Beijing is not happy with Lithuania for deepening its ties with Taiwan, so this summer it initiated an economic bullying campaign to punish the Baltic state, including by halting the export of certain Lithuanian products to China.
But no amount of trade pressure can dissuade Vilnius from aligning itself closer with Taipei now. Something bigger than its trade ties with Beijing is at stake — and it has the support of friends across the West: “We, the Chairs of Foreign Affairs Committees, strongly condemn the political, diplomatic, and economic pressure of People’s Republic of China on Lithuania,” wrote senior parliamentarians from 14 countries in a letter in support of Lithuania.
The group included Senator Bob Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as U.K. MP Tom Tugendhat, and their counterparts from the Czech Republic, European Parliament, France, Germany, and others.
“The interference in the internal affairs of a European Union and NATO state are neither welcome nor appropriate,” they also wrote.
Their defense of Lithuania and Taiwan marks an important new trend: Beijing’s opponents are banding together, making it all the more difficult for the Chinese Communist Party to exert its will on other countries.
The moves that kicked off this spat were a long time coming, and the strength of the international response to Beijing’s bullying will be a bellwether for Western resolve to confront it.
In July, Taiwan and Lithuania announced plans to open reciprocal representative diplomatic offices in their countries; the facilities will serve the functions of embassies in everything but name. Lithuania does not officially recognize Taiwan. The new Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania will be the only such facility in Europe.
China responded predictably the next month, recalling its ambassador to Lithuania and demanding that Vilnius’s envoy in Beijing leave. A Lithuanian MP noted at the time that Beijing’s diplomatic demands coincided with Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s move to release a large group of migrants that appeared at Lithuania’s borders. The Chinese Communist Party “did this EXACTLY on the day when our Parliament gathered to extraordinary session to defend from Lukashenko’s hybrid attack,” Dovile Sakaliene, the MP, wrote on Twitter.
Lithuania knows a thing or two about defending itself from a hulking authoritarian menace in its neighborhood, an experience that has clearly colored its ties with Beijing over the years.
As a revanchist Russia has sought to expand its influence in Europe, Lithuania is one of a group of countries on the vanguard of the effort to push back against those efforts. In April, it expelled Russian diplomats over revelations that Russian intelligence officers carried out a 2014 bombing in the Czech Republic.
More recently, Lithuania has pushed back against Chinese influence in Europe. Its decision to seek closer ties with Taiwan followed the country’s withdrawal from the 17+1 group — a diplomatic initiative that brought 17 Eastern and Central European countries together for talks with China on a range of issues. It faced criticism for dividing Europe — its membership is drawn from the EU but doesn’t include all of its 27 member countries — in negotiations with China. So Vilnius pulled out in May, with foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis saying, “The EU is strongest when all 27 member states act together along with EU institutions.”
Interestingly, Chinese state media has highlighted the potential for Sino–Russian cooperation on punishing Lithuania. A Global Times editorial on August 11 said China and Russia should “strike against” Lithuania together.
The Kremlin hasn’t weighed in on this yet, but the very prospect of coordination between Russian and China on confronting tiny democracies in their neighborhoods is chilling nonetheless. Thankfully, as the lawmakers’ letter indicates, Lithuania and Taiwan can go a long way toward building out an international front against authoritarian repression.