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VILNIUS-The diplomatic showdown between Lithuania and the world’s second largest economy began with just one word.
In August, Vilnius approved Taiwan’s request to set up a “Taiwanese” representative office in the country. Use of this name offended Beijing, which insists the island is part of China and prefers to use “Taipei” instead.
The row escalated rapidly. Although Vilnius stressed that the move did not reflect a challenge in Beijing’s “One China” policy, the decision – the first of its kind in Europe – was seen by many as a potential first step towards eventually recognizing Taiwan as a separate country.
China withdrew its ambassador, a diplomatic form of protest it had not used for years, and insisted that Lithuania withdraw its envoy. Freight services connecting Vilnius under the China Belt and Road Initiative were suspended; the same was true of the new licenses applied for by Lithuanian food exporters. The initial expectations that Lithuania could become an important EU destination for Chinese fintech investors almost disappeared.
“It’s like the classic Chinese saying, ‘To kill a chicken to scare the monkey,'” said a senior EU diplomat in China, requesting anonymity as he was not authorized to comment publicly. “Beijing is sending a message that anyone who follows Lithuania’s example of daring to oppose it will have serious consequences. And such a message is best tested in a smaller country.”
Beijing is now looking at whether the monkey – the European Union – will take the side of the chicken or its butcher.
On the agenda
The United States has already supported Vilnius; last month, Foreign Minister Antony Blinken stressed “iron-clad American aid for Lithuania in the light of attempts at coercion by the People’s Republic of China, “after a meeting in DC with its Lithuanian counterpart.
The EU has so far been more ambiguous. In his recent strategic dialogue with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell defended Lithuania, but also made an effort to reassure Beijing that the EU did not question its “China” policy.
“The EU and its Member States have an interest in developing cooperation with Taiwan, a like-minded and important economic partner in the region, without any recognition of statehood,” he told Wang.
On Tuesday, the 27 EU leaders gathered for a dinner involving a discussion on EU-China relations, in which Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda urged his peers to send a message of “unity” to China. The dinner ended with what Borrell called “a very interesting debate.”
“There is a great deal of bipolarity between China and the United States on the one hand, and on the other hand there is a multipolarity of actors,” he said. “And Europeans must act; Europeans must create a common strategic culture to share the challenges they face.”
While the EU’s strategic compass is still being worked out, one thing is clear: Lithuania – with 2.8 million inhabitants – has pushed the issue of Taiwan and relations with China more prominently on the EU agenda in a way that leaders in Beijing and many European capitals have been avoided for years.
And at the moment, Vilnius at least shows no sign of backing up.
Lithuania insists it had no intention of disturbing Beijing, and several high-level Lithuanian officials said they would like to fight the blow, but there does not appear to be any sign of rapprochement. On the contrary, a Taiwanese government-led trade delegation will soon be visiting Lithuania as well as the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
“A solution to this situation depends on both sides. We are ready to speak, but we would not be ready to reconsider … our decision,” Nausėda told POLITICO in an interview. “There are many representative offices in the EU that were set up [by Taiwan] in the last 20, 25 years. And Lithuania did nothing special in this regard. ”
Nothing to lose
Lithuania is not the first EU country to get into a diplomatic mess with Beijing – but it is unusual for it to have little to lose by spitting.
Countries such as France and Germany have significant business relations with China, making it difficult for their leaders to take critical positions, even on issues such as allegations of genocide and forced labor in China’s farthest western Xinjiang region. Other governments, such as Greece or Hungary, are dependent on Chinese investment.
When a Spanish court in 2013 ordered the international arrest warrant for five retired top communist officials for crimes against humanity in Tibet, Madrid – aware that large amounts of government bonds were in Chinese hands – quickly moved to the water. Recently, Sweden has been reluctant to escalate a disagreement over human rights to the EU level, as Gui Minhai, a Swedish-Chinese bookseller who published titles critical of the Communist Party (and Chinese President Xi Jinping personally), was imprisoned for 10 years.
