NextGen Voices: A Look at Taiwan-Lithuania Relations with Matas Maldeikis
By Marcin Jerzewski and Dr. Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy
As the normative gap between Brussels and Beijing continues to expand, the EU and some of its member states have embraced the prospect of pursuing closer cooperation with Taiwan. The EU now considers Taiwan a like-minded partner in the Indo-Pacific and leader in strategic technologies, just as it continues to perceive China a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance.”
Legislators have been key actors in promoting the deepening relations with Taiwan, with Lithuanian lawmakers showing particular resolve in this endeavor. Following the passing of a resolution on directions in foreign policy, which called for a pursuit of economic, social, commercial and cultural cooperation with Taiwan, members of the Seimas (the Lithuanian parliament) approved laws to enable the establishment of a trade office in Taiwan. The ongoing delegation of ten legislators from the Baltic countries, including six Lithuanian lawmakers, is another conspicuous step in fostering legislative diplomacy between Lithuania and Taiwan.
During the 2021 Open Parliament Forum in Taipei, Dr. Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, Non-Resident Fellow at Taiwan NextGen Foundation and Head of Associates Network at 9DASHLINE, and Marcin Jerzewski, Research Fellow at Taiwan NextGen Foundation, sat down with Matas Maldeikis, Member of the Seimas and the Chair of the Lithuanian Parliamentary Group for Relations with Taiwan, to discuss his perspective on the increasingly expanding ties between Vilnius and Taipei.
Q: In the past year, the world witnessed Lithuania openly and bravely embrace Taiwan. This shift has been particularly remarkable given that the move away from China and the turn towards Taiwan happened under the guidance of the rulin party, rather than those in opposition. Given that Lithuania is a democracy where political parties contest for power in free and fair elections, how sustainable do you think the current government’s policy towards Taiwan can be?
Matas Maldeikis (MM): I believe in national interest in foreign policy, in realpolitik. Our country, like any other, has national interests to pursue and protect, and I believe that any government would continue to do this. Both former and current American Presidents, Donald Trump and Joe Biden, pursued their policy regarding Taiwan in the same spirit. If we see investment and business cooperation between Taiwan and Lithuania grow, our government, the current one or any government in the future, will never do anything to undermine this; this would be crazy of them. This is a question of national interest in realpolitik.
Q: Similarly to the United States, a switch in Europe is also slowly taking shape to start seeing Taiwan not only as a victim that needs help, but also as a place where we have our own interests to protect. The EU is the number one investor in Taiwan. Seen in this context, the next natural step for Lithuania could be to increase trade and investment cooperation with Taiwan so that there is more political interest at stake, securing the government’s position to Taiwan. How is the current government pushing for further investment? Are the Taiwanese counterparts receptive to bring more investment into Lithuania?
MM: Absolutely. My cynical perspective of Taiwan in Europe is related to mainland China. The change that is happening in EU countries concerning China makes them see Taiwan from a new perspective. Suddenly they understand that we are dependent of the technology that comes from China. Lithuania’s biggest challenge in our relationship with Taiwan is not about products, t-shirts, it is about technology that China has, part of factories in the supply chain. We now understand that we are being blocked by those factories. Suddenly we see that those producers and investors are not in fact Chinese per se, but a lot of them are Taiwanese. This is important. We have to find a solution to this problem. This is an issue between China and Taiwan, in a sense. The EU started to shift away from a romantic view of China. Now we see China as a threat. The question is how can we change our relationship without losing economically, and increase cooperation with Taiwan? It is not about t-shirts, we can get them elsewhere. It is about technology, which is mostly from Taiwan. So, this makes the turn to Taiwan different. It is all about seeing China as a threat in global supply chains. We have to stop China somewhere, somehow.
