The West is surprised by Lithuania’s struggle with China: doing what others dare not

Chinese and Lithuanian flags
Chinese and Lithuanian flags DELFI / Andrius Ufartas

Few countries dare to challenge China the way Lithuania has done. Foreign media point out that Lithuanians, unlike much of the world dependent on Chinese investment or influence, demonstrate “ethical politics”, TV3.lt news portal reported.

Despite the really unpleasant Chinese measures, such as economic pressure on Lithuanian goods, in the eyes of the West, Lithuania has done what everyone else would like to do but does not dare to.

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In this case, Lithuania’s resistance is not only due to the fact that China is far away and the countries’ business interests are not of such a scale that the consequences of an economic embargo would be felt in a significant way, but also due to its long experience of dealing with Russian political and economic pressure of various scales.

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China is not responding directly but using “hybrid sanctions”: customs systems suddenly “crash” for a short time, and Lithuania disappear from them, export credit guarantees are withdrawn. There have even been reports that China is putting pressure on large manufacturing companies to ban exports to China if their products contain Lithuanian-made parts. However, China cannot officially use such measures, so the EU’s support and pressure on China itself are important in this case.

Ethical policy as an example

Many articles in the Western media point out that Lithuania can afford to do things that other Western countries cannot because of their very close economic ties. It is also pointed out that Lithuania has a history of experience with communist regimes and therefore knows how to react to them.

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“Unlike many other countries, Lithuania does not have to overextend its economic interests in its foreign policy with China. Moreover, because of its own history, Lithuania is extremely cautious when it comes to communist regimes,” writes Deutsche Welle. – In 1990, Lithuania was the first country to declare independence from the Soviet Union, successfully resisting a much more powerful Moscow.

Kajus-Olaf Lang, an expert at the German Institute for International Relations and Security, told DW that democracy and human rights have since become a hallmark of Lithuanian politics.

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“For many Lithuanians, it reminded them of their own struggle for independence,” he explained. Lang said that the country’s new centre-right coalition has pledged to actively fight against any violation of human rights or democratic values and will defend all those fighting for freedom globally, from Belarus to Taiwan. “Over the past few years, Lithuania has granted asylum to a number of people who are being persecuted in Belarus, including opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskasskaya.

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Support from Washington and Brussels

Lithuania’s relations with Beijing, Minsk and Moscow have traditionally been tense, DW notes. However, the country’s national security issues are “guaranteed” by its membership in NATO and thus its alliance with the US.

According to Kai-Olaf Lang, Lithuania has established itself as a reliable and loyal partner to the US over the years. Knowing that it has the US’s back, Lithuania uses tougher rhetoric against China than usual in Europe. Foreign Minister Landsbergis, quoted by DW, said in the first half of this year that the 17+1 format with China should be closed down in favour of the “much more effective” 27+1, referring to all EU Member States and the need to demonstrate unity between countries.

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Lithuania is pushing the whole EU towards democratic processes by opening a Taiwanese representative office. China cannot ban this or unilaterally impose sanctions on one of the EU countries without incurring the displeasure of the European Union.

“The EU is ready to defend itself against all political pressure and leverage against any member state,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell was forced to reassure Beijing’s fury on 8 December.

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The Olympics are also being used as an additional instrument of political pressure on China. Politicians from the US, the UK, Australia and other countries have already announced that they will not attend the 2022 Games. However, Lithuanian ministers were perhaps the first to say so, a few days ahead of even the US, which has become an example for other countries.

Despite the fact that participation in the Games would be highly symbolic for politicians due to the strict COVID-19 restrictions: according to Australian officials, “there is no need to go to China to communicate remotely with our athletes”, a clear political signal was sent to Beijing.

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“Anthony Faiola, a columnist for The Washington Post, points out that a total boycott of the Olympics has historically been more damaging to the athletes themselves than to the country against which it is imposed. However, in this case, for Mr Biden, and for Lithuania (and other Western countries), to declare the very fact that politicians are not going to the Games is a warning to China, albeit a minor one, that there will be no tolerance for the oppression of minorities and democratic movements.

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