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2021.08.25 08:00

Lithuania’s stand-off with China: what’s next?

Andrius Balčiūnas, LRT.lt2021.08.25 08:00

After Vilnius accepted to host Taiwan’s de facto embassy, China has threatened to punish Lithuania. However, Beijing’s options may be limited.

China has now recalled its ambassador from Vilnius and demanded that Lithuania do the same. Chinese analysts, writing for the influential state-controlled tabloid Global Times, said Vilnius “stepped on China’s red line”.

“We will have to take serious measures, depending on how Lithuania behaves next,” Liu Zuokui, a research fellow of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), told the Global Times.

Chinese pro-government analysts assert that by opening a diplomatic representation attributed to Taiwan rather than Taipei, Lithuania lends international legitimacy to the self-ruled island that China considers to be a breakaway republic.

In its English editorials, the state-controlled outlet advises other countries against making the same move as Lithuania and the US.

It also took to attacking Lithuania’s leadership, referring to the violent anti-vaccine protest on August 10 as an example of poor governing.

“The chaos reflects the lack of governance ability and political stability of the Lithuanian government,” Chinese journalist Lin Lan wrote for the Global Times. “Facing such domestic and foreign challenges, Lithuania cannot count too much on the US, which Lithuania mainly relies on for security.”

He also criticised Lithuania’s multi-party system, claiming that “under such a political structure, the government may not be efficient and determined enough to deal with protests or other social chaos”.

However, Vilnius may become a serious headache for Beijing.

“I think this is not just a unique Chinese understanding [...] that even a small entity can give you big trouble. Especially at the right time in the right place,” Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova, head of Riga Stradins University China Studies Centre, told LRT.lt.

The Global Times articles in Chinese, meanwhile, claim that the Chinese Communist Party is just in its decisions.

“For the Chinese domestic audiences they are meant to demonstrate that this is not a failure, [...] so as not to lose legitimacy domestically and show that everybody is against us. The nationalist narrative that a lot of countries like to use,” said Čerenkova.

“That is not because China is afraid of Lithuania, obviously, but because, as I’ve said, in public relations, in politics, a lot of damage can be done by an entity that doesn’t necessarily have a big army.”

While Beijing has claimed it would seek a “peaceful unification” of China, it has also reserved the right to use force against Taiwan.

This year, there have been numerous instances of Chinese aircraft breaching Taiwan’s airspace. Moreover, Taiwan competed at the Tokyo Olympics using the name Chinese Taipei, which is also how the island is referred to by news outlets in mainland China.

China’s state-owned broadcaster also boosted its Olympic medal count by including the medals won by Taiwan.

Taipei, meanwhile, lauded Lithuania for its efforts to draw closer diplomatic ties, despite pressure from Beijing.

“We applaud Lithuania’s courageous and principled stance on Taiwan. Friendship, cooperation and respect are the bedrock of positive international engagement,” Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry posted on Twitter.

The Legislative Yuan’s Friendship Association With the Baltic States has urged the Taiwanese government to adopt policies that would deepen relations with Central and Eastern Europe.

Among the proposed initiatives was implementing the so-called travel bubble, as well as mandating that people working at the Foreign Ministry learn languages prominent in Eastern Europe.

“By establishing connections with small, democratic countries in the EU that share similar views and values with Taiwan, it would be possible to find a way out of the nation’s diplomatic quandary,” the association said at a press conference.

The association has also invited Lithuanian Parliament Speaker Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen to visit Taiwan.

Lithuania’s row with China benefits EU

“We stand with our Ally Lithuania and condemn the People's Republic of China's recent retaliatory actions,” Ned Price, a spokesman for the US Department of State, posted on Twitter after China announced it was recalling its ambassador in Vilnius.

Read more: US pledges ‘ironclad’ solidarity as Lithuania develops ties with Taiwan – FM

The EU's relationship with China has been deteriorating, with the EU postponing the ratification of an investment agreement with China following Beijing’s sanctions against several MEPs.

China has adopted a wait-and-see approach in anticipation of the outcomes of the German general election next month and the French presidential election next year, as it considers the Franco-German axis the most important factor in EU-China relations, according to Ivana Karaskova, head of the China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) network.

“But it is undeniable that, across the EU, the enthusiasm for China has dropped with the coronavirus epidemic and the security considerations regarding China’s rise have been taken more seriously by both the EU and European national governments,” she added.

Nabila Massrali, spokeswoman for the European External Action Service, said that Beijing’s retaliations would “inevitably have an impact on overall EU-China relations”.

“We regret the Chinese action and are following developments closely,” she said.

“China feels that it's not just Lithuania it will be up against if it opts for major escalation and things go out of hand,” said Čerenkova.

In May, Lithuania quit China’s 17+1 cooperation platform with the EU and urged other member states to follow suit.

“The 17+1 format [...] is not useful for Europe, it is dividing Europe, because some countries have a different opinion on China than others,” said Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis.

“A very strong reaction towards China is of course caused by a unique set of circumstances”, including the anti-Hong Kong protest in 2019, Čerenkova said.

Lithuanian Foreign Minister is a “value-oriented politician”, which also led to this “unique Lithuanian situation”, Čerenkova added.

Meanwhile, none of the other EU countries involved have left the format. Moreover, EU countries are careful about openly confronting Beijing, analysts say.

“But of course the other two Baltic countries are contemplating what to do,” said Čerenkova. “So the second scenario would be to lower [...] representation, to participate less and less in professional dialogues, exchanges between ministries. [...] The third scenario would be ‘wait and see’. Status quo.”

“Whether this will result towards the end of the year in an official statement from the Estonian or Latvian side saying that they are leaving the [16+1] format, I don’t know,” said Čerenkova.

Growing support for Taiwan as an independent state might not only hurt EU–China relations, but also present security risks for Taipei, analysts believe.

“For the EU, this is a blessing in disguise, that there is this country that’s independent of China and maybe goes very far on this spectrum,” Čerenkova pointed out.

“But precisely because it’s a small country, you can always deescalate quickly, but kind of show: Ok, this is as far as some are willing to go. So let’s maybe, from this position, start to renegotiate to exert some pressure on China.”

Partnering with Russia

An August 11 editorial of the Global Times called for a joint effort with Belarus and Russia to “punish” Vilnius as a warning to other countries.

“China should join hands with Russia and Belarus, the two countries that border Lithuania, and punish it,” the editorial said. “China and Russia are necessary to jointly deal a heavy blow to one or two running dogs of the US to warn other countries.”

The first ever Russian-Chinese joint military drill in China kicked off on August 9 in the northwestern Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

“The objectives of the exercise are to strengthen the development of Russian-Chinese relations, comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation” amid regional security concerns and deteriorating ties with the United States, the Russian Defence Ministry said in a statement.

More than 10,000 troops, as well as Su-30SM fighters and artillery pieces, took part in the drills. The Zapad/Interaction 2021 exercise is a part of the Russia and Belarus joint exercise Zapad 2021 set to take place in September.

“They have aimed to improve both forces’ capabilities, [...] send signals to third parties, and promote mutual reassurance [...],” Richard Weitz, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, wrote in a report published by Centre for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). “The drills have become an important tool for the institutionalisation of Sino-Russian defence ties without establishment of a formal alliance.”

In 2020, China threatened retaliation against Prague in response to the Czech Senate’s president visiting Taiwan. The incident only worsened Prague’s relationship with Beijing.

“It confirmed the assumption we had that in reality China has very limited options for retaliation against the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, especially those who are members of the EU,” said Karaskova.

Read more: Beijing's row with Lithuania sets the stage for shaky new era of Europe-China ties

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