Pulling the dragon’s tail: Lithuania defies China

Lithuania has unexpectedly become one of the loudest critics of China on the international stage. Why is this so and will Lithuania be forced to pay for pulling the eastern dragon by the tail?

The opening of a Taiwan representative office in Lithuania – with “Taiwan” being used in the name instead of “Taipei” – is the latest and loudest move by Lithuania that has angered China, but it is not the only one. In May, Lithuania pulled out of China’s “17+1” bloc that it uses to further cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries. Additionally, the Lithuanian parliament harshly condemned crimes against humanity in China, as well as the Uyghur genocide.

Why has Lithuanian taken a stance so drastically different from that of Latvia or Estonia? China scholar and Head of the Riga Stradins University Doctoral Studies Program in Political Science Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova points out several reasons for this. The economic cooperation with China was not as astoundingly fruitful as initially believed, and China’s arch rival the US is an essential provider of security for Lithuania.

There are two additional aspects that differentiate Lithuania from its Baltic sisters. The first is the policy of values carried out by the current Lithuanian government, especially new Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis – the grandson of Lithuanian freedom fighter Vytautas Landsbergis.

The second is a string of unpleasant diplomatic incidents that have taken place in recent history. On 23 August 2019, when events dedicated to the Baltic Way took place, several hundred people held hands in Vilnius in solidarity with the citizens of Hong Kong. This lead to a confrontation with a loud group of pro-China supporters. It was later reported that this counter-protest was organized by the Chinese ambassador to Lithuania. The next incident that aggravated the Lithuanian public was when a Chinese tourist vandalized the Hill of Crosses, i.e. she pulled out and threw away a cross that had a message in support of Hong Kong.

The latest incident concerned the Hong Kong Way – a publication appeared in a Chinese government-controlled newspaper arguing that the Baltic Way was useless and that the Baltic peoples now live in worse conditions than they did when part of the Soviet Union.
Such activities have not taken place in Latvia or Estonia, therefore their stance, at least for now, is different. This may, however, change.

Diplomatic and economic weapons

Despite Lithuania taking anti-China steps for several months now, the harshest reaction was triggered by the opening of Taiwan’s representative office. It is well known that China is extremely sensitive about territorial issues. The Chinese government considers Taiwan a part of China’s territory and wants to globally isolate it and prevent the name “Taiwan” from being used. And because no one wants to anger China, Taiwan’s representative offices across the world are called “Taipei missions”.

China began by using the diplomatic weapons in its arsenal. China’s ambassador to Vilnius was recalled for consultations, while China demanded that Lithuania recall its ambassador in Beijing and correct its “wrong decision” concerning the Taiwan representative office. This month, the newspaper Global Times, owned by the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper People’s Daily, has published several hateful articles involving Lithuania.

China should join hands with Russia and Belarus – two countries that border Lithuania – and punish it,” an editorial published on 11 August expressed.

China and Russia should jointly punish one or two of America’s lapdogs to send a message to other countries.”
When Lithuania refused to change its stance, China began employing economic weapons.

Over the last few weeks, Lithuanian producers are reporting that new export licenses are no longer being issued, the amount of available loans has been decreased and rail freight has been suspended.

On the one hand, this feels serious, but on the other it seems that they are testing the waters – basically they expect us to give in. But it won’t happen under the current government,” world news journalist for the Lithuanian news website 15min.lt Gintaras Radauskas expressed. He added that the current government of Lithuania is notably anti-communist, and when discussing China the term “communist” is frequently used. The government often stresses the situation in Xinjiang, repressions against Hong Kong and Taiwan and the attempts to economically “outplay” European countries.

The greatest cause of concern is whether this will be a short-term situation or will it last much longer. The Lithuanian government is being actively criticized by the China-Baltic Association for Industry and Business. The association is responsible for furthering trade relations with China and argues that the current situation brings harm to real people and their jobs. Meanwhile, a small group of Tibet activists advocate for more pressure to be applied to China.

However, the financial stakes are not as high (and the public, according to Radauskas, is not particularly interested in this topic) to cause greater political commotion. “The situation of Lithuania cannot be compared with the extent of cooperation between China and the more larger European countries. Considering the fact that the economy of Lithuania does not depend on China, it is unlikely that this will be a deciding factor,” Bērziņa-Čerenkova notes.

It is also possible that Lithuania truly believes that this will be the century of Asia, but doesn’t see China being in the center of it. This is demonstrated by it pulling out of the 17+1 format, as well as by its attempts to diversify its representations in East Asia by opening embassies in Singapore and South Korea. “This is being formulated as cooperation with the flourishing and economically highly developed East Asian democracies,” Bērziņa-Čerenkova adds.

Will Latvia follow the example of Lithuania?

The US government has expressed support for Lithuania’s policies at the highest level. On 21 August, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a telephone conversation with Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis agreed that “China’s one-sided aggressive actions and political pressure towards Lithuania are unacceptable”. Blinken promised that the US will help Lithuania endure China’s pressure, but it has not been specified how exactly this will be done.
Europe too is on the side of Lithuania: in a joint statement, heads of 11 European nations (including Latvia), the European Parliament and the US’ foreign affairs committees “urge Lithuania to maintain the current course in standing against China’s aggressive behavior”.

There are two possible scenarios – either China will find a way to deal with Lithuania and send a signal to other countries, or it will not risk to further deteriorate the already wobbly relations with the European Union. Bērziņa-Čerenkova believes the latter is the most likely one.

Does this mean the remaining Baltic states will follow the example of Lithuania?

Latvia is currently in a stand-by mode. Bērziņa-Čerenkova argues that it is unlikely that Latvia or Estonia will be as active as Lithuania, as its situation is motivated by internal factors that are not present the other Baltic nations. “I believe the Lithuanian scenario will not play out in the remaining Baltic states – they could just wait or slowly and quietly withdraw from the different cooperation formats with China.”

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