By Thomas J. Shattuck
(FPRI) — In early November 2023, Estonia announced a decision to allow Taiwan to open an unofficial, non-diplomatic economic and cultural representative office in Tallinn. The opening of an office does not mean that Tallinn and Taipei are establishing official diplomatic relations, nor does it mean that Estonia is opening its own office in Taiwan. It is following in the footsteps of countries around the world that have unofficial ties with Taipei and want an unofficial government presence in the country to facilitate economic relations.
For its part, Beijing has expressly condemned the decision by Tallinn to allow Taipei to decide if it wants an office in Estonia, with China’s Foreign Ministry making a clear statement calling for Estonia to reverse course.
Estonia’s announcement occurred just before Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu embarked on a three-country tour of the Baltic states — a rare trip for the foreign minister to visit three countries with which Taiwan does not have formal diplomatic relations. Baltic leaders and ministers stated that they had no plans to meet directly with Wu, though Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis spoke at the same event as Wu, and his grandfather, the first president of post-Soviet, Lithuania Vytautas Landsbergis, did meet with Wu.
Estonia’s move to open a representative office comes after Lithuania made a similar decision, sparking controversy and drawing political and economic ire from Beijing. The Vilnius office, which opened in November 2021, is called the “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania,” which balks the traditional use of “Taipei” over “Taiwan” to avoid Beijing’s complaints and any alleged notions of formal relations. The opening of the Vilnius office resulted in the downgrading of the bilateral relationship with China and the expulsion of the Lithuanian ambassador from Beijing; the removal of Lithuania as a “country of origin” for Chinese trade; and a formal World Trade Organization complaint against China, supported by the United States and European Union.
Beijing’s main complaint at the time was that the office provided legitimacy to Taiwan by using the word “Taiwanese,” thus the reason for the strong reaction. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda conceded the point, “I think it was not the opening of the Taiwanese office that was a mistake, it was its name, which was not coordinated with me.”
Now, with Estonia’s announcement, that complaint has proven hollow. It is not the “Taiwanese” reference with which Beijing has a problem — the real issue is the expansion of Taiwan’s international space.
“The name of the office [in Lithuania] is the supposed sticking point, but the reality of the matter is that Beijing wants to prevent the expansion of Taiwan’s international space. The mere opening of an office, regardless of name, represents the expansion of Taiwan-Lithuania ties. Likewise, any new de facto embassy would be perceived as offensive to Beijing. … As more countries build ties with Taiwan, leaders will be able to better assess the risks and benefits of diplomacy with Taiwan. Beijing’s wolf warriors now cry foul at any perceived attempt to foster closer relations with Taipei.”
Beijing perceives any “win” by Taiwan as a direct threat to its long-term plan to completely isolate Taipei. A possible office in Estonia provides Taipei with the ability to more easily interact with the Estonian people, expand bilateral trade, and demonstrate itself to be a good international partner — all of which threaten Beijing’s ability to shape the narrative regarding cross-Strait relations.
As expected, PRC Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin made clear the Lithuania office name issue was fake. During his regular press conference on November 8, Wang called for Estonia to change course, making no mention of the prospective name of a future office: “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. We call on Estonia to stay committed to its solemn commitment of adhering to the one-China principle, not to allow Taiwan to set up any organization of official nature, and earnestly safeguard the political foundation of its relations with China.”
Wang’s language and warnings are less strident than what could be expected, but given that the announcement of the office in Estonia was just made, details are not yet firm. Estonian Foreign Minister Margus Tsahkna hinted to Politico that the office would be “representation—economical representation—of Taipei, not Taiwan,” which, if the name is the true issue, should appease Beijing’s concerns. As more is known, Beijing will assuredly increase its pressure on Estonia, which already includes the Chinese ambassador in Estonia threatening to leave the country if the office opens.
The true test will come once details about the office are released. How will Beijing seek to punish Estonia for the move? Will the reaction be less severe than what China did to Lithuania? How will the European Union and the United States support Tallinn should Beijing utilize its coercive toolkit again?
Beijing’s response to the office will demonstrate a few key things in the aftermath of the Lithuania example. How Beijing responded to Lithuania created immense international support and attention for Vilnius. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen opened up a $1 billion fund for joint Taiwanese-Lithuanian projects and another $200 million fund for Taiwanese investment in Lithuania’s industrial sector to show support for the decision, and the Biden administration announced a $600 million credit line. Because Beijing initiated pressure on other countries, such as Germany, to push Lithuania to change course, the overreaction became a critical case study in China’s coercive toolkit. The collective West closed ranks, supported Lithuania for the decision, and warned Beijing against further reprisals. If Beijing treats Tallinn in a similar way as Vilnius, then it will be clear that Beijing will ignore international warnings to serve its own goals — bluster over substance and compromise.
The most important thing for Estonia to do in the coming days and weeks is to be resolute in the decision. Divisions within Vilnius prolonged Beijing’s attempt to pressure politicians into changing course. Knowing how angry President Nausėda was about the ordeal provided an opening, but other actors did not back down. At the moment, Estonia’s Foreign Minister Tsahkna is taking the lead in publicly responding, but the coalition government needs to adhere to the same line to diminish Beijing’s ability to pressure specific politicians.
If Estonia does not back down, the country could stand to benefit from new Taiwanese-Estonian projects. Since the Taiwanese and Lithuanian offices opened in the respective capitals, Taipei has agreed to assist in building an 8-inch semiconductor wafer production line in Lithuania. The two also agreed to open a joint research center on laser technology in Taiwan. Lithuania is home to two projects funded by Taiwan’s National Development Fund (NDF). Another Lithuanian company, Solitek, received around $8.5 million from the $1 billion fund. During a recent visit to Taipei by Seimas Speaker Viktorija Cmilyte-Nielsen, the two sides signed a memorandum of understanding on health and made a decision to eliminate double taxation — the latter of which is still an issue that Taiwan has with the United States. Progress between Taipei and Vilnius has been slow, but it has gained steam with these investments.
Tallinn can expect to reap some new investments with a Taiwan office and take part in the NDF. However, the benefits that Tallinn receives not only from Taiwan but also from the United States will likely depend on how loudly and forcefully Beijing complains — and acts on those complaints. No matter how much investment Estonia receives as a result of this new office opening, Tallinn is now a part of the cross-Strait competition — in an election year. With the upcoming January 2024 presidential election in Taiwan, Tallinn may have inadvertently become a foreign policy issue for the candidates, but that largely depends on Chinese retaliation. Any office will likely open under a new leader in Taipei, so while the announcement and prospective investment promises will occur under President Tsai, the implementation of such things will be up to her successor.
After Lithuania defied China and its intense pressure to reverse course, Beijing is now in a situation where another Baltic country has allowed Taiwan to expand its unofficial international space — and thus expanded the threat landscape in its push to eliminate Taiwan’s presence abroad. The more these seemingly small countries defy China and the more they are backed by large countries (and, more importantly, fulfilled promises from Taiwan), the harder it will be for Beijing to keep the next case of Taiwan fever from spreading.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.
About the author: Thomas J. Shattuck, a non-resident Fellow in the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), is the Global Order Program Manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House.
Source: This article was published by FPRI