Kęstutis Girnius. Lithuania: with China, with the EU or for itself?

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Andrius Ufartas

President Dalia Grybauskaitė had no doubt that her working visit to China, participation in the first import expo in China was beneficial to Lithuania.

Prior to her meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, she explained that it would have been “unwise and unforgivable” to not make use of this unique opportunity to strengthen economic relations with the giant in the East, open export opportunities for Lithuania, particularly agricultural products, discuss potential cooperation in the financial service and transport sectors.

She was even more enthusiastic following the meeting. “Our relations and understanding are very close and warm,” the meeting was described as beneficial and that we have to “dare have a broader view, act equally broadly and always consider our interests.”

The president’s remarks could create the impression that China is nigh on a perfect partner, that its and Lithuania’s interests on international trade, global commitments and climate change match.

It is clear that meetings with the heads of powerful countries inspire optimism in the president and overwhelm her otherwise typical restraint and even encourage light pandering.

The president’s trip is controversial. There can be no doubt that it is vital for Lithuania to increase its exports and closer economic relations with China could be beneficial, especially if China decided to seriously invest in the Lithuanian economy, would make use of the services of Klaipėda port.

On the other hand, there are doubts on whether China is an honest trade partner. It is reproached for abuse of its economic power, exploitation of its debtors and fierce defence of its interests. Sri Lanka, which failed to return significant debt, transferred the strategically positioned Hambantota port and 6,000 hectares of surrounding land to China for 99 years.

This way, China has taken territory only several hundred miles away from the shores of one of its key rivals, India and obtained an outpost in a strategically and economically important naval route. Malaysia is reviewing its agreements with China and its Prime Minister M. Mahathir has spoken of “new colonialism”, albeit not directly specifying China.

In 2012, China created a cooperation format of 16 Central and Eastern European countries alongside China, the so-called 16+1 format. It features 11 EU member states, particularly from Eastern Europe, including Lithuania and five Balkan states. There is concern in Western Europe that the 16+1 cooperation format is a Trojan Horse, intended to divide EU members competing for investment, bend the economically weaker Eastern European countries to China’s influence.

Reacting to the Western criticism over China’s expanding influence, particularly massive investment into Piraeus port, Greek Maritime Affairs Minister P. Kouroumblis stated, “When my American colleagues ask, why China invests so much into Greece, I ask – where are US investors?”

Apparently the country’s economy, just like nature, does not like emptiness. Numerous Lithuanian officials think similarly. Minister of Economy V. Sinkevičius assures that there are no complaints to be levied against this format if it aids Lithuania in creating well-paid jobs for business to expand.

Lithuanian ambassador in China I. Marčiulionytė explains that 16+1 is beneficial to Lithuania and other similar countries in that it contributes to bilateral and EU-Chinese interaction formats with a new tool.

This may be the case in theory, but in reality, it is otherwise. The new “tool” was non-present in the trade expo because the 16+1 countries did not participate as a united bloc, instead it had the leaders of Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta and Croatia, as well as those of Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Pakistan and the Cook Islands.

Trade links are yet another example of EU member states failing to agree on a common position. Even the Baltic States are incapable of acting in unison.

I do not know if Estonia and Latvia were invited to China, whether they refused to participate or if they sought to coordinate positions. Did Lithuania urge China to invite our Baltic partners or was it silently happy that it obtained a unique opportunity to form exceptional economic relations?

The powerful EU states defend their interests even more resolutely even while those interests are less vulnerable. Regardless of numerous countries’ protest, Germany continues to lay the Nord Stream pipeline and its trade surplus ensuring policy greatly harms the economies of Southern Europe.

France firmly supports EU grants to farmers, which comprise 40% of the EU budget and most of which go to French farmers.

The great statesman Charles De Gaule once said that France does not have allies, it only has interests.

His remark accurately describes economic policy. States feel the duty to primarily care for their citizens’ welfare.

With protests in Vilnius something like a decade ago against German plans to lay down the first Nord Stream, the German Minister of Environment Jürgen Trittin noted in his letter to MP A. Ažubalis that German voters will not comprehend, why they should be prepared to pay more for gas so that Lithuania could profit off of its transport through Lithuania.

Ažubalis could not have had a good counter.

Stronger trade relations could benefit Lithuania, but there will not be a major rise or breakthrough. What is more interesting is why China decided to please Lithuania. Certainly not due to trade volumes.

The only infrastructural object of particular importance is Klaipėda port and Beijing knows that Lithuania will neither sell nor transfer its control. The aims are likely political. Through trade and perhaps investment, China seeks Lithuanian favour so that when making decisions related to China, Lithuania would think twice, whether it may suffer for its decision. This tactic works.

Last year, Greece vetoed EU plans to release a statement in the United Nations, which criticises Chinese human rights breaches.

When the Dalai Lama visited Lithuania in 2013, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė met with him even though this angered China. When he visited this year, neither Grybauskaitė, nor PM S. Skvernelis met him. Thus, both showed that they understand, who orders the music.

It is not necessary to meet the Dalai Lama every single time, one must consider the potential consequences.

On the other hand, when you back down once, twice, thrice, backing down could become norm.

At the moment, there is no risk that Lithuania could become China’s “useful idiot”, but there is no shame in wariness.

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