The declaration of opening of a ‘Taiwanese Representative Office’ in Vilnius and a trade office in Taipei, follows a series of policy decisions taken by the Lithuanian government that has bought its bilateral relations with China tothe forefront. The reciprocal opening of offices has prompted Beijing to recall its ambassador from Vilnius—the first time it has done so with a country in the European Union (EU)—limit its trade with Lithuania, and curtail rail freight services. The standoff, so far, appears to have reached an impasse. This paper traces the timeline of events that led to the standoff between Lithuania and China, and provides an overall assessment of the situation.
Timeline of Events
The release of the National Threat Assessment (2019), can be considered the first shift in the Lithuanian foreign policy outlook towards China. The report prepared by Lithuanian intelligence identified various Chinese espionage activities within the country and states that “China’s domestic policy issues drive Chinese intelligence activities in Lithuania…it seeks that Lithuania would not support independence of Tibet and Taiwan and would not address these issues at the international level.”[i] Similarly, the 2021 report[ii] identified ways in which China launched its massive propaganda to expand its influence in Lithuania during the pandemic.
The new government that was elected in October 2020 also took a tough stand on China. The Coalition pledged that the new government would carry out a ‘values-based foreign policy,’ stating that it “will actively oppose any violation of human rights and democratic freedoms, and will defend those who are fighting for freedom around the world, from Belarus to Taiwan”.[iii] This has been followed by series of measures taken by Lithuanian government regarding its policy towards China.A key step was the withdrawal from the 17+1 group, which Lithuania called as ‘divisive’. The Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that “From our perspective, it is high time for the EU to move from a dividing 16+1 format to a more uniting and therefore much more efficient 27+1”, adding that “The EU is strongest when all 27 member states act together along with EU institutions”.[iv]
Another key step taken was the adoption of a resolution[v]by Lithuanian Seimas (parliament) on 20 May 2021 condemning China’s actions in Hong Kong, “crimes against humanity” and “the Uyghur genocide”. The resolution, “strongly condemned China’s massive, systematic and grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity”. Declaring it as interference in China’s domestic affairs,Beijing’s Embassy called the resolution a “total disregard of the solemn position of the Chinese side as well as facts about the great achievement in human rights protection in Xinjiang and other parts of China”. Adding “some members of Seimas cooked up the resolution against China, which is another shoddy political show based on lies and disinformation”.
In March 2021, Lithuania declared its plans to open a trade representative office in Taiwan with an aim to boost economic diplomacy in Asia. This prompted a sharp response from China with its Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin stating that Beijing is “firmly against the mutual establishment of official agencies and official exchanges in all forms between Taiwan region and countries having diplomatic relations with China including Lithuania”, urging Vilnius to “refuse to be taken advantage of by Taiwan separatist forces”.[vi]Beijing’s Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council opposed the development and “urged Lithuania to abide by the one-China principle and not to send wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence forces”.[vii]Taipei, for its part, declared in July 2021 the opening of a ‘Taiwanese Representative Office’ in Lithuania, the first office in Europe to be called Taiwanese, to promote economic relations and cultural exchanges.
The declaration of the opening of the trade representative office in Taiwan has resulted in Lithuania-China bilateral relations coming to a standstill. In response to the move by Lithuania, China recalled its ambassador to Vilniuson 10 August and demanded the Baltic nation withdraw its envoy from Beijing. Lithuanian Ambassador to China was recalled on 3 September 2021.[viii]China is also curtailing its trade with Lithuania. According to reports[ix], while the Lithuanian food producers continue to export their products to China, Beijing cancelled its freight trains to Lithuania amid the rising political tensions. The State Food and Veterinary Service department also noted that the process of approving new export permits by China to Lithuania has stopped.
In an opinion piece on Beijing’s decision to apply national security legislation in Hong Kong, in June 2020[x], Mantas Adomėnas (Former member of Siemas) and Gabrielius Landsbergis (current Foreign Minister), wrote Lithuania “must make a choice: will she stand with her oldest and most trusted allies, the USA and the United Kingdom, with democratic Taiwan and the freedom-loving Hong Kong people – or with the totalitarian and predatory Chinese Communist regime?” What stood out in that opinion piece was reference to Taiwan at least eight times with a recommendation to “strengthen her (Lithuania) relations with Taiwan and support its political recognition in the international community as a de facto independent democratic state governed by the rule of law.”[xi] Since then, Lithuania has taken various measures to make that choice.
