Taiwanese firm buys Lithuanian rum destined for mainland China amid diplomatic row

·4-min read

A Taiwanese government-owned liquor firm said it stepped in to buy a shipment of Lithuanian rum that had been bound for mainland China, after being told it was about to be blocked by Chinese customs.

In a statement on Monday, Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor, or TTL, said it bought the 20,400 bottles of dark rum made by MV Group Production in December in an effort to support Lithuania.

It comes amid an escalating diplomatic row between China and Lithuania over the Baltic nation’s decision to allow Taipei to open a representative office in its capital, Vilnius, in November – a move that enraged Beijing. The de facto embassy uses the name Taiwan, a departure from the usual practice of using the name Taipei to avoid referencing the self-ruled island, which Beijing claims as part of its territory.

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Taipei opened a de facto embassy in Vilnius in November in a move that has infuriated Beijing. Photo: EPA-EFE
Taipei opened a de facto embassy in Vilnius in November in a move that has infuriated Beijing. Photo: EPA-EFE

Since then, China has downgraded its embassy in Lithuania to a charge d’affaires office and demanded Vilnius do the same for its Beijing embassy, prompting Lithuanian envoys to leave the Chinese capital for fear of losing their diplomatic immunity.

Lithuania has also accused Beijing of blocking imports of its products, and Vilnius announced an aid package worth €130 million (US$147.8 million) to help businesses affected by the dispute. Beijing has denied that Lithuanian goods are not being cleared by customs and said European Union officials’ remarks suggesting this was the case were “irresponsible”.

TTL, which is fully owned by Taiwan’s finance ministry, said it bought the rum on December 18 – 11 days before it was due to reach a mainland Chinese port – to stop the shipment from becoming stranded at sea.

“TTL stood up at the right time, purchased the rum and brought it to Taiwan,” the statement said. “Once the ship arrives at the port early this year, we will apply Chinese labels [to the bottles] and put them on the market. Lithuania supports us and we support Lithuania – TTL calls for a toast to that.”

Keeping big brothers at bay: why Lithuania is taking on China

According to the statement, Taiwan’s finance ministry and its de facto ambassador to Lithuania, Eric Huang, told TTL that the rum was about to be rejected by Chinese customs. TTL said this prompted the decision to “swiftly” buy the shipment for the Taiwanese market instead.

The liquor manufacturer and distributor did not respond to requests for comment beyond the statement, while MV Group Production in Vilnius and Taiwan’s representative office in Lithuania did not reply to similar requests.

While Vilnius does not diplomatically recognise the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name, it has maintained cultural and economic ties with the island.

Lithuania was one of many European countries to receive masks donated from Taiwan during the coronavirus pandemic. It also donated 20,000 doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine to Taiwan in July when it was facing a supply shortage.

Last week, the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Britain and the United States expressed support for Lithuania in the face of “escalating political pressure and economic coercion” from Beijing, according to the US State Department.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian responded on Friday by saying Beijing was “only rightfully and reasonably retaliating”.

“The US and other relevant countries know this. If they really care about Lithuania, they should urge it to admit and correct their mistakes as soon as possible instead of using it as a tool to contain China,” Zhao said.

Beijing – which has stepped up pressure on countries to downgrade or cut ties with Taipei – says the de facto embassy in Vilnius breaches the one-China policy. Lithuania and the EU both say the move is within the framework of Brussels’ one-China policy.

Reunification of Taiwan and the mainland is seen as a long-term policy imperative by Beijing and it has not ruled out the use of force to take control of the island.

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