As a Baltic state, one would assume that Lithuania’s top foreign policy priority is dealing with Russia. While this is true, recently Lithuania has adopted a robust stance against the other major threat to the West: China.
This year, a series of events have led to worsening bilateral relations between Vilnius and Beijing. China has recalled its ambassador in Lithuania, downgraded its diplomatic relations with Lithuania and, most recently, Lithuania pulled out all of its diplomatic staff from China. But why have relations soured?
The answer lies in Taiwan. In July, the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) announced it would establish a Taiwanese Representative Office (a de facto embassy) in Lithuania. The MOFA said that both countries share the fundamental values of freedom, democracy and respect for human rights and thus would benefit from increased cooperation.
In November, the office was officially opened, making it the first Taiwanese embassy in Europe in 18 years and, as expected, China was not happy about this diplomatic rapprochement. In a typical coercive and threat-ridden statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressed “strong protest” at the “egregious act” and said Lithuania would be responsible for “all ensuing consequences”.
China’s opposition to the opening of the Taiwanese office lies in its insistence of its ‘One-China policy’, which views Taiwan as a breakaway province instead of the independent and vibrant democracy that it is. Due to this, most of Taiwan’s diplomatic offices abroad use ‘Taipei’ rather than ‘Taiwan’ in their title to conform with the Beijing-proscribed view of the island.
Yet despite stern words from Beijing, Lithuania has managed to stay strong and fight back against China’s coercion.
Following China’s decision in August to recall its ambassador in Lithuania, in September the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defense (MND) officially advised people against buying Chinese smartphones and said those who had already bought them should throw them away. Lithuania also announced that it would develop its 5G communications network without the involvement of any Chinese companies, citing “safety concerns”. Even before the current diplomatic crisis, Lithuania had rebuffed China by being the only person to leave the 17+1 economic cooperation forum between China and several central and eastern European countries. On more than one occasion, Lithuania has led by example in pushing back against China’s growing influence.
The current approach adopted by Lithuania towards China is best described in the words of Gabrielius Landsbergis, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister. In mid-November he told reporters that economic relations established with democratic states are “more sustainable” and because they are based on “the principle of the rule of law” they are more “in line” with Lithuania’s interests.
Fundamentally, Vilnius recognises that China is an authoritarian, anti-competitive and repressive state with whom it doesn’t want close relations with, and so is adopting the corresponding foreign policy.
There is also a historical motivation behind Lithuania’s policies, as its history means it holds an innate scepticism towards Communist regimes. Moreover, in 1990 it was the first country to declare its independence from the Soviet Union, and since then freedom, democracy and human rights have become the values Lithuanian politicians advocate for most strongly.
An important point must be raised that Lithuania’s pushback against China has partly been possible because, unlike other European countries, it is not economically reliant on China.
Lithuania’s exports to China total approximately $350 million whilst imports are worth around $1.4 billion. By contrast, China is Germany’s main trading partner with 213.2 billion euros worth of trade (imports and exports) in 2020 whilst in the same year China overtook the United States to become the EU’s largest trading partner with $709 billion worth of trade. Thus, because of the comparatively smaller level of economic reliance on China, Lithuania has significantly more room to craft a foreign policy that aligns with its ethical values.
That being said, there have been some encouraging signs from the EU showing that, in spite of deep economic relations with China, in can stand up to Beijing. For example, China’s unofficial ban on Lithuania as a trading partner was lifted after just four days due to pressure from the EU. In early December, Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU’s commissioner for economy and trade, unveiled a plan to prevent EU member states being “bossed around” by external actors.
The plan targets instances of “economic coercion” to achieve political compliance with measures including import bans and the freezing of EU subsidies. Lastly, the European Commission recently announced a $476 billion “Global Gateway” program for infrastructure funding in developing countries that would rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative. All are welcome steps that unequivocally show China it’s bully-like behaviour will not continue without a response.
Ultimately, Lithuania’s China’s policy is one to be admired. They have pushed back against Beijing’s coercive tactics and when China increased its attacks it remained firm. China’s ascension to becoming the EU’s main trading partner shows it has no intention of leaving Europe, meaning countries must think hard about how to deal with China. In crafting their policy, they should start by looking at Lithuania.