Don’t look now, but the Baltic country of Lithuania (yes, you read that right) has just shown the entire world a terrific way, low-risk and low-cost way to punish China for its worsening bellicosity and human rights atrocities by giving it a great, big black public relations eye. Even better: Though this action need not harm countries taking it one bit, the damage felt by the PRC’s thug leaders will be grievous and therefore capable of generating actual benefits – unlike most such political moves – especially if enough important (and even unimportant) countries participate.
The specific gambit? Permitting Taiwan to set up “a representative office under the name of Taiwan” on national territory. And Lithuania has demonstrated exactly how to do it – in the process demonstrating how this kind of decision can put China into a thoroughly humiliating box.
Lithuania set the process in motion July 20 when it announced its Taiwan decision. Since China’s Communist leaders have always regarded Taiwan as a renegade province whose claims to any form of autonomy amount to a mortal and thus intolerable threat to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, no one should have been surprised by Beijing’s response: withdrawing its own ambassador to Lithuania, demanding the departure of Lithuania’s envoy to China, and threatening to cut off diplomatic relations altogether.
Interestingly, Lithuania could have fudged matters in a way apparently acceptable to China had it clearly called the Taiwan facility a trade-focused office, or required it to use the name “Taipei” (the island’s capital) rather than “Taiwan.” However grudgingly, Beijing has tolerated other countries (and indeed the entire European Union, of which Lithuania is a member) taking this approach.
But even more interesting, Lithuania went “the full Taiwan.” Although insisting that it still regarded Communist China as the only legitimate government of China (thus like the United States and most other countries, maintaining full diplomatic relations solely with Beijing in line with a “One China” policy), it accepted the island’s decision to use its chosen name for the office. (That’s a first for Europe.). The “trade office” nomenclature has been rejected as well. (For the record, Taiwan does official business in the United States though “Economic and Cultural” facilities in Washington, D.C. and many other big cities. But the web page for the Washington location calls it an “embassy.”) And Lithuania has refused to back down in the face of China’s bluster.
So now it’s clearly time for every other country that values democracy, human rights, and its own self-respect to follow Lithuania’s lead either in permitting the establishment of explicitly Taiwanese government offices on their soil, or dropping the policy or pretense that existing offices must be strictly commercial entities.
Yes, unlike Lithuania, many major countries have the kinds of economic ties with China that make Beijing’s threats of retaliation understandably troubling. But if all or most act in concert, and stick to their policy guns, and for the time being stick officially with the One China policy, what realistically could or would China do? Withdraw its envoys from dozens of world capitals? Expel just as many foreign ambassadors from Beijing? Tariff imports from just as many trade partners? Cut off all their investments in China? Intensify harassment of all their companies operating in China?
Much likelier: China’ dictators huff and puff, and wind up sitting there and taking it – meaning that a face-obsessed regime would suffer a major indignity in the eyes of its own (face-obsessed) population, and in the court of global public opinion.
More important, Beijing would have little choice but to end its campaign of pressuring other countries to limit strictly Taiwan’s overseas official presence. Unless it wanted to be exposed repeatedly as a paper tiger in this respect? And maybe some governments would want to push the Taiwan relations envelope further, which would only further undermine China’s global image and fears that it – and especially its high tech totalitarianism – represents the wave of the future, and spur more resistance to its dangerous global ambitions.
At the same time, the opposite scenario might be even more crucial: If most countries aren’t willing to call China’s bluff despite the scanty risk levels, Beijing could become even more aggressive, and wring more security-related and economic concessions those with which it interacts. Decades of reckless national policies have already fed this beast with immense wealth and cutting-edge knowhow. Will the world now start feeding it psychologically as well?