China has officially downgraded its diplomatic ties with Lithuania to the “charge d’affaires” level in protest at Taiwan establishing a de facto embassy in Vilnius.
Lithuania allowing Taipei to formally open an office using the name Taiwan was a significant diplomatic departure that defied a pressure campaign by Beijing, which tries to keep Taiwan isolated on the global stage.
“The Chinese government had to lower diplomatic relations between the two countries … in order to safeguard its sovereignty and the basic norms of international relations,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Sunday.
“The Lithuanian government must bear all consequences that arise from this,” the statement said, adding that its actions “created a bad precedent in the international arena”.
China baulks at any official use of the word Taiwan, lest it lend a sense of international legitimacy to the self-ruled democratic island, which Beijing claims as part of its territory and has vowed to one day seize.
Beijing added that Lithuania had “abandoned the political commitment made upon the establishment of diplomatic relations” with China, referring to the One China policy under which countries officially recognise the Chinese government over that of Taiwan.
July’s representative office opening was Taiwan’s first new diplomatic outpost in Europe in 18 years.
That move prompted a fierce rebuke by China, which withdrew its ambassador to Lithuania and demanded Vilnius do the same, which it eventually did.
China also halted freight trains to Lithuania and stopped issuing food export permits.
The opening of the Vilnius office is the latest sign that some Baltic and central European countries are seeking closer relations with Taiwan, even if that angers China.
In May, Lithuania announced it was quitting China’s 17+1 cooperation forum with central and eastern European states, calling it “divisive”.
Politicians in the Czech Republic have also pushed for closer ties with Taiwan.
Only 15 countries officially recognise Taipei over Beijing.
But Taiwan maintains embassy equivalent representative offices with many nations and several countries have similar arrangements in Taipei.
International support for the island has grown since China’s president Xi Jinping came to power.
A growing number of unofficial diplomatic visits have taken place between Taiwanese, European and American officials in recent months.
Xi has ushered in a more authoritarian and muscular era, taking a markedly more aggressive approach to Taipei since the 2016 election of president Tsai Ing-wen.
She is loathed by Beijing because she regards Taiwan as an already sovereign nation and not part of “one China”.
Beijing has also poached several of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in recent years, including Panama, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.