Europe's first postal train from China arrived in Lithuania in April. Despite heralding stronger economic ties between the two countries, a string of diplomatic incidents with Beijing are casting doubts on the political costs of doing business with China.
Completing a journey of over 10,000 kilometres, the train arrived in the Lithuanian capital from China’s Chongqing on April 14. The trains will soon run once per week, according to China’s state-owned news agency Xinhua.
Read more: ‘First ever’ Europe-bound postal train from China arrives in Lithuania
Lithuanian Transport Minister Jeroslav Narkevič allegedly wrote a letter to the Chinese ambassador "complimenting" the strengthening relationship, while the Lithuanian post operator shared images of the “historic” moment.
In April 2018, the Lithuanian Transport Ministry committed to developing the rail connection with China. In the preceding year, Lithuania and China had also signed a memorandum of understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which the EU and the US fear could bring Beijing’s political influence via infrastructure projects across Europe.
Lithuania, like the rest of Central and Eastern Europe, is now facing a choice between US security presence and deeper economic ties with Beijing, according to Marius Laurinavičius, analyst at Vilnius Policy Analysis Institute and a prominent China critic in Lithuania.
The train connection is just one of Beijing’s inroads, he added, and “the Lithuanian Post took part in China’s direct propaganda in Lithuania”.
Some of the “business and political elite would like Lithuania to become a springboard for China” and its Europe-bound expansion, he added, and there’s “an internal struggle” over the direction Lithuania should take.
“The US has been unequivocal about one thing – if there is development of 5G [in Lithuania] with Huawei, there will never be US troops here,” said Laurinavičius. “Not that straightforwardly, but the [US] also made it very clear about the port of Klaipėda.”
China has previously said it would like to invest into Lithuania’s only port in Klaipėda, a strategic hub for NATO in the Baltic states. The country’s defence minister, Raimundas Karoblis, said in November 2019 that any possible Beijing investment into the port “poses a risk to NATO”.
The Lithuanian president has also cautiously ruled out China’s economic investment into Klaipėda, saying it would undermine national security.
In February, Lithuanian intelligence said China’s Huawei should be excluded from developing the strategic 5G infrastructure. Both Latvian and Estonian intelligence also named China as a threat to their cyber space and telecommunications.
A high-ranking Lithuanian official speaking off the record said he received numerous letters from China asking to apologise for statements directed against Beijing.
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Lithuanian politicians and public figures have been vocal advocates for Taiwan, calling on Lithuania’s president to support the island nation's independence and back its membership at the World Health Organization (WHO).
Read more: Lithuanian president doesn’t back Taiwan’s WHO membership – aide
Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius also called on Beijing to include Taiwan in WHO’s meetings. All overtures were met with dismissals from the Chinese Embassy in Vilnius, calling moves to support Taiwan an “open provocation”.
But at the moment Beijing has few instruments to apply diplomatic pressure on Lithuania which is less reliant on trade with China than many other countries. "There is nothing that China can take away that the EU won't give back,” tweeted Sergey Radchenko, a historian and publicist.
Read more: Lithuania recognising Taiwan is akin to poking a tiger through a fence – opinion
In Australia, where China is the largest trading partner, Beijing has used “economic coercion” over political disputes, warning that Chinese consumers might boycott Australian products because of the country's criticism of China’s coronavirus response, according to FT.
Although Lithuania has some of the lowest foreign direct investment from China in Central and Eastern Europe, Vilnius' support for Tibet has already resulted in economic backlash from Beijing in the past.
“Economic [...] measures have been applied by China for a long time,” previously said Konstantinas Andrijauskas, an expert on China at Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science.
“In 2013, when the then President Dalia Grybauskaitė met privately with [...] the Dalai Lama, [...] China punished us,” he said. “For a few years or more, depending on the sector, our [Lithuanian] economic negotiations with China were simply frozen.”
No top-level Lithuanian diplomat has met with the spiritual leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama, since.
Meanwhile, the high-ranking Lithuanian official said the public’s perception of Chinese involvement in the Baltic country is of equal importance.
Maintaining beneficial economic contacts is reasonable, as long as it doesn’t pose a direct threat and remains purely a pragmatic economic transaction.
“It’s a question about the public’s resilience,” the official said. “Will [the public] accept the fact as a commercial thing, or a sign of some sort of friendship” with political costs attached.
Meanwhile the Lithuanian Transport Ministry has welcomed the economic prospects of cooperation with China.
“The long-term goals of this project are to entrench Lithuania’s role as a transit centre between the Far East and Europe, in the global logistics chain,” the ministry told LRT English in a written comment.
“China is the biggest Asian market, therefore Lithuania’s goal to become an important economic partner with China is natural and unavoidable.”