Opening of the representative office marks an important change with the use of “Taiwan” instead of “Taipei”. This is the first time that the island’s name has been used in an institution representing the country in the EU state. For Lithuania, its policy decisions have a two-fold consequence – first,geo-strategically it pushes Lithuania into the limelight as a country which stood its ground against an economically and politically powerful country. Further, these measures come at a time when there is a wider discontent in several EU countries regarding the attitude adopted by Beijing, especially in the aftermath of the Covid pandemic. Commenting on the issue, the EU’s spokesperson, Nabila Massrali said: “We regret the Chinese action, and are following developments closely…We do not regard the opening of a representative office in or from Taiwan (as opposed to an embassy or consulate) as a breach of the EU’s One China policy”[xii], adding that these actions would also impact overall EU-China relations. Similarly, the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored “ironclad US solidarity with its NATO ally and EU partner Lithuania in the face of the People’s Republic of China’s coercive behaviour”.[xiii]
Second, if looked at from the economic perspective, the curtailing of rail freight and suspension of permits is not going to radically impact the Lithuanian economy as it has limited economic dependence on China. The total trade between China and Lithuania was approximately US$1.6 billion in 2020, with the trade balance in favour of China. Lithuania’s total imports from China was US$1.3 billion in 2020 and exports at US$ 357 million. China ranks 20th in Lithuania’s export destinations and 7th in terms of imports[xiv]. Technologically as well, Lithuania has taken measures to curtail the presence of Chinese equipment in the country.It banned Huawei from the country’s 5G network[xv]and also blocked China’s state-controlled Nuctech from installing X-ray baggage scanning equipment at Lithuanian airports over national security concerns. As China is not one of Lithuania’s top trade partners, the actions by Vilinus will have considerably less impact on its economy as compared with other European countries. This could also help Lithuanian economy pivot towards newer markets in the Asian region, thereby expanding its own economic and diplomatic footprint.
In short, Lithuania’s changing engagement with Beijing, along with its intention to seek trade relations with Taiwan, is an extraordinary move for any EU country. While the EU has lent initial support to Lithuania -the real test will be how far this support can be sustained given the fractured nature of its own policy towards China. Another key question is whether any other EU member states will follow the same route.So far, Lithuania appears to be a lone country charting a new course of action towards Beijing. Whether the path is sustainable in the long run or not, remains to be seen.
*Dr Ankita Dutta is a Research Fellow at the Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views are of the author.
[i]‘National Threat Assessment-2019’, State Security Department of the Republic of Lithuania and Defence Intelligence and Security Service Under the Ministry of National Defence https://www.vsd.lt/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/2019-Gresmes-internetui-EN.pdf, Accessed on 14 September 2021
[ii]‘National Threat Assessment-2021’, State Security Department of the Republic of Lithuania and Defence Intelligence and Security Service Under the Ministry of National Defence, https://www.vsd.lt/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/2021-EN-el_.pdf, Accessed on 14 September 2021
[iii]Reuters, 9 November 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lithuania-china-idUSKBN27P1PQ, Accessed on 14 September 2021
[iv]Politico, 21 May 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/lithuania-pulls-out-china-17-1-bloc-eastern-central-europe-foreign-minister-gabrielius-landsbergis/, Accessed on 15 September 2021
[v]Lrt.lt, 20 May 2021, https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1413940/lithuanian-parliament-passes-resolution-condemning-uighur-genocide-in-china, Accessed on 15 September 2021
[vi]ANI, 5 March 2021, https://www.aninews.in/news/world/asia/lithuania-says-it-will-open-trade-office-in-taiwan-china-hits-back20210305165255/, Accessed on 16 September 2021
[vii]‘Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council: Oppose the development of official relations between the country that has diplomatic relations with China and the Taiwan region of China’, Taiwan Work Office of CPC Central Committee, 20 July 2021, http://www.gwytb.gov.cn/xwdt/xwfb/wyly/202107/t20210720_12367042.htm, Accessed on 16 September 2021
[ix]Baltic Times, 22 August 2021, https://www.baltictimes.com/beijing_stops_approving_new_permits_for_lithuanian_food_exports_to_china___service/, Accessed on 17 September 2021
[x]15min.lt, 11 June 2020, https://www.15min.lt/en/article/opinion/lithuania-it-s-time-for-choosing-530-1331612, Accessed on 20 September 2021
[xii]Politico, 10 August 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/china-recalls-its-ambassador-to-lithuania/, Accessed on 20 September 2021
[xiii]Reuters, 22 August 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/us-lends-support-lithuania-against-china-pressure-2021-08-22/, Accessed on 20 September 2021
[xiv]Lrt.lt, 15 March 2021,https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1364936/can-china-punish-lithuania-over-support-for-taiwan-analysis, Accessed on 20 September 2021
[xv]Ltr.lt,25 May 2021, https://www.lrt.lt/en/news-in-english/19/1417429/lithuania-bans-unreliable-technologies-from-its-5g-network, Accessed on 15 September 2021