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US wades into spat between China and Lithuania over Taiwanese office

Washington has suggested Lithuania consider changing the name of Taiwan’s representative office in the capital Vilnius, in an effort to help ease tensions between the Baltic state and China since the mission was established.

Lithuania has been embroiled in a spat with Beijing since it allowed Taiwan to open a mission called the “Taiwanese representative office” rather than “Taipei representative office”, after Taiwan’s capital city — a formulation that is used in most countries.

China demands that countries avoid using language that suggests Taiwan, a self-governing country, is a sovereign state.

According to several people familiar with the situation, US diplomats have floated the idea of changing the name with Lithuanian officials. They said the US thought the choice of name had opened the door to Chinese coercion that risked undermining the expansion of ties with Taiwan.

China has retaliated by blocking imports from Lithuania and warning European companies, such as German car parts maker Continental, not to use components from the Baltic country.

The White House denied the administration had suggested changing the name of the office. “Anyone who suggests otherwise is not reflecting actual discussions between the US and Lithuania,” said a spokesperson for the National Security Council, adding that the US had told Lithuania that it would support its sovereign decisions.

“We respect and support Lithuania and Taiwan’s efforts to enhance their ties and practical co-operation,” the spokesperson added.

The diplomatic row has created a headache for Washington, which wants to help Taiwan expand its international presence without giving Beijing an opportunity to accuse the US of violating its “one China policy”, under which Washington views Beijing as the sole legal government of China.

Taipei last year asked the US for permission to include “Taiwan” in the name of its Washington, DC office, but the US has not acted on the request.

The spat has also split officials in Vilnius. President Gitanas Nauseda called the name a “mistake”, while foreign ministry polling last month showed just 13 per cent of Lithuanians backed the government’s policy on China.

In a meeting this week that included Nauseda in addition to the foreign minister and opposition members, business leaders said they had been “sacrificed” for an unpopular policy. But Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte has been adamant that the government will not budge.

One person familiar with the diplomatic discussions said: “One of the big problems is that Taiwan doesn’t want the name change and Lithuania has a very strong faction of people who don’t want the name changed either.”

The Lithuanian foreign ministry said suggestions that the US had made a proposal to change the office’s name were “false” and a “disinformation campaign”. The Taiwanese embassy in Washington did not comment.

Lithuania has been a vocal critic of China over human rights violations. Last year, it withdrew from the 17+1, an informal grouping of central and eastern European countries with which Beijing wanted to improve ties.

Underscoring the tensions in Vilnius, Nauseda this week urged the foreign ministry to implement a de-escalation plan in agreement with EU partners.

The EU has offered rhetorical support to Lithuania, but not provided an official joint response, as it looks to a planned summit with China in March. Brussels has repeatedly stated its commitment to the “one China policy”, while saying it is “ready to stand up against all types of political pressure and coercive measures applied against any member state”.

While some argue that changing the name would be seen as caving into Beijing, others say the spat undermines the real achievement for Taiwan.

“Letting this crisis fester is likely to have a bad outcome for Lithuanian interests, and perhaps for Taiwan’s as well,” said Bonnie Glaser, a Taiwan expert at the German Marshall Fund who added that Chinese economic coercion was unacceptable. “The establishment of a new office, and the rapid expansion of Lithuania-Taiwan ties is a big win for Taipei regardless of what they call the office.”

Taiwanese officials said they were not aware of a US proposal. One said some Lithuanian and EU officials had considered changing the name to placate China, but had concluded that this would not solve the problem.

“Once they start to compromise on Taiwan’s name . . . it would let the Chinese smell that what they are doing is working, and encourage China to put more pressure on Lithuania and others,” the Taiwanese official said.

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