By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
China picked a fight with Lithuania over its decision to exchange diplomatic offices with Taiwan, opening a new fight between China and Europe that could be a bellwether for Beijing’s ability to bend small countries to its will.
The showdown appears to have degenerated into a stalemate. Beijing recalled its ambassador from Vilnius—the first time it has done so with a country in the European Union—limited trade with Lithuania, and suspended rail freight services between the two countries. Despite the pressure campaign from a country with a GDP more than 260 times the size of Lithuania’s, Vilnius will not back down, its foreign minister said in a recent interview.
“There are no plans currently to remove the option of opening the representation [office] in Taipei,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told Foreign Policy in a recent interview. “We’re still going with it.”
Landsbergis said he was committed to finding a diplomatic solution to the impasse. “I’m always convinced that there was a way to resolve this in a dignified manner,” he said.
But he suggested China’s hardball tactics could eventually backfire, citing Australia’s case. After Canberra called for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus and blocked Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from building its 5G network, Beijing hit back with a volley of retaliatory trade moves last year. Australia has so far refused to budge, and top government officials said it was ready to take economic hits to defend its sovereignty.
“Sometimes it’s quite the opposite—the pressure increases resilience rather than breaks the country,” Landsbergis said. He also said Lithuania could be a “canary in the coal mine” for how smaller countries react to political and economic pressure from China.
“We understand that China is collecting its muscle, global muscle in order to put enough pressure on other countries in order to swing them towards the direction that they would like. But then again, I think that as with Australia, I think that there’s a chance that the countries can find a way out of this pressure.”
China views the independently governed island of Taiwan as part of its territory and has vowed to retake it, by force if necessary, even though the Chinese Communist Party has never governed the island. In recent years, Beijing has ramped up pressure on the diminishing number of countries that recognize Taiwan over China to change allegiances, including Panama in 2017 and the Solomon Islands in 2019. Fifteen countries, primarily small countries in Latin America and the Asia Pacific, still recognize Taiwan.
But the ruling coalition in Lithuania last year signaled it was ready to make a stand on the matter when it called for a “values-based foreign policy,” specifically citing the fight to defend democratic freedoms from “Belarus to Taiwan.” That came as Lithuania looked to expand its economic and diplomatic ties across Asia. It opened an embassy in Australia in 2020 and plans to establish embassies in South Korea and Singapore in the near future.
The catalyst for China’s dispute with Vilnius lies in the name of the new representative office. The Taiwanese government in July announced its new office in Vilnius would be called the “Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania.” Other countries that recognize Beijing, including the United States, have representative offices with Taiwan but refer to them as Taipei offices, named after the capital of Taiwan, to avoid diplomatic spats with Beijing in referring to the island itself.
The United States has signaled support for Lithuania in the David-versus-Goliath spat. Last month, both U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman had separate calls with Landsbergis in which they discussed the matter. “Blinken underscored ironclad U.S. solidarity with our NATO ally and EU partner Lithuania in the face of the People’s Republic of China’s coercive behavior,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said of Blinken’s call with Landsbergis.
The China-Lithuania dispute has sharpened the growing divide between many European Union and NATO member countries and China as it steps into its new role as a new global superpower. The EU has tried, not always successfully, to balance human rights and other democratic values with its growing economic ties with China. Seven years of talks between the EU and China over a trade and investment agreement ground to a halt in May, after EU lawmakers delayed the approval of the deal over China’s sweeping human rights violations against its minority Uyghur population in Xinjiang. The United States has labeled the crackdown on Uyghurs as a genocide.
Lithuania, which gained independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, has emerged as one of the staunchest defenders of democratic values and human rights in the EU, even as several other EU members have been accused of cozying up to China and Russia.
Lithuania’s stance on promoting democracy beyond its borders has led to a separate geopolitical squeeze closer to home. Lithuania has agreed to host opposition leaders from neighboring Belarus after Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko’s sweeping crackdown on pro-democracy protests last year. Lukashenko’s moves were supported by Russia.
Lukashenko, in turn, flew in migrants from abroad, primarily Iraq and the Middle East, and pushed them across the border with Lithuania into EU territory. Lithuania and other EU bloc countries have accused Lukashenko of engineering a migrant crisis and weaponizing refugees to ramp up pressure on the EU. On Tuesday, Poland announced a state of emergency on its border with Belarus in response.
Belarus is not a member of either the EU or NATO but borders three countries—Lithuania, Poland, and Latvia—that are.
Landsbergis said his government was working to return the migrants who made it over the Lithuanian border to their home countries. “The hope is that we would be able to return to as many as possible,” he said.
He also said many more migrants are still trapped in Belarus with nowhere to go. He estimated the number of migrants stuck in Belarus is between 5,000 and 11,000 people. “Belarus now has the migration crisis that Lukashenko brought upon himself,” he said.
Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer