Why a tiny nation in Europe dared to stand up to China

Lithuania and the United States cement closer relations after Washington talks to combat Beijing threats

In March 1990, Lithuania became the first republic to break away from the Soviet Union by declaring itself an independent state. The decision was applauded by the White House.

Thirty-three years later, the Baltic country of around 2.7 million people is making bold moves to counter China, the century’s rising global power, and finding support from Washington. 

It comes as the Biden administration seeks to leverage its transatlantic partnerships amid Western fears that Beijing is considering supplying Russia with weapons in its war on Ukraine.

High-level consultations were held this week in Washington between Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis and US National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell. 

A statement said they discussed a “shared commitment to democratic values, human rights and support for the international rules-based order” and “the importance of supply chain resiliency,” 

This was diplomatic speak for policies aimed to counter China’s influence.

Diplomatic relations

“We have long supported Lithuania in withstanding coercion by the PRC [the People’s Republic of China] and trying to turn that coercion into economic opportunity,” John Kirby, the National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told a media briefing.

“We’re going to continue to work together to strengthen Lithuania’s robust economic partnership with Taiwan, as well as developing and deepening those people-to-people ties,” Kirby said, using language from a joint statement by Landsbergis and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Days after the establishment in 2021 of the “Taipei Representative Office in Lithuania” or the island’s de facto embassy, Beijing downgraded diplomatic relations and blocked trade with Vilnius. Angered by the move, China called the decision a violation of the “One China” policy. 

The action prompted the European Union to sue China at the World Trade Organization over “discriminatory trade practices” against Lithuania that it said threatened the integrity of the EU single market. 

Joe Biden has a China dilemma. Courtesy of the White House

Beijing denies instructing Chinese companies to stop doing business with Lithuanian partners. Yet since the EU bloc country had minimal trade with China, Beijing’s punitive actions had limited effect. 

Still, in November 2021 the United States provided US$600 million in an export credit agreement to help the nation withstand pressure from China and joined the WTO lawsuit in support of Vilnius.

The consultation is happening amid a flurry of diplomatic activity in Washington. 

In recent and upcoming days, European NATO allies will decide whether to join Washington in imposing sanctions on China, should it decide to supply arms to Moscow.

President Joe Biden, who met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House last week, spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this week. He will now meet with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the coming days to discuss the matter.

So far, there is no indication that China is providing more than rhetorical support as it continues to purchase cheap Russian oil. Observers say Beijing’s interests are to ensure that the West’s focus remains on pouring resources into Ukraine, distracting it from the Indo-Pacific region.

Harsh criticisms

Even so, tensions are ramping up. In remarks during the annual session of parliament on Monday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a rare, explicit comment accusing the United States of leading an international coalition to contain China.

“Western countries led by the US have implemented comprehensive containment, encirclement, and suppression against us, bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development,” he said.

Xi’s comments were followed by harsh criticisms from new Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who blamed the US for deteriorating bilateral relations and for undermining peace efforts in Ukraine. White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden’s approach to China has not changed.

“We’ve been very clear – we do not seek conflict and we do not want conflict. What we’re seeking is competition, and we’ve been very clear about that these past two years,” she said in a media briefing earlier this week.

Lithuania is gearing up to hold a NATO summit. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Vilnius has emerged as one of Taipei’s most unlikely yet outspoken allies in Europe. In the 2020 election, the ruling coalition set out to pursue a “values-based foreign policy” to defend “those fighting for freedom around the world, from Belarus to Taiwan.”

The new strategy translated into steps that angered Beijing, including criticizing China for its handling of a World Health Organization study into the origins of Covid-19. 

Vilnius also accused Chinese smartphone manufacturers of building censorship capabilities into their products and withdrawing from the “17+1” initiative established by Beijing to strengthen ties with Central and Eastern European countries.

Lithuania’s history as a small country in a geopolitically volatile environment is partly what drives its support for Taipei, according to Konstantinas Andrijauskas, an associate professor of Asian Studies and International Politics at Vilnius University.

“It is only natural that there is a certain amount of skepticism within the Lithuanian society and among decision-makers towards all the communist, authoritarian, and totalitarian regimes. At the same time, there is support [for] the people who suffer from those respective regimes,” Andrijauskas told Voice of America.

Bucharest Nine

But there is also a realpolitik rationale for the Baltic country to be vocal against Beijing, particularly as it gears up to host the NATO summit in Vilnius in July.

Lithuania is a member of the Bucharest Nine, a grouping of NATO’s newest members on the bloc’s easternmost flank. The group is wary that if Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he would target these countries next.

“The way that China has positioned itself in the war in Ukraine has definitely cemented feelings in Europe, that Russia and China are an axis,” Viking Bohman, an associate analyst at the Swedish National China Centre, told VOA

“Lithuania is gaining visibility from this, of being this principled,” Bohman added.

This article is republished courtesy of Voice of America. Read the original article here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.