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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 application to set up a “Taiwanese” representative office in the country. The use of this name offended Beijing, which insists the island is part of China and prefers to use “Taipei” instead.
The argument quickly escalated. Although Vilnius insisted that the move did not reflect a challenge to Beijing’s “one China” policy, the decision – the first of its kind in Europe – was seen by many as a potential first step towards the eventual recognition of Taiwan as a country in its own right.
China recalled its ambassador, a diplomatic form of protest it had not used in years, and insisted that Lithuania withdraw its ambassador. The freight train service connecting Vilnius under the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative has been discontinued; likewise the new licenses that Lithuanian food exporters applied for. Initial expectations that Lithuania could become a major EU destination for Chinese fintech investors have almost dissipated.
“It’s like the classic Chinese proverb: ‘Kill a chicken to scare the monkey,'” said a senior EU diplomat in China, asking for anonymity as he was not allowed to speak publicly. “Beijing is sending a message that anyone who follows Lithuania’s example and dares to oppose it will face dire consequences. And a message like this can best be tested in a smaller country.”
Beijing is now watching whether the monkey – the European Union – takes the side of the chicken or its butcher.
On the agenda
The United States has already supported Vilnius; Foreign Minister Antony Blinken underlined last month “iron US support” for Lithuania in the face of attempted coercion by the People’s Republic of China, “after meeting his Lithuanian counterpart in DC.
The EU has been more ambiguous so far. In his most recent strategic dialogue with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell defended Lithuania, but also tried to reassure Beijing that the EU would not question its “one China” policy.
“The EU and its member states have an interest in working with Taiwan, a like-minded and important economic partner in the region, without recognition of statehood,” he told Wang.
On Tuesday, the 27 EU leaders gathered for a dinner that included a discussion on EU-China relations, at which Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda urged colleagues to send a message of “unity” in the face of China . Dinner ended with something Borrell called “a very interesting debate.”
“On the one hand there is a large bipolarity between China and the US, and on the other hand there is a multipolarity of the actors,” he said. “And the Europeans have to act; Europeans need to 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 its 2.8 million inhabitants, has put Taiwan and relations with China on the EU agenda in the fight against Beijing, Beijing and many European capitals have been avoiding Beijing since Years.
And for the moment, at least, Vilnius is showing no signs of backing down.
Lithuania insists it had no intention of angering Beijing, and several senior Lithuanian officials said they would like to end the spit, but there appear to be no signs of rapprochement in the pipelines. On the contrary, a Taiwanese government-led trade delegation will soon be visiting Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
“A solution to this situation depends on both sides. We are ready to talk, but we would not be ready to reconsider our decision,” said Nausėda in an interview with POLITICO. “In the European Union there are many representative offices that have been set up [by Taiwan] in the past 20, 25 years. And Lithuania has done 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 that it has little to lose from the dispute.
Countries like France and Germany have significant business ties with China, making it difficult for their leaders to take critical positions, even on issues such as genocide and forced labor allegations in China’s westernmost region, Xinjiang. Other governments like Greece or Hungary are dependent on Chinese investments.
When a Spanish court issued international arrest warrants for five top retired communist officials in Tibet for crimes against humanity in 2013, Madrid quickly stalled, realizing that large amounts of government bonds were in Chinese hands. More recently, Sweden was reluctant to escalate a human rights disagreement at the EU level when Gui Minhai, a Swedish-Chinese bookseller who published anti-partisan titles (and Chinese President Xi Jinping personally), 10 years in prison.
Lithuania, on the other hand, has few business relationships with China. “Could you believe that we invested ten times more in China than China invested in Lithuania?” said a senior official in Vilnius on condition of anonymity. There were “Chinese investments worth three million euros – yes, in this country only three million from China. Our companies have invested almost 40 million euros in China, “he said, adding:” Big China is small. “
A typical example is the deep-water port of Klaipėda, 300 km west of the capital Vilnius, where Lithuania is investing state-owned Chinese dealer group about security concerns. “China was keen to invest more in our infrastructure and other sectors that are sensitive to national security,” said Nausėda. “But we have a national screening system for such strategic investments.”
Chinese Ambassador to Vilnius Shen Zhifei denied the claim and criticized Lithuania’s own lack of vision just before he was recalled.
“Trade is not only determined by the size of a country. Even a small country like Lithuania could become big players like Singapore and the Netherlands,” he said, according to a transcript on the website of the Federal Foreign Office. “Lithuania still has to offer Chinese consumers a friendly and responsible image.”
Freedom to criticize
Lithuania – a country whose identity after the Cold War revolved around the struggle against communism and authoritarianism – has rarely shied away from using its freedom of criticism.
Vytautas Landsbergis, a leader of the independence movement, had a frosty relationship with Beijing. During a visit to the Great Hall of the People in 2000, Landsbergis, the then Speaker of 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 pleased. “Li Peng didn’t eat his dessert and left,” said one person who was present at dinner on condition of anonymity. “Everyone also had to get up and leave.”
A few months later, Li cancel a planned two-day visit to Lithuania shortly after learning that the Lithuanian Parliament was holding an international meeting on the crimes of communism. The Chinese delegation left just hours after meeting with officials including Landsbergis but never leaving the airport.
Twenty years later, the Lithuanian government – of which Landsbergi’s grandson Gabrielius Landsbergi’s foreign minister is – has shown a similar disregard for Chinese pressure, if not gone further.
Just six months after his first term as minister, the younger Landsbergis said in an interview with POLITICO that Lithuania would withdraw from China’s diplomatic “17 + 1” platform with Central and Eastern Europe.
The country has also donated COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan, offered humanitarian visas to Hong Kong residents, and raised the alarm about security risks related to Xiaomi cellphones made in China.
“China under Xi Jinping is becoming revanchist, more and more bellicose – even authoritarian is no longer an adequate adjective,” Lithuanian deputy foreign minister Mantas Adomėnas told POLITICO.
It is time for the EU to go beyond a defensive trade policy against China. “Change through trade, the German formula for change through trade, is not working, ”he added. “When we face an era in which our geopolitical considerations come to the fore, economic interpenetration can become a burden or something that can be exploited, instrumentalized, or even used as a weapon.”
Economy Minister Aušrinė Armonaitė, leader of the Liberal Freedom Party, is particularly interested in building relations with Taiwan. On a visit to Washington last month, she met the Taiwanese ambassador Hsiao Bi-khim, a close confidante of President Tsai Ing-wen. It will be up to Armonaitė to appoint the country’s next top envoy for Taiwan, as the position is not a diplomatic posting – which is actually more lenient for Beijing than the EU or UK agreement on which their top Envoys in Taipei are actually diplomats.
Meanwhile, Lithuania’s President Nausėda continues to urge his EU colleagues to join him and present a common front against Beijing. He has repeatedly suggested holding a “27 + 1” meeting with Xi, an idea once championed by Chancellor Angela Merkel before she derailed from the coronavirus pandemic and deterioration in EU-China relations due to human rights sanctions became. For Nausėda, while it is perfectly normal for every head of state to negotiate bilaterally with China, it is important to remember the EU’s collective geopolitical power.
“It would be much more efficient and solid if the leaders spoke one voice,” said Nausėda.
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