Good relations with China are important to Estonia. Avoiding misunderstandings, however, nonetheless isn't a distinct goal, said Kristi Karelsohn, director general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Department of Asia, Pacific Region, Middle East and Africa, who noted that the opening of Taipei representations hasn't always damaged countries' relations with China.
A couple of years ago, a door in Lithuania was marked with a sign reading "Taiwan Representative Office." While the Lithuanians claimed they had understood the sign to read "Taiwanese Office," China has yet to forgive them for this. Our government permitted the opening of a Taipei representation. But what's ultimately the difference?
This is true, that Taipei, meaning Taiwan's capital city, has representations in many countries, including in 19 or 20 EU states – as well as in Moscow, by the way. These representations under the Taipei name haven't typically garnered such a painful reaction on China's part.
But in Lithuania's case it was clearly stated that the big issue was the name of the representation specifically – the "Taiwan Representative Office." As none of these countries recognize Taiwan as a separate country, then we cannot consider it a state representation.
They have been established as nondiplomatic representations for the promotion of trade relations, for the promotion of cultural relations, and it's been much easier for China to accept it as such a representation of the capital.
Officially like Tallinn's representation in Brussels?
You could compare it with that, for example, yes. We've also discussed among ourselves that we could treat German state representations in other countries or Belgian regions Wallonia and Flanders' representations in other countries by the same analogy.
[Estonia's] Foreign Intelligence Service (EFIS) believes that Lithuania's harsh punishment wasn't due to the form of the name, but rather the fact that a representation was opened at all. Who are we hiding ourselves from with these wordings? Everyone knows. China, Taiwan and we ourselves are also aware that this is an unofficial representation of Taiwan, where Taiwan is handling its own country's affairs, not solving the capital city's utility issues.
We've understood that this name is actually very important to China after all. We signed a joint communique with China in the early 1990s already in which we've promised to adhere to the One China policy, as have other countries where these representations exist.
In other countries, experience has shown that opening a representation under such a name has been considered by China to be a step taken within the framework of the One China policy. At the same time, establishing a representation under the name of Taiwan clearly wouldn't be, as by name it's as if it were another country's representation.
This is the experience on which we're currently building. And we hope and expect that should this representation in Estonia be opened one day, China's attitude [toward it] will be the same.
The Foreign Ministry has drawn up a "Foreign Policy and Development Cooperation Program 2023-2026." It states, "The goal of Estonia's foreign policy is to mitigate China-related uncertainty and risks, while simultaneously maintaining opportunities for open dialogue and mutually beneficial and politically and ideologically neutral sectoral cooperation." Help me translate this. Is it important for Estonia to get along well with China?
Of course it's important for Estonia to get along with China. But we've also started increasingly emphasizing in our programming documents that we must also heed that we aren't overly dependent on Chinese raw materials, for example, or critically dependent on any sort of value chains. This same trend exists in other EU countries too.
But if we want to get along well with China, then where does the decision to allow the opening of a Taipei representation in Tallinn fit into this strategic framework? Because I didn't read a single word about Estonia and Taiwan policy, for example, in any programming documents.
It's true that we don't have any such separate program or strategy for the development of relations with Taiwan. We actually don't have a dedicated strategy paper for relations with China either; rather, China is brought up in various [other] documents.
Last year, a report commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was completed by four university scholars on future relations between Estonia and Asia. It also recommended seeking closer contact in the economic relations, climate and culture fields with like-minded Asian countries with values that are more understandable and closer to us. The scholars likewise recommended paying attention to critical dependence on China.
Do I understand correctly that because we want to reduce and avoid our dependence on China anyway, then we can also afford to get along a bit worse with China? Because we'll no doubt get along a bit worse with them after allowing for a Taipei representation to be opened here.
That's an interesting take on this issue. Yes, it can indeed be said that the goal of our foreign policy at the moment isn't necessarily to avoid any sort of misunderstandings or differing views or even issues in our relations with China.
Perhaps we have not indeed distinctly formulated such an explicit goal because we see that, as a whole, the EU, but also the U.S. increasingly consider China a geopolitical rival and competitor.
Rather, we're seeking opportunities to break free from this dependency and pursue our own independent foreign policy. Of course, that doesn't mean that we're seeking opposition with China.
But we can engage in this opposition.
It always depends on how significant an opposition we can engage in with someone. I wouldn't say that we want opposition with China. These representations exist in many other countries, and some of them have existed historically already. But they've also been established in the 1990s and even later.
In Moscow, for example, it was established in the 1990s, and we haven't seen that establishing the representation would have generated a major reaction or significant worsening of relations with China.