Q: Speaking of technology, there is an interest in Lithuania, which your Foreign and Economics Ministries MFAI expressed clearly, to have a semiconductor factory in Lithuania. One key feature in Taiwan’s model of engagement is that it is very people-centric;it brings a soft approach, not just focus on hard infrastructure. In other words, cultivating human resources and capacity building is important for Taiwan. Yet, such an approach takes time. Do you think that public opinion in Lithuania about Taiwan may change when people get impatient and realize they have to wait to see the fruit of this new cooperation with Taiwan?
MM: We understand this perspective. We are not yet at the same level in terms of resources asTaiwan. In fact, Taiwan is like science fiction compared to us in many regards. We have to identify and launch new projects, such as the talent exchange, which can help us both short and long-term. But in the short-term, we need to engage Taiwan as politicians, as we are pioneers in what we do; Lithuania is a pioneer. It is not about being radically different from others, it is about being pioneers. As this shift is happening, we have to understand this, both in the EU and the US. Our short-term plan is about food products and raw commodities: grains such as wheat, dairy, poultry. Agriculture is very influential in Lithuania. So if we get Taiwan to open its market to Lithuania, it will be helpful. We talked about semiconductors but also agriculture certificates, to open Taiwan’s market for our commodities.
Q: So you are saying that agriculture was a subject of your discussions?
MM: Yes, it was one of our most important points. If Taiwan opens the market for these products, it could send a clear message and also bring about higher numbers in trade. We saw the numbers in the Czech Republic; China has created 4000 jobs in the last 10 years, and Taiwanese firms created 24,000. This is a political signal. After the sanctions Lithuania faced from Russia, we turned to a new market, towards the Chinese market – a lot of engagement took place but what actually happened? They wanted our port, Klaipėda. They didn’t get it, because it was a question of national security; after this, the investment from Lithuania to China went down to no investment. Investment from China in Lithuania is just 3 million euros, it's nothing—maybe the cost of running two cafeterias. Lithuania invests ten times more in China. China depends on us more.
Q: Do you have a positive feeling that there could be an opening for Lithuanian products in Taiwan?
MM: Yes. I can see it with my own eyes. Politicians understand this. In a capitalist system, we can create a framework to make business politically beneficial. I sense our Taiwanese friends are engaged; they want to help us to help them. All this can end if we don’t show results.
Q: What everyone wants to know in Taiwan is what is next for the region, and Latvia and Estonia in particular? Is this the end of 16+1? Is anyone going to follow Lithuania?
MM: 16+1 is dead. But it has got nothing to do with us anymore; we are out. It is not a problem for us anymore. We don’t believe it can bring anything for the region. Regionally, Latvians and Estonians have a different history. Lithuania was a kingdom, the biggest kingdom at one point, which shaped our mentality. We, in our mentality, are very geopolitical. Latvia and Estonia don’t have this geopolitical dimension in their thinking. This is the root of our dealing with China as we do now. We fought the Soviets, we declared our independence. This is the only logical mindset I can offer. The big majority of those in government now have this mentality. We are the generation that in 1991 was sitting by the television or was in barricades near the parliament when Russian tanks were rolling in. We were watching and waiting for the West to help us. But nothing happened. We just waited. And then small Iceland, all of a sudden, recognized Lithuania’s independence in a resolution. They were the first ones! We were young at that timeI was 13. That injustice stayed with us. We grew up after this and we now have acquired some power. We are surrounded by Russia, as one authoritarian regime, and there is also Belarus. We are in a difficult geopolitical situation so we want to send a signal to the United States, and to all other friends, that we play by the rules, we are democratic, we are protecting our national security. It is our geopolitical environment that makes us behave this way.
Matas Maldeikis is a Member of the Seimas (the Lithuanian Parliament), representing the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrat Political Group, a centre-right political party with an ideology influenced by liberal conservatism, Christian democracy, nationalism, and economic liberalism. In the Seimas, he serves as the Head of the Parliamentary Group for Relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan), and is the Deputy Chair of the Committee for the Future as well as a member of the European Affairs and Budget and Finance Committees.