Lithuania recognising Taiwan is akin to poking a tiger through a fence – opinion

Although some have called for Lithuania to recognise Taiwan, it would be akin to poking a tiger through the enclosure fence and ultimately, dishonest, writes Sergey Radchenko, a historian and a professor at Cardiff University.

Baltics in-depth. LRT English presents a forum of expert voices from the region.  Šarūnas Liekis from VDU argued that the recognition of Taiwan by Vilnius would retaliate against what he rightly describes as an increasingly assertive behaviour – indeed, bullying – by Chinese diplomats directed against those who have run afoul of Beijing’s One China policy.

The argument is interesting, but not entirely convincing.

The problem is with the very idea of punishing Beijing for Covid-19 by extending diplomatic recognition to Taipei. This reduces diplomatic recognition to a political favour that one can give or take away as circumstances require.

It is not as if we just suddenly discovered that the PRC is run by a hideously authoritarian government. Did we not hear before Covid-19 of the re-education camps in Xinjiang, or Liu Xiaobo, or, indeed, the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre?

We knew of all these things and we happily engaged with Beijing. Or maybe we did not know until today that Taiwan is a vibrant democracy and that it has maintained a de facto independent existence from the PRC for the last 70 years? We knew that too.

Yet this knowledge did not prevent many Western countries from switching recognition from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s.

The United States did so in 1979, effectively abandoning Taiwan. So, when Lithuania endorsed the One China policy in 1991, it was not doing something extraordinary. It was just doing what nearly everyone else had already done. Yes, this entailed a betrayal of a fellow vibrant democracy.

But realpolitik rarely works without a little betrayal, if not of others, then at least of one’s own alleged values (and probably both). For this reason, suddenly seeing China for a villain and re-arranging diplomatic ties on a moral foundation seems a little out of place.

In principle, whether China is a dictatorship or not, and whether Taiwan is a democracy or not should not even matter.

In the ideal world, diplomatic recognition should not depend on one’s political proclivities. If a given territory has a defined population and defined borders, and it maintains a government for a reasonable length of time, it should be recognised.

By this measure, not only should Taiwan have been recognised by the international community long ago, it should never have been de-recognised in the first place. The PRC, too, should have been recognised a few years into Mao Zedong’s rule, when it became clear that it was there to stay.

Beijing, however, refused to establish diplomatic relations with any state that also maintained such relations with the rival regime in Taiwan, hence the One China policy.

This condition should have been ignored. Eventually, faced with uniform unwillingness among Western powers to yield to unreasonable pressure, the PRC would have probably relented.

But pragmatic considerations prevailed – the Chinese could not be allowed to live in “angry isolation”, as Richard Nixon had put it, and there were economic ties to consider. Finally, China was a potential ally in the global struggle against the Soviet Union. Taiwan was a small price to pay.

If we were now to revisit these decisions and recognise Taiwan, it must only be done on the principled basis and not as a punishment for China’s behaviour, or for Covid-19.

And it should not be done by Lithuania – which in any case has little to lose from China’s wrath – but by those Western powers that during the Cold War traded their principles for political expediency.

This they won’t do, of course – the balance of real political and economic interests is on the side of maintaining engagement with Beijing. There is also the grave danger of instability.

Sharp departure from the One China policy could trigger Beijing’s invasion of the island: what will our high moral ground matter then?

The world shares responsibility for the One China policy. It legitimised it by acquiescing to Beijing’s narrative largely for self-serving political reasons.

Untangling oneself from this narrative is very difficult, potentially dangerous, and – if it is merely a punishment for behaviour we dislike rather than recognition of the actual state of affairs – it is ethically questionable.

Sergey Radchenko is professor and director of research at the School of Law

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