value-added sectors so high-tech is our main focus. This is a very equal bilateral exchange and cooperation where both sides can see some fruits and results.”
Apart from deepening economic ties, Taiwan and Lithuania have also increased bilateral exchanges through delegation visits and agreements to expand cooperation in such areas as scientific research and agriculture.
“The cooperation is based on values,” Eric Huang, Taiwan’s representative to Lithuania, told VOA in an interview in Vilnius. “For example, since [semiconductors are] such a sensitive area, I don’t think we will be able to implement cooperation without political trust. It is a multilayered cooperation based on values.”
At the European level, one positive development that extends from Lithuania’s efforts to deepen ties with Taiwan is the European Union’s plan to adopt an anti-coercion instrument, a mechanism that could help the EU deal with countries that try to force changes in EU policies by restricting trade. The European Parliament approved the plan in October after China launched economic retaliation against Lithuania over the opening of the Taiwanese representative office.
With Estonia expressing an interest in allowing Taiwan to open a representative office in Tallinn earlier this month, some analysts say how China responds to Estonia’s decision will test the effectiveness of the EU’s anti-coercion instruments, which allow Brussels to respond to external coercion forcefully.
“We should monitor whether China will respond to the case of Estonia in a belligerent manner,” Marcin Jerzewski, an analyst of EU-Taiwan relations at the European Values Center for Security Policy, told VOA by phone. “The EU’s reaction will be the perfect test of the sustainability of the developments that we have seen in the case of Lithuania.”
Despite some Lithuanian and Taiwanese officials’ positive views on the state of bilateral relations, there is still some skepticism about the prospect and benefits of deepening ties with Taiwan within the Lithuanian government.
In September, Asta Skaisgirytė, the chief foreign policy adviser to President Gitanas Nausėda, told Lithuanian National Television and Radio that the large amount of investment that Taiwan promised when it opened the representative office in Vilnius has not materialized at the scale that Lithuania may have anticipated.
Some analysts think Taiwan has not “done a very good job” of delivering the investment promises. “The appetite for investment in Lithuania is much bigger, but so far the only big deal that has been realized is the one with Teltonika,” Jerzewski told VOA. “Taiwan has to do proper expectation management.”
Apart from domestic skepticism about the economic benefit of the relationship with Taiwan, some analysts highlight the risk of progress in the bilateral relationship between Taiwan and Lithuania being stalled by potential regime changes in Lithuania.
“If we look at opinion polls, the current government is not performing really well, and the Social Democrats and Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Association are becoming the parties of choice in the presidential election scheduled for May 2024,” Jerzewski told VOA. “These are the two parties that have shown the greatest hesitation toward deepening ties with Taiwan.”
Janeliūnas said while some members of opposition parties have declared that they would consider changing the current direction of Lithuania’s relationship with China and Taiwan, he thinks it is unlikely they would make drastic changes to Vilnius’ ties with Taipei if they won the presidential election next year.
“I don’t believe they would go for a radical move like changing the name of Taiwan’s representative office, because the political costs of such a move would be quite high,” he told VOA. “When you are in opposition, you can be bold in your expressions. But when you are in office, you have to calculate all kinds of consequences.”
Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said last week officials from Lithuania and China had been talking about potentially normalizing diplomatic relations after Beijing downgraded diplomatic relations with Vilnius in 2021 following the opening of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania.
While some observers view Lithuania’s move as the government’s response to domestic political pressure, Jerzewski said China could make recalibration of Lithuania’s relationship with Taiwan as a condition for both sides to normalize diplomatic ties. “China might say they would only be willing to restore full diplomatic relations with Lithuania if the name of the Taiwanese representative office is amended,” he told VOA.