Taiwan’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, embarks on a diplomatic tour to the Baltic region this week, delivering speeches at research groups in Latvia and Estonia and exchanging views on ways to deepen bilateral ties with lawmakers in all three countries.
Some analysts say the trip is a concrete way to broaden the relationship that Taiwan has established with Baltic countries since the opening of the “Taiwanese Representative Office” in Lithuania two years ago. “What we are seeing is the two sides building on what they have established,” Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an expert on Taiwan-EU relations at the National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan, told VOA in a phone interview.
The trip comes after Estonia announced last week that it would allow Taiwan to open a non-diplomatic representative office in its capital, Tallinn, aiming to deepen economic and cultural ties between the two sides.
In a statement released by the Estonian Foreign Ministry on November 3, the country’s foreign minister, Margus Tsahkna, revealed that Estonia’s cabinet revised the country’s approach to Taiwan during a meeting.
“Just like many other countries of the European Union, Estonia is also ready to accept the establishment of a nondiplomatic economic or cultural representation of Taipei in order to promote the respective relations,” Tsahkna said in the statement.
He emphasized that Estonia didn’t recognize Taiwan as a country. Still, while Tallinn doesn’t plan to develop a political relationship with Taipei, Tsakhna said Estonia thinks it’s important to “revive relations with Taiwan in economy, education, culture, communication between civil society organizations” and other fields.
Responding to media reports, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on November 4 that both sides were still discussing the planned representative office, but that both Taipei and Tallinn think setting up such an office would be “highly significant for enhancing bilateral exchanges.”
Some experts say Estonia’s decision to allow Taiwan to open a non-diplomatic representative office in Tallinn reflects the Baltic state’s recent efforts to deepen its relationship with countries in Asia.
“We’ve been interested in diversifying our partners in East Asia because mainly focusing on China has not paid off for Estonia,” Frank Jüris, a researcher at Tallinn University, told VOA by phone. “Taiwan seems like a reasonable country to engage with.”
Apart from efforts to diversify its diplomatic relationships in Asia, Jüris said China’s increased cooperation with Russia also contributes to Estonia’s recalibration of its policy toward Taiwan.
“The increased cooperation between China and Russia hasn’t gone unnoticed and since Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine is an existential threat for Estonia, Tallinn pays close attention to others who support Ukraine and share its concerns in defending the rules-based world order,” he told VOA, adding that Taiwan is one of the countries that shares Estonia’s experience.
Opposition from China
Despite Estonia’s emphasis that establishing of the Taipei office would be in line with its One China Policy, Beijing still strongly protested the news, calling on Tallinn “not to allow Taiwan to set up any organization of official nature.”
“We firmly oppose any form of official interaction between the Taiwan region and countries having diplomatic ties with China and oppose any action supporting ‘Taiwan independence’ separatist forces,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said during the daily press briefing on Wednesday.
China views Taiwan as part of its territory and has long opposed any official exchanges between the democratic island and other countries. After Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a representative office using the name “Taiwanese” instead of “Taipei,” Beijing launched a series of retaliatory economic actions against Vilnius.
Despite the warnings from Beijing, Jüris from Tallinn University thinks the likelihood that the Chinese government will retaliate against Estonia economically when the Taipei representative office opens is relatively small.
“Estonia’s export to China is just 1% out of its total exports, so it doesn’t make sense for China to put sanctions on Estonian exports to China,” he told VOA.
Jüris added that since the European Union has developed instruments to counter any economic coercion by China or other countries following Beijing’s economic retaliation against Lithuania two years ago, it’s not in China’s best interest to launch any economic retaliation against Estonia.
Increasing mutual understanding through engagement
As part of his Baltic tour, Taiwan Foreign Minister Wu delivered a speech on Wednesday at the International Center for Defense and Security in Tallinn, highlighting Taiwan and Estonia’s shared experience in pursuing democratization while coping with “authoritarian neighbors” like China and Russia.
Wu also linked the importance of Taiwan’s security to global maritime commercial transportation and the semiconductor supply chain, emphasizing that any conflict across the Taiwan Strait would create severe consequences for the global economy.
“International concern over China’s unilateral attempts to change the status quo is very effective in keeping PRC aggression at bay,” he said during the speech.
Wu’s trip comes after a four-day trip to Taiwan last month by the speaker of Lithuania’s parliament, Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, during which she delivered a speech to Taiwan’s legislature. In addition, the heads of foreign affairs committees from all three Baltic states’ parliaments jointly visited Taiwan in August.
While Wu didn’t meet government officials during his Baltic trip, some analysts think his engagement with members of parliament in the Baltic states is important. “Every engagement and every exchange of ideas increases mutual understanding and bears the fruit for future cooperation,” said Jüris of Tallinn University.
“This is a significant start to Taiwan’s engagement as the potential opening of the representative office [in Estonia] was agreed upon even before Wu’s visit took place,” he told VOA.
Next week will mark the second anniversary of the opening of Taiwan’s representative office in Lithuania, and EU-Taiwan relations expert Ferenczy said the Baltic states’ efforts to recalibrate their foreign policies toward China and Taiwan could influence how other European countries assess their relationships with Beijing and Taipei.
“When it comes to Taiwan, [the gestures from the Baltic states] over the past three years, including Lithuania’s decision to let Taiwan open a representative office in the name of ‘Taiwanese,’ Estonia and Latvia’s decision to leave the ‘16+1’ format, and Tallinn allowing Taiwan to open an office, have the value and weight to shape how strongly the EU can act when it comes to Taiwan and China,” she told VOA.
And since the Baltic states have adjusted their policy toward China in recent years, highlighted by their withdrawal from the 14+1 format that oversees cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European countries, some observers say those countries’ support for Taiwan is a long-term trend.
“This shift to Taiwan is a long-term policy shift, especially in Lithuania and Estonia, and it can be sustained,” Bartosz Chmielewski, a research fellow at the Center for Eastern Studies in Poland, told VOA by phone.