China downgrades its diplomatic ties with Lithuania over Taiwan

Lithuania allowed Taiwan to set up a representative office in the country earlier this month. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (REUTERS) - China downgraded its diplomatic ties with Lithuania on Sunday (Nov 21), expressing strong dissatisfaction with Vilnius for allowing Taiwan to open a de facto embassy there and raising tensions in a row that has dragged in Washington.

China views Taiwan as a renegade province to be reunified, by force, if necessary. It has stepped up pressure on countries to downgrade or sever their relations with the island, even non-official ones.

Beijing had already expressed anger this summer when Lithuania - which has formal relations with China and not Taiwan - allowed the Taiwanese to open an office in the country using the name Taiwan. China recalled its ambassador in August.

Other Taiwan offices in Europe and the United States use the name of the city Taipei, avoiding reference to the island itself.

However, the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania finally opened on Thursday.

China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Lithuania had ignored China's "solemn stance" and the basic norms of international relations.

The move "undermined China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and grossly interfered in China's internal affairs", creating a "bad precedent internationally", it said.

Beijing said relations would be downgraded to the level of charge d'affaires, a rung below ambassador.

"We urge the Lithuanian side to correct its mistakes immediately and not to underestimate the Chinese people's firm determination and staunch resolve to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity."

No matter what Taiwan does, it cannot change the fact that it is part of China, the ministry said.

Lithuania's Foreign Ministry expressed "regret" over China's decision in a statement on Sunday.

"Accepting the Taiwanese representation in Lithuania is grounded on economic interests," it said.

"Lithuanian again confirms it keeps to the 'single China' policy, but, at the same time, it has the right to expand cooperation with Taiwan and to accept, and to establish, non-diplomatic representations to ensure practical development of the connections, as has been done by many other countries."

Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council denounced China's "rudeness and arrogance", saying Beijing has no right to comment on something that is not an internal Chinese affair and purely a matter between Taiwan and Lithuania.

Taipei has been heartened by growing international support in the face of China's military and diplomatic pressure, especially from the United States and some of its allies.

Washington rejects attempts by other countries to interfere in Lithuania's relationship with Taiwan, US Under -Secretary of State Uzra Zeya told a news conference in Vilnius on Friday.

Washington has offered Vilnius support to withstand Chinese pressure and Lithuania will sign a US$600 million (S$813 million) export credit agreement with the USExport-Import Bank on Wednesday.

Only 15 countries have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan.

Taipei could lose another ally to Beijing after the Honduran presidential election later this month, where a candidate backed by main opposition parties is leading in opinion polls.

If elected, Ms Xiomara Castro has vowed to establish official relations with China.

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