Do I understand correctly that there's a difference in timing involved too? In the 1990s, China was still a developing country trying to strengthen ties with the West by all means. Now China is much, much stronger, it has a considerably stronger negotiating position and it can afford a much more painful response.
Quite a few countries have acknowledged that this may be the case. Nonetheless, right now, and what we've also heard from China itself, what provoked this very painful response to the opening of the representation in Lithuania was the use of the name Taiwan.
While not quite a comparable event, it's still worth noting that just a couple of years ago, an office of the Taipei representation was opened in Provence, France, which was in fact a branch of the Paris office, but nonetheless still a brand new office. And we're not aware, at least, of any very serious subsequent response to this on China's part.
[First] Vice-President of the Riigikogu Toomas Kivimägi (Reform) met with the Chinese ambassador on Monday, whose clear message according to Kivimägi was that the opening of a Taipei representation could mean the departure of the ambassador from Estonia. This wouldn't yet be as painful of a step as in Lithuania's case, who at one point couldn't export anything to China. Did we draw up a risk matrix regarding what could follow our decision?
It's true in Lithuania's case that businesses faced major problems and [their] ambassadors were reciprocally recalled. The Lithuanian Embassy essentially hasn't been able to operate in China since then. These are the main steps that were taken at the time. Of course we're aware of these risks.
What was the scope of our risk matrix?
We can only rely on the experiences we've seen involving other countries; we can't really predict much beyond that.
Did you consider the ambassador's departure likely?
I can't say how likely this can be considered. But yes, such steps are indeed taken when one wants to indicate their desire not to develop relations in such a constructive and positive way anymore.
Once the crisis management phase concludes in two countries' relations, how does the building phase begin? Or are we not thinking ahead on this scale yet?
Yes, we indeed aren't there right now. We still intend to continue communicating with China right now, and explaining what decision was made. In reality, this representation hasn't even been opened yet; it isn't even currently explicitly on the agenda. This was a principled government stance that should a request come from Taipei, then it will receive a positive response.
Continuous ongoing communication, explaining backgrounds, listening to China's concerns are the key we're trying to use to keep these relations from ever worsening that much.
Has the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received any sort of official notice from the Chinese Embassy?
We've spoken with the Chinese Embassy about this matter. And our embassy in Beijing has spoken with the Foreign Ministry there as well. Of course they noted this statement from the government, and it's no secret that Taiwan is one of China's most sensitive issues. Of course they've signaled to us that they see this as a not-so-friendly step in China's terms. But we will continue communicating on the topic.
Was this signal as painful as the one given from the seat next to Toomas Kivimägi's?
We haven't been directly threatened with any sort of countermeasures. On our part, we've also explained the precise terms under which this representation could be opened – that it wouldn't be a diplomatic representation, that it would be under the name of Taipei, and that it would first and foremost develop economic and cultural relations.
Please provide some insight on those discussions preceding the government's decision. Did our foreign ministry hold any sort of negotiations with Taiwan beforehand and agree on any conditions regarding how the representation would operate? Did we speak with China beforehand?
No, we haven't spoken with Taiwan about it. The government simply made a decision that should such a request be received from Taipei, then the government will approve it. Whenever they submit a request, then negotiations will begin, or we'll present our own terms on which this representation can be opened.
What will this representation's legal status be? They can establish a nonprofit completely informally, without asking anyone. What does establishing a Taipei representation look like?
Our discussions and analyses regarding this specific legal solution are only just underway. This topic hasn't been so concretely on our agenda.
And we lack precedent too. Regional or state representations have been opened in some countries, for example, but Estonia doesn't have any of those either.
What will this mean for Estonia-Taiwan relations, meaning what even goes on at such a representation?
Each such representation helps contribute to the development of relations. In this case indeed to a limited extent and in specific fields. Taipei has a representation in Riga, for example, which to date has operated in Estonia's direction as well. And contacts have been established through them between our educational institutions, researchers and students. Cultural programs and business contacts have been mediated. An on the ground presence facilitates this work being done more efficiently.
If Taiwan sends its officials to this representation, then at what level can we communicate with them?
It's true that members of the government may not communicate with them, as we don't have official political relations with Taiwan. But the government cannot dictate anything to MPs; [the latter] will decide for themselves whether they will communicate.
Officials up to a certain level are likewise allowed to communicate as well. I wouldn't specify right now up to what level. But yes, officials can communicate [with Taiwanese officials] within their respective fields. And I suppose this very much affects other ministries as well – the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Education [and Research] could be appropriate contacts for representatives of Taiwan if they're developing cooperation in Estonia.
Editor: Aili Vahtla