China fumes as Taiwan woos the Baltics

Europe’s small Baltic states are becoming an increasingly important geopolitical epicenter for an island more than 5,000 miles away: Taiwan.

Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, is visiting Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania this week in an effort to bolster bilateral ties with regional lawmakers, two years after Taipei opened a de-facto embassy in Vilnius, and just one week after Estonia gave permission for one to open in Tallinn.

While Wu is not meeting with any government leaders, Beijing is fuming at the prospect of the Baltic states delegitimizing their one-China commitment, with China’s ambassador to Estonia threatening to leave the country should Taipei and Tallinn advance any diplomatic ties.

Wu’s visit signals to both Russia and China the Baltics’ vehement opposition to authoritarianism and expansionism. Speaking to reporters, Wu compared Moscow’s imperialist rhetoric to Beijing’s increasingly aggressive cross-strait tactics. “In this part of the world, there is Russia, which started a war against Ukraine and talks about the Baltic countries as part of Russia,” Wu said, adding that both Taiwan and the Baltics are united through shared values of freedom and democracy. Baltic lawmakers meanwhile emphasized the need to collaborate with Taiwan on strategies to resist autocracies. “We must pool experience and strength against the axis of evil,” said one Lithuanian MP.

The Baltics could be the precursor for Europe to “de-couple” from China, according to the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Thomas J. Shattuck. “It is now clear that Beijing failed to bully Vilnius into getting its way,” Shattuck writes, referring to the failure of China’s economic deterrents to stop Lithuania from pursuing closer ties to Taipei. Instead, Taipei stepped in to support tech projects that aim to transform Lithuania into the European center for Taiwanese semiconductor investment. Any further retaliation from China, like cutting all diplomatic ties, would “open up a Pandora’s box” that would force it to take a similar approach across Europe and the U.S., in a move that would be economically catastrophic for Beijing. But it’s also important for Europe to loosen economic ties with China, one Lithuanian defense representative told Politico. “Europe learned that lesson with Russia the hard way” with the continent’s dependence on Russian energy, the representative said. “The sooner we [start decoupling], the better prepared for any contingency we will be.”

Taiwan could learn valuable NATO defense strategies from the Baltics. While Taiwan’s military has been preoccupied with arms sales from countries like the U.S., it has neglected unit training and asymmetrical warfare tactics that NATO pushes in the Baltics as a deterrent against Russia, according to two defense analysts writing for the security policy site War on the Rocks. Taiwan’s military faces a “basic organizational challenge” that the Baltic Soviet-style militaries were previously plagued with, and NATO eventually stepped in to transform them from “hierarchical, hollow organizations overly reliant on outdated weapons into far more decentralized and combat-credible fighting forces,” the analysts argue.