Lithuanian Embassy in Beijing on August 10, 2021 as China demanded Lithuania recall its envoy to Beijing, after Vilnius allowed Taiwan to set up an office under its own name in a move seen as provocative by the Chinese government. Image Credit: AFP

Beijing: China withdrew its ambassador from Lithuania to protest the European nation’s move to let Taiwan set up a de facto embassy, sending a rare warning to others that might seek more formal ties with Taipei.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry announced in a statement Tuesday that it had recalled Ambassador Shen Zhifei from Vilnius and demanded Lithuania’s envoy to leave Beijing. The ministry blamed the move on the Baltic state’s decision to allow Taipei to open a representative office under the name of Taiwan, something that “severely undermines China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

“If Lithuania dares to take one more step, there will be a cutting-off of official ties,” Wang Yiwei, director of Renmin University’s Institute of International Affairs and a former Chinese diplomat. “This is also a warning to other EU countries not to follow Lithuania’s suit.”

China sees Taiwan as part of its territory and has asserted the right to unify both sides. Beijing has for decades required states to renounce ties with Taipei as a condition of establishing relations - under what it calls the “one-China principle” - leaving Taiwan with only 15 formal diplomatic partners.

Countries including the US and Japan have stepped up support for Taiwan amid a campaign by Chinese President Xi Jinping to pressure Taipei to accept Beijing’s “one China” framework for ties. Xi called his country’s quest to gain control of Taiwan a “historic mission” in a speech last month marking the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.

While China lodges frequent protests over diplomatic issues, it rarely recalls its ambassadors. Beijing withdrew its envoy from the US in 1995 after Washington granted a visa to then-Taiwanese President Lee Teng-hui, in one of the two rivals’ most serious dust-ups over the island.

The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry said it “respects the principle of one China” and regretted China’s decision. Still, the ministry said Lithuania was “determined to develop mutually beneficial relations with Taiwan, just as many other countries in the European Union and the rest of the world.”

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said in a statement that Taiwan has noted China’s recall of its ambassador in Lithuania.

“We will pay close attention to related follow-up developments,” she said.

The European Union delegation in Beijing didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on China’s move.

Earlier this year, Lithuania pulled out of the 17+1 cooperation mechanism, which was set up by China to promote trade and dialog between China and central and eastern European countries. Lithuania’s government, which took power eight months ago, has also angered China by announcing plans to give visas to Hong Kong residents facing persecution.

Lithuania has limited economic exposure in a dispute with China, with $1.8 billion in total trade last year. The country was Lithuania’s 12th largest trading partner.