The opening of the Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius has raised China’s ire. Beijing compared Lithuania to a fly that needs to be swatted down but did not hesitate to take the most drastic step – a complete severance of relations with Lithuania. Politicians say China does not have much scope for punishing Lithuania but urge it to prepare for cyber-attacks that Beijing could be behind. Against the backdrop of this conflict, politicians also see a major victory – Lithuania’s relations with the United States have never been so good, TV3.lt reported.
Matas Maldeikis, Member of the Seimas, representative of the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) faction, and Gediminas Kirkilas, former Prime Minister, discussed the Lithuanian-Chinese conflict and its implications and opportunities in the news portal tv3.lt’s topical talk show “Dienos pjūvis”.
Maldeikis: China has realised that it has no real leverage against Lithuania
The Chinese state-run Global Times wrote: “Lithuania must suffer the pain of great and noble power, but this must not undermine our interests and wider strategy. It’s like swatting a fly, but we have to be careful not to get our hands stained with blood.”
Maldeikis assured that such rhetoric from the Chinese government is not about Lithuania and is not aimed at Lithuania but at a domestic audience.
“The Chinese have studied our case and have realised that they do not have much leverage to pressure us. So what is the main message of this equation with us?
All the previous messages were that Lithuania was going to suffer very severely, this message, the comparison with a fly, is an allegory that we really should not get our hands dirty and should do nothing against Lithuania”, said Maldeikis.
He reiterated that this is communication aimed at the local Chinese people, who realise that Beijing has no real leverage against Lithuania.
Former PM recalled how China punished Latvia
According to Mr Kirkilas, such Chinese rhetoric shows Beijing’s deep nervousness about the situation with Lithuania.
“China has always taken a very strict approach to such cases, even singling out countries that opened Taipei representative offices,” the former prime minister said.
He recalled a visit to Beijing in 2008 when the Summer Olympics were held there. According to Mr Kirkilas, the then Prime Minister of Latvia had the least time to meet with Chinese premiers, as Taipei already had the economic representative office in Riga.
“They are watching all countries very closely, and they are focusing their attention and sanctions accordingly,” said Mr Kirkilas.
China has not severed relations but insisted that Lithuania is deaf to requests
Although it was considered that China might break off relations with Lithuania altogether because of the opening of the Taiwanese representative office, Beijing ultimately refrained from taking this drastic step. It only stressed that Lithuania is deaf to Chinese requests regarding the name of the Taiwanese mission and strongly urged that this mistake be rectified.
“The name that mentions Taiwan is a problem, we are not opposed to non-governmental relations – business relations, cultural relations, but <…> Lithuania is deaf to our requests,” Qu Baihua, the Chargé d’Affaires of the Chinese Embassy in Lithuania, told journalists at a press conference.
He said the issue had been discussed with Lithuanian representatives on several occasions, but there had been “no positive response” from the authorities.
According to Q. Baihua, the opening of the representative office under this name violated the “one-China” policy, which Lithuania committed itself to when establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing.
According to Maldeikis, a complete severance of relations would have been a symbolic step that would have made no difference to the lives of ordinary people.
“Why is China so sensitive to this? Because they understand that Lithuania is a good example. Lithuania, as such, is not a problem. The problem is the realisation that Lithuania’s courage can spill over to other European Union countries. And that scares them”, the MP argued.
In the politician’s opinion, China is also worried that if it reacts too harshly to Lithuania’s actions, other countries will start rallying around Lithuania.
“They are looking for a balance between sending a message to us that you are afraid. But at the same time, they realise that there are no real steps they can take, nor do they really want to take. So there is a narrow tunnel that they are in, and they are not yet finding a way out of it”, said Mr Maldeikis.
The Chinese in Vilnius are only going to get more numerous, he said
“I would add that they are very keen to keep that office in Vilnius”, said Mr Kirkilas.
If China were to sever relations with Lithuania completely, he said, then there would be no embassy staff left in our country. For China, according to Mr Kirkilas, it is important to be able to get information directly from Vilnius.
“They have absolutely no interest. <…> Maybe we will even see an increase in the number of the embassy of staff,” the former PM said.
“This would also contradict the saying that Lithuania is a very weak country. So the question is, why are you breaking relations if it is so insignificant?” – he added.
Suggested cyber security concerns
Speaking about how China could harm Lithuania, Kirkilas called for strengthening cyber security.
“China is a country that is active in this area. The Ministry of National Defence and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs need to be particularly concerned here. All sorts of actions can take place,” the former Prime Minister said.
According to Maldeikis, preparations for cyberattacks from China have been underway for a long time, as it is known that this is a sensitive area for Lithuania. “China is very advanced in this area, and we may have problems with it. However, our services have already been preparing for this and are working on it,” the MP said.
What piece of advice would Kirkilas give to the ruling coalition
Mr Kirkilas described the move to open a Taiwanese representative office as very radical. He said that if the ruling party asked him for advice, he would recommend forming a club of allies as soon as possible to support Lithuania’s move.
“Not necessarily to open representative offices in [Taiwan], but at least to support it politically, in their speeches,” the former prime minister said.
In Kirkillas’ view, there must be at least some consensus on this issue in Lithuania.
“The ruling party must inform the opposition as well, and perhaps seek to have the agreement between the parties on foreign policy and security supplemented. Of course, the Government and the President should speak with one voice”, he explained.
A victory in the dispute with China – stronger ties with the US than ever?
According to Maldeikis, although the focus is currently on the conflict with China, it should also be noted that Lithuania’s relations with the US are currently the best they have been for 30 years. One of these manifestations is a new chapter in relations with Washington – the strategic dialogue between Lithuania and the US in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Lithuania has never had this kind of relationship, and we need to be clear about that. And this is largely due to our very clear position. We choose the United States, not China.
China has deepened its military alliance with Russia even further. So we are simply moving towards two blocs. Authoritarian regimes against democratic regimes. And in this case, we are choosing one side”, said Mr Maldeikis.
“This is the only reason why this kind of story had to be made”, said Mr Kirkilas with a smile.
According to the former Prime Minister, relations with the United States are crucial for Lithuania, first and foremost for the country’s security.
“From an economic point of view, there are also tremendous opportunities. If we go back to the beginning of that whole story, it was only necessary to create it in order to give impetus to this relationship. That momentum has been created and should be welcomed. The United States is essential.
I think that we need more American troops in Lithuania. <…> I believe that now is a perfect opportunity to ask our main NATO allies, the Americans, to have permanent troops here. It would be a very big achievement to make the most of this situation,” Kirkilas said.