Andrikienė: we made a mistake with China long before

Laima Liucija Andrikienė. Photo J. Stacevičius lrytas.lt

The biggest mistake in Lithuania-China relations was made long before the opening of the Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius, when the country fell into the Chinese netcast on Eastern and Central European countries without considering all the consequences, the new chairwoman of the Seimas Committee on Foreign Affairs, conservative Laima Liucija Andrikienė, told Agnė Černiauskaitė  of lrytas.lt

She said that the politician did not hide the fact that Russia’s sabre-rattling near Ukraine’s borders and the threat of a war in Europe is very real.

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“The Kremlin’s intentions are clear: a Europe divided into spheres of influence, the restoration of the USSR, a veto on NATO enlargement, a demand to stop NATO’s open-door policy, cyber-attacks, a show of force on Ukraine’s borders in order to blackmail the entire democratic world. And that’s not all,” said L Andrikienė, who is 64.

– You are now officially Chair of the Seimas Committee on Foreign Affairs. The period is probably as difficult as ever. What are your priorities at the moment?

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– Yes, it is a challenging period. Still, Lithuania’s complex foreign policy agenda is dictated by events beyond our borders, such as China’s increasingly aggressive and unpredictable policies, which are not just a Lithuanian issue, but an issue for the international community. Therefore, it is not a fun time to take over the Seimas Committee on Foreign Affairs chairmanship.

There has been no shortage of public criticism of our foreign policy lately. It is at least good that even citizens who are indifferent to foreign policy have realised that foreign policy is just as important as any other policy (social, agricultural or health policy) and that it is even more critical than other policies because the success of other policies depends to a large extent on the results of foreign policy.

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As far as criticism is concerned, it seems to me that in our foreign policy, our fellow citizens have missed out on something as simple as experience, which is perceived by many as a stabilising factor. I understand experience here as tradition, continuity or inheritance.

On the other hand, a large part of society feels that the threshold of decisive action has been crossed: we are not as big as we would like to be, and it would therefore be more beneficial for us to take our relations with other countries to a more restrained, pragmatic level while retaining a foundation of values.

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We hear resentment that, in foreign policy, Lithuania’s usual coordinated conversation, interinstitutional agreement on the most critical issues, has been transformed into the clarification of relations in the public sphere, into counterproductive gossip, which does not enhance our country’s prestige, and which undermines confidence in our country.

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I am not talking here about the first persons of the state, I am talking about the whole chorus that is involved in making and discussing foreign policy. We cannot turn into the kind of country that the former US Secretary of State, H Kissinger, aptly described the then EU: who in Europe do I have to call to find out where Europeans stand on a topical issue in international politics?

Lithuania must speak with one voice in the world; there cannot be several foreign policies of our country – there can and must be one, reflecting, defending and realising our national interests. This is the top priority.

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– Your predecessor, Ž Pavilionis, had to leave his post involuntarily. What mistakes do you promise not to repeat?

– My colleague had to leave because that was the will of the political family – to leave or be pulled in. It is an unenviable, difficult choice, but sometimes in life, it happens. I appreciate Mr Pavilionis’s decision, I think it was a wise move.

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As for mistakes, the answer is clear – none. Elementary logic says: why repeat what a mistake is? Except that understanding and objectively assessing what was or is a mistake requires a critical approach, assessing one’s own and others’ decisions and deeds, and often it simply takes time, because it is in hindsight that all the pros and cons are much better seen.

– Have you received any advice from Pavilionis, for example, on communicating with the President Office, the President’s Senior Adviser on Foreign Affairs, A Skaisgiryte?

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– We have not spoken about this. I don’t think that such a conversation makes sense at all. Primarily since I have known Ms Skaisgiryte very well since the time of the Supreme Council (the Parliament). I well remember her as a young journalist. She was living on Lithuanian affairs, and later as an employee of the Supreme Council (the Parliament) and head of the Inter-Parliamentary Relations Bureau. I had the opportunity to interact with Ms Asta both as Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and as our country’s Ambassador abroad.

