China downgraded its diplomatic ties with Lithuania on Sunday, expressing strong dissatisfaction with the Baltic State for allowing Taiwan to open a de facto embassy there and raising tensions in a row that has dragged in Washington.
China views self-ruled and democratically governed Taiwan as its territory with no right to the trappings of a state and 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 it 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 brusque 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 ‘one 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 says it is an independent country called the Republic of China, its official name, and that the People’s Republic of China has never ruled it and has no right to speak for it.
Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council denounced China’s “rudeness and arrogance”, saying Beijing had no right to comment on something that was not an internal Chinese affair and purely a matter between Taiwan and Lithuania.
Taiwan’s Defence Ministry later on Sunday reported two Chinese nuclear-capable H-6 bombers had flown to the south of the island, part of a pattern of what Taipei views as military harassment designed to pressure the government.
Taiwan 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, U.S. 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 $600 million export credit agreement with the U.S. Export-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, Xiomara Castro has vowed to establish official relations with China.