Lithuanian geopolitical travels. Taiwanese (Chinese?) restaurant

Taiwan, by Reuters/Scanpix

Taiwan is undoubtedly a hot spot in world politics. It has never been completely “cold” and irrelevant, but today the situation is special – Taiwan is important in the context of Sino-US relations, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and in the general change of world order. Taiwan is an indicator of the mood of world politics.

I will start with that indicator with an event that many may have overlooked. The Central American country of Honduras, which had hitherto recognised the Republic of China (Taiwan) as the real China, has ‘converted’ to recognising the People’s Republic of China. This happened when mainland China’s political prestige seemed to be declining and its economic capacity is becoming increasingly questionable. 

Most commentators have a very simple explanation for this unpleasant political fact for the island. Taiwan is losing friends because those friends were essentially just business partners, and their relationship is nothing more than so-called ‘chequebook diplomacy’. Beijing is paying more even than Taipei, and for Honduras, money is important. While Taiwan was the benefactor, he was the benefactor. Now the benefits come from Beijing. Some will say that the former “banana republics” as they were created have remained so, even though the Chinese government propaganda commented on the Honduras ” case ” as a significant geopolitical transformation.

Taiwan’s history and political status over the last century and a half have been such that they are open to interpretation by anyone with a background in international politics and law. Without rehashing the whole story of who has ruled and occupied what at what time, I will say, in my own Lithuanian way of seeing things, that all these interpretations are de facto about China’s status – the extent to which there is law, force, fear, economic and demographic power in the existence of the present the People’s Republic of China.

And, for that matter, how do we see the future of China, whatever it may be? There is no international consensus on this question: people who call themselves geopoliticians express opinions of every colour of the rainbow, from saying that China already rules the world or will do so very soon, to the educated guess that something similar to what happened to the Soviet Union awaits the People’s Republic of China. If there is no consensus on what is called mainland China, there will be no consensus on Taiwan.

And if we are to be completely down to earth, behind all the convoluted diplomatic formulations, there is a very short, three-sentence description of reality:

  1. Taiwan is a state, and you can be friends with it and trade with it, but you have to pretend in public that it does not exist or that it is part of mainland China.
  2. Mainland China publicly claims that it rightfully owns and manages Taiwan when it knows that it does not and does not.
  3. They say the truth still prevails, so since the first two sentences are untrue, nobody has given up hope of implementing (their) truth with the policy instruments at their disposal.

By the way, war, in case anyone has forgotten, is also a political instrument.

Political science textbooks either present the Sino-Taiwan problem as an exception to the supposedly strict moral and legal principles of democracy, or they explain that it is all in the name of the so-called common good. The European Union has acted (and continues to act) in the name of the common good, and proving that it does not would be challenging.

It honestly seems to me that China does not want a war over Taiwan. Its leadership (or is it leadership?) still thinks that it is not worth going to war over something that can be bought. If Honduras is bought, if Russia is half-bought, why not Taiwan, after all? It is true that the economic ‘rapprochement’, so popularised a decade ago, has failed, but it is not, after all, the only or the last attempt. 

Lithuania has always wanted to be an exemplary and unproblematic member of the European Union and NATO, to “sing harmoniously in the choir of politicians”, and in many cases “behaving like everybody else” seemed better than behaving. Of course, there have been exceptions, mostly linked to Russia and Belarus, but that is about it.

And here is another somewhat unexpected exception – Taiwan. I was reminded of how US President Reagan, on a visit to West Berlin, once demonstratively crossed the line dividing the administrative sectors of the city. Some were frightened, others were angry, but… nothing happened. It should not have happened – the line was more political than physical. But, unfortunately, it seems that with the establishment of the Taiwanese mission in Vilnius, the Lithuanians have crossed this imaginary line…

Without going into who did or did not go wrong here, I will say that the aforementioned move by the Lithuanians was and still is viewed in three ways according to public opinion polls. 

Firstly, a misunderstanding: Taiwan is none of our business. On the Chinese map of the world, we are at the edge of the world, and we should live more peacefully with a big China, even be angry in a ‘vacuum’, because what is Taiwan to us.

Secondly, moral politics: Lithuania remembers well the important role Iceland played on the edge of the world in rebuilding the entire Soviet system. Why should we not be that New Iceland? Finally, we know and can tell others that we believe in everything called democracy and its values. We will cross that line, as Reagan once did and … you will do nothing for us.

Thirdly, business: we are small and uninteresting to mainland China, we can become special to Taiwan, and when we are special, the money will come faster. The Chinese can’t punish us very much, but we will make a good deal for a good word to Taiwan.

Which of these is true? So far, there are three, and I personally like the second one, but I admit that there is no political consensus in Lithuania on this issue. And this is not the best indicator – in foreign policy, the consensus is desirable if not necessary. So politicians will not be short of interesting work.

Post scriptum. I ate Taiwanese food in Taipei, and it was quite normal. But recently, I noticed a strange restaurant in one of the capitals of Western Europe. The official sign proclaimed that it was a Chinese eatery, but in hieroglyphics that I did not really understand, it said that the food and the producers were Taiwanese. Surveys show that an increasing number of the island’s inhabitants consider themselves to be a separate and responsible nation in their own right. Taiwanese are not Chinese, just as Ukrainians are not Russians, Austrians are not Germans, Irish are not English… many examples. And that Taiwan must not disappear, it’s just that it can’t do without it…

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