Lithuania, on the other hand, has few business relations with China. “Could you believe that we invested 10 times more in China than China in Lithuania?” said a senior official in Vilnius, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There were three million euros in Chinese investment – yes in this country, only three million from China. Our companies invested almost 40 million euros in China,” he said, adding: “The big China is small.”
A good example is the deep-sea port of Klaipėda, 300 km west of the capital Vilnius, where Lithuania has withheld investment from state-owned China Merchants Group over security issues. “China was interested in investing more in our infrastructure and other sectors that are sensitive to national security,” Nausėda said. “But we have a national screening system for such strategic investments.”
The Chinese ambassador to Vilnius, Shen Zhifei, agreed with the Baltic Times just before he was recalled, dismissing the claim and criticizing Lithuania’s own lack of vision.
“Trade is not only determined by the size of a country. Even a small country like Lithuania can become big players like Singapore and the Netherlands,” he said, according to a printout on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Lithuania must still present a friendly and responsible image to Chinese consumers.”
Freedom to criticize
Lithuania — a country whose post-Cold War identity has revolved around the struggle against communism and authoritarianism — has rarely failed to use its freedom to criticize.
Vytautas Landsbergis, leader of the independence movement, had a cold relationship with Beijing. During a visit to the Great Hall of the People in 2000, Landsbergis, then speaking for the Lithuanian Parliament, began a blunt conversation about Tibet and human rights.
His host, Li Peng, a former Chinese prime minister and then chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, was not satisfied. “Li Peng did not eat his dessert and left,” said a person attending the dinner, on condition of anonymity. “Everyone should get up and go too.”
A few months later, Li cut off a scheduled two-day visit to Lithuania shortly after he discovered that the Lithuanian parliament was holding an international meeting on the crimes of communism. The Chinese delegation left after only a few hours after meeting officials, including Landsbergis, but never left the airport.
Fast forward 20 years and the Lithuanian government – where Landsbergis’ grandson, Gabrielius Landsbergis, is foreign minister – has shown a similar disregard for Chinese pressure if it does not move forward.
Just half a year into his first term as minister, the younger Landsbergis declared in an interview with POLITICO that Lithuania would withdraw from China’s “17 + 1” diplomatic platform with Central and Eastern Europe.
The country has also donated COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan, offered humanitarian visas to Hong Kongers and sounded the alarm about security risks related to Chinese-made Xiaomi mobile phones.
“China under Xi Jinping is becoming revanchist, increasingly belligerent – even authoritarianism is no longer an appropriate adjective,” Lithuania’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mantas Adomėnas told POLITICO.
It is time, he said, for the EU to go beyond defensive trade policy against China. “Change through trade, the German formula for change through trade does not work, ”he added. “When we face an era where our geopolitical considerations will emerge, economic intrusion can become a responsibility or something that can be exploited, instrumentalized or even armed.”
Economy Minister Aušrinė Armonaitė, leader of the Liberal Freedom Party, is particularly keen to develop ties with Taiwan. On a visit to Washington last month, she met the Taiwanese ambassador Hsiao Bi-khim, a close confidant of President Tsai Ing-wen. It will be up to Armonaitė to appoint the country’s next top envoy to Taiwan, as the post will not be a diplomatic secondment – which for Beijing is actually milder than the EU or UK arrangement, where their top envoys in Taipei are actually diplomats.
Meanwhile, Lithuanian President Nausėda continues to pressure his EU colleagues to join him in presenting a common front against Beijing. He has repeatedly proposed holding a “27 + 1” meeting with Xi, an idea that was once advocated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel before being derailed by the coronavirus pandemic and a deterioration in EU-China relations on human rights sanctions. . Although it is perfectly normal for every leader to trade with Nausėda bilaterally with China, it is important to remember the collective geopolitical power of the EU.
“It would be much more effective and solid if leaders speak one voice,” Nausėda said.
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