When a Hong Kong support rally in Vilnius came up against a coordinated Chinese counter-demonstration, Lithuanians became aware of Beijing's soft power reach in the country. After LRT Investigation Team has shown that the Chinese Embassy was involved in the action, political analysts say that Lithuania must take China's ambitions in the region as seriously as Russia's.
“The Chinese state is extremely far-sighted, it is strengthening its positions here with a view to a long-term perspective,” says conservative MP Mantas Adomėnas, one of the organisers of the Hong Kong support rally in Vilnius on August 23.
“We tend to be aware of the Russian threat, but we must also understand that an equally or, in some instances, more dangerous threat is China spreading its influence by dominating the political layers or dividing the European Union's political will to resist China's influence.”
Vytautas Keršanskas, an analyst at the Helsinki-based European Centre of Excellence for Countering Hybrid Threats, says that China does have interests in Lithuania as well as in other Western countries.
“Their extent is perhaps less directly linked to China's key interests, but Lithuania is part of this country's global projections. The fact that Lithuania's intelligence institutions mention the Chinese factor in their reports for the first time [this year] helps us see it better,” Keršanskas tells LRT RADIO.
The Chinese Embassy's involvement in a counter-protest at a Hong Kong support rally in Vilnius shows that Beijing is pursuing its “intelligence and political interests” in Lithuania using “grey-area methods”, such as its influence over Chinese diaspora communities.
The general public is not that interested in national security issues, but it is important that the media cover them, he adds.
Lithuania is an ally of the United States, which is another reason why it falls within China's field of interests. “Establishing a more positive attitude towards China in a NATO country is very important for them,” according to Keršanskas.
Having lived under a communist dictatorship, Lithuania is naturally suspicious of the Communist Party rule in Beijing and “for China, that's a problem”.
Political scientist Tomas Janeliūnas of Vilnius University comments that, for a long time, Lithuania saw China as only an economic power, without taking much heed of it being a one-party dictatorship. Several weeks ago, a group of Lithuanian members of parliament discussed prospects for economic relations with a Chinese delegation.
“China reacts harshly to any criticism. And it does everything to punish the critics, particularly economically,” Janeliūnas tells LRT TV.
“Eventually, countries that accept Chinese investment become dependent not just financially, but politically as well.”