So we have known each other for three decades. I have often seen and heard her in our Foreign Affairs Committee meetings in Parliament in recent years. By the way, have other presidential staff working on foreign policy. I hope, I look forward to constructive work between the institutions.

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– As far as foreign policy is concerned, China is probably the most topical issue in Lithuania at the moment. When we last spoke to you in 2018, you were working in the European Parliament. Back then, you were already focusing on China’s threat to Europe through its ambition to seize strategic assets. You said at the time: ‘We have immunity for Russia, and we have to have immunity for China because the Chinese are not coming with tanks, but with money’. What has changed in more than three years? Has that immunity for China developed?

– There has been a marked increase in immunity, but it is still not enough, so we are vulnerable. By the way, 2018 was not the first year that I spoke about China’s ambitions to dominate the world. I have written and spoken about China’s plans for economic expansion under the guise of an economic cooperation strategy long before.

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The Chinese Communist Party leaders make no secret of the fact that China wants to dominate the world and, to that end, to de-Atlanticise the world, to dismantle the partnership between the EU and the US, with its ambitious goal of creating an unprecedented free trade area on both sides of the Atlantic, with a powerful army of 800 million consumers with enormous purchasing power.

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Just a few years ago, in 2018 and even earlier, when I was speaking in various audiences in Lithuania about the One Road One Belt strategy announced by Chinese Communist Party leader and President Xi Jinping in 2013 and implemented since then, one of the targets of which is Lithuania, many people did not hide their astonishment that giant China not only sees a Lithuania that is tiny in scale but also has ambitious goals here.

Our fellow citizens – not only ordinary citizens but also politicians – found this hard to believe. All the more so because China, until recently, acted differently from Russia. If Russia went with tanks, the Chinese went with credits, investments, and promises to open up the vast Chinese market to goods made in Lithuania. It all sounded very tempting.

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However, eight years of experience and reality have been disappointing – neither the enormous Chinese market has opened up, nor have we received large Chinese investments in Lithuania.

– The Minister of Economy and Innovation, A Armonaitė, has called the current relations with China a “wee crisis”, but the country’s entrepreneurs see the situation quite differently. Even the pride of Lithuanian business – the laser and high-tech sector – is under threat. The Vizbarai brothers are already weighing up options to expand their business in other countries. The crisis in relations with China is also closing Western markets for Lithuania. Is it fair to say that the Government did not properly assess the risk of Chinese retaliation in supporting Taiwan?

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– Lithuania is complying with its international commitments, including its commitments to the People’s Republic of China. Lithuania has not established diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Although I could mention here, for example, that the Holy See has diplomatic relations with the Republic of China (Taiwan), that there is an embassy of the Republic of China (Taiwan) in the Vatican, in Rome, and that the embassy of the Holy See is located in the capital of Taiwan, Taipei, and not in the capital of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing. The experience of countries around the world is mixed on this issue.

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It is clear that Lithuania’s withdrawal from the 17+1 format was a significant blow to China. And businesses had noticed that the problems started as early as the summer of last year before the Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius had even opened.

China’s recent economic pressure on businesses in EU countries is a serious violation of international trade rules and its World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership obligations.

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– President Nauseda’s statement that the opening of the Taiwanese representative office was not a mistake, but rather the name, which was not agreed with him, was widely reported in the world media. China immediately welcomed this statement by the Head of State. Is it not the case that we will not only fall out with the Chinese but that we will also lose credibility with the Taiwanese themselves?

– We must find the political will and the means to reach a consensus and send one message to the world. Whenever there are several conflicting messages, let alone several conflicting statements, the other countries do not understand how to react to them and which one to believe. I am optimistic that we will manage, not cross with each other, and we will not lose.

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– Many European countries welcome Lithuania’s move on Taiwanese representation, but none of them are following our example yet. Why?

