TAIPEI, Taiwan — Ricardas Sedinkinas isn’t used to rock-star treatment. The Lithuanian businessman, who has lived in Taiwan for two years, is adjusting to his newfound status as a minor celebrity.
Taiwan is having a Lithuania moment. Demand for Lithuanian chocolate, beer and kvass — a fermented drink — has skyrocketed, sending suppliers scrambling for inventory. Lithuanians in Taiwan report taxi drivers refusing to let them pay, and strangers bowing and asking to shake their hands.
What’s behind all the fuss? As with many things here, it comes back to China.
Taiwanese are rallying to support the East European country as it faces retaliation from Beijing for drawing closer to Taiwan, whose democratically elected government has few diplomatic allies. With China ramping up pressure on the island, which it regards as its territory and has threatened to seize by force, the Baltic nation of 3 million — which resisted Soviet oppression in the 20th century — has emerged as a champion of Taiwan.
After Taiwan opened a de facto embassy in Vilnius and Lithuania sent a delegation of lawmakers to Taiwan in November, China blocked trade with Lithuania. Beijing downgraded bilateral relations and called Lithuania a “treacherous” supporter of Taiwan separatism that will be swept into the “trashcan of history.” In December, Lithuanian diplomats abruptly left Beijing out of security concerns.
“We see the challenge, but we won’t back down. It’s a question of our sovereignty,” said Lithuanian lawmaker Matas Maldeikis, head of the Lithuanian Parliamentary Group for Relations with Taiwan.
The Chinese Communist Party is threatening to "sweep Lithuania into the trashcan of history", which is ironic, because that's where communism already is.#StandWithTaiwan 🇱🇹💕🇹🇼🍍— Matas Maldeikis MP 🇱🇹 (@MatasMaldeikis) December 22, 2021
In Taiwan, where shows of Chinese intimidation are familiar, residents have been moved by the Baltic state’s pluck, a reminder of their own struggle for space on an international stage increasingly dominated by China.
Taiwanese businesses selling niche Lithuanian products have suddenly become popular. The state-owned Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp. said it bought 20,400 bottles of Lithuanian rum that were barred from entering China last month.
A doctor in the southern city of Kaohsiung who performed a liver transplant on a Lithuanian patient in December described it as “repayment of the kindness” that Lithuania showed when it donated more than 20,000 coronavirus vaccine doses to Taiwan in June, and followed up with more than 235,000 in September. Residents sent cash donations to Lithuanian nongovernmental organizations.
At Little One, an unmarked bar on a quiet street in one of Taipei’s oldest neighborhoods, a couple sips beer next to a giant yellow, green and red flag — Lithuania’s national colors. The bar, named after the Chinese translation for “Lithuania,” which is “Litaowan,” sells a range of fruit wines, vodka and beer from the Baltic state.
“You don’t even need to leave the country and you feel like you are in Lithuania,” said David Yeh, 46, who opened the bar in 2019, having never been to the country. After Lithuania’s vaccine donations and the opening of the Taiwan office in Vilnius, business for his small bar has been brisk.
“When Taiwan needed help the most, this small country with few people and resources was willing. This is rare,” he said.
Beryl Chen, who runs a Taiwan-based franchise of a Lithuanian chocolate brand, Ruta, said the store had to close temporarily over the summer because of a flood of orders. Demand for Lithuanian chocolate remained high, so she opened a second location in November.
“We keep being suppressed by Beijing, so if there are some countries in Europe that treat us well, that’s a good thing,” said Charles Wang, 64, a retiree who was buying chocolate at the Ruta store in New Taipei City.
The budding friendship comes amid broader disenchantment with China in European countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, where promises of Chinese investment have not panned out. In May of last year, Lithuania pulled out of China’s “17+1” framework for cooperation with the bloc, and in 2019, the government concluded that Chinese investment in a deepwater port project would pose a national security threat.
As one of the few European Union members to engage with Taiwan on a state-to-state level, Lithuania is testing the limits of Beijing’s insistence that no country, organization or individual treat Taiwan as a sovereign nation. After the opening of the Taiwan office — whose use of “Taiwan” in its official name rather than “Taipei” further enraged Beijing — Lithuania disappeared temporarily from the Chinese Customs Administration’s list of countries.
Beijing is betting “that if it is strong against Lithuania, then other countries will step back because they see there are consequences. But actually, it’s the opposite that’s happening,” said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a postdoctoral researcher based in Taiwan and former political adviser in the European Parliament.
In November, the United States signed a $600 million export credit agreement with Lithuania, almost double the amount of the country’s annual exports to China. Last month, the E.U. said it would “stand up against all types of political pressure and coercive measures” against a member state. During a call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, senior officials from France, Germany and Britain expressed “solidarity with Lithuania.” On Wednesday, Taiwan said it was setting up a $200 million investment fund to boost trade with Lithuania.
Still, the enthusiasm of Taiwan’s consumers is far from enough to make up for losing the Chinese market. A Lithuanian trade body said exports to China of dairy and grain products had been halted since 2021 as relations cooled. By the end of the summer, companies like Lithuanian drinks producer Volfas Engelman saw their orders in China canceled, according to Marius Horbacauskas, the company’s CEO.
“Our partner [in China] was telling us something was wrong with products of Lithuanian origins,” he said.
Now, Chinese exports — including manufactured goods and electronic components that Lithuanian companies upgrade and sell in the E.U. market — are also being blocked, according to Vidmantas Janulevicius, president of the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, inflicting a loss of as much as $169 million for Lithuanian companies.
“Trade with Taiwan is increasing, but it’s not so fast. To change the markets, the supplies, you need additional financial resources,” Janulevicius said.
On Tuesday, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda tried to dial down tensions, describing the name of the Taiwan representative office as a “mistake” and saying he had not been consulted on it.
For Lithuanians in Taiwan, as well as Taiwanese who have lived in Lithuania, the attention comes as a surprise. Common questions from curious Taiwanese include whether English is spoken in Lithuania, what style of food is eaten there, and what dating a Lithuanian man is like. Others note the similarities of living in the shadow of a much more powerful neighbor — in Lithuania’s case, Russia — and struggling to be heard.
“The world is not some hard-truth realpolitik where the weak can’t have a word because only big powers make history,” said Maldeikis.
Pei-Lin Wu and Alicia Chen contributed to this report.