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Don’t mess with the Middle Kingdom.
That’s the message China is sending Lithuania, a tiny Baltic country of 2.8 million. Beijing unleashed withering penalties — including a de facto trade embargo and a downgrading of diplomatic relations — following Vilnius’s move to allow Taiwan to open a contentiously named representative office in Lithuania. A vocal critic of Beijing’s human rights record, Lithuania also announced in December that it would not send a government delegation to the Beijing Winter Games, in concert with a U.S. diplomatic boycott.
Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis spoke with me Thursday, ahead of a critical meeting on the crisis with his European Union peers on Friday, and amid signs that Chinese pressure is working.
As the costs mount for Lithuania — China has gone so far as to threaten companies that do business in the country and clamp down on European goods with Lithuanian parts — a new poll suggests only 13 percent of the public supports their government’s China policy. The Foreign Ministry is now clarifying that it never officially declared a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games. Most significantly, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda on Jan. 4 called it a “mistake” to let Taiwan open a local office under its own name — as opposed to using “Chinese Taipei,” a title often used elsewhere to avoid the perception of challenging China’s claim to Taiwan.
So, is Lithuania backing down? Landsbergis suggested the answer will depend on whether the European Union stands with his country against Chinese tactics he likened to the “Spanish Inquisition.”
This conversation with Landsbergis has been edited for length and clarity.
China denies that it has launched a punishing trade embargo against Lithuania. What actually happened?
Our companies could no longer find Lithuania as a clearance option in Chinese customs. As a country, we were just removed as an option. That was probably the most aggressive piece of evidence. But there are a number of others, and we are now presenting all the documents we have gathered to the European Commission’s trade department, and they will be assessing it from a legal standpoint.
President Nauseda recently called the decision to allow Taiwan to open an office in Vilnius under its own name “a mistake.” Is Lithuania rolling back that decision?
I don’t want to comment on the president’s statement. [But] I don’t think that it was a mistake. The government doesn’t think that it was a mistake to allow the people from Taiwan island to call themselves Taiwanese. We are very clearly stating that it has not breached the one-China policy. … So what we are calling a mistake is China’s reaction — what our companies, European companies, are now facing. The mistake is [the Chinese government’s decision to] unilaterally rename Lithuania’s Embassy in Beijing. This is a mistake, and somebody might even say that this is a breach of international regulations.
What did the Chinese change the name to?
I think that they’re calling it something like an office of chargé d’affaires. We don’t even have the possibility of calling our offices that in our legislation. They changed the name, they revoked our IDs, and that’s why we had to evacuate our staff [from Lithuania’s Embassy in Beijing.]
In December, Nauseda announced that neither he nor any other government minister would attend the Beijing Winter Games, a move seen as tantamount to the diplomatic boycott declared by the Biden administration. But the Foreign Ministry has clarified that Lithuania is not staging such a boycott. Can you explain?
What we’ve consistently said is that there was no official decision to call it a boycott. On the other hand, no official is going to attend and no diplomatic staff is going to attend. But when we were asked, could you call it a diplomatic boycott, I was always explaining there was no official decision by the government or Parliament to call it that.
Was that clarification influenced by pressure from China?
What do you make of the new poll indicating only 13 percent of Lithuanians back the government’s hard stance on China?
A poll is a poll. It’s official news. I’m not completely happy with how the question was phrased. But what I can say, as a politician, is this: Obviously the pressure from China on our companies is definitely putting a