– China has taken harsh, unprecedented action against Lithuania in order to discourage other countries from making similar decisions. But those sanctions will not stop the process. The EU as a whole has changed its attitude towards China considerably. As has the attitude of the Eastern and Central European countries towards the 16+1 format, from which Lithuania withdrew last year. The world’s attitude is changing because China and its behaviour have changed considerably over the last decade.

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By now, the Chinese authorities should have realised that this format, designed to break up EU unity, is dead. But, if it has not, it will soon realise that whenever it tries to convene a summit, it will hear more than one response that another country has withdrawn from this format and will not participate.

Like the other EU Member States, Lithuania is opting for the 27+1 format, i.e. 27 EU Member States plus China, and the first meetings in this format could take place in the near future, during the French presidency of the Council EU, which started two weeks ago.  

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– In your opinion, was it a mistake to allow the Taiwanese mission in Lithuania to be named after the island rather than Taipei?

The mistake was made much earlier when Lithuania fell into the Chinese net cast over Eastern and Central European countries without thinking through all the consequences. I am referring to the 16+1 format that I have already mentioned. China is painfully and very reluctantly letting go of the countries that have been caught in that net, which it has already considered to be its prize.

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I would like to emphasise an important point here: Lithuania should send a clear message to China that we say yes to cooperation or rather mutually beneficial cooperation, but no to China’s domination of Europe or the whole world.

Lithuania wants and needs to talk to China not as an enemy, not as a big evil China but as a respected partner. China must realise that when it deals with Lithuania, it is dealing with the whole of the EU and NATO. The single market and solidarity and democracy and human rights are not empty words or empty slogans for the members of both clubs.

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The President of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Polish Foreign Minister Z Rau, warned last week that the risk of war in Europe is now much more significant than it has been for the last 30 years. The Lithuanian army chief, V Rupšys, made a similar statement, claiming that the threat is the highest since 1945. How do you view such warnings? How many bases do they have? Would we be talking about a threat not only to Ukraine?

We are talking about a threat to Europe as a whole, to peace and stability in Europe, and not only that, but also a real threat to us, because we are part of Europe.

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The Kremlin’s intentions are clear: a Europe divided into spheres of influence, the restoration of the USSR, a veto over NATO enlargement, a demand for a halt to NATO’s open-door policy, cyber-attacks, a show of force on Ukraine’s borders in order to blackmail the entire democratic world. And that is not all. The threat is very real.

The situation on the Ukrainian border, the Russia-NATO and Russia-US negotiations, the negotiations in the OSCE format and their outcome, the international community’s calls for Russia to de-escalate the situation on the Ukrainian border – all of this is also on the agenda of the Seimas Committee on Foreign Affairs and of the Committee on National Security and Defence.

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– In Lithuania, the most controversial event last week was the protest near the commemoration of the 13 January, where both the Speaker of the Seimas and the Prime Minister were booed. Do you think that hostile regimes could have initiated the rally and the provocations on such a day?

– At least at the moment, I do not have the information to say so. However, I do not doubt that Lithuania’s enemies were very fond of the images of that day’s protest in Independence Square, that it has been and will be used for propaganda against Lithuania.

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Dissatisfaction with one or other decisions of the Seimas or the Government is expressed by a group of people, who have chosen a special day for all Lithuanians for this purpose – the 13 January and solemn commemoration of the Defenders of Freedom. A day when we come together to honour those who died for the freedom of our homeland, to pay our respects and express our gratitude to all those who, on those historic days thirty-one years ago, stood up, defenceless, to defend Lithuania and its freedom.

The lesson that I believe we must learn from the events of that day is much more than an assessment of who acted and how they acted. It is much more important to understand and objectively assess what is going on in our country and society.

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We live in a very turbulent world in the neighbourhood of aggressive Russia and Belarus, and we must be particularly attentive to all our internal processes.

It is also undeniable that Lithuania and our people are the targets of hostile states, so we must find ways to prevent, to the maximum extent possible, negative external influences, intentions and attempts to turn the life of Lithuania in a direction that is unacceptable and disastrous for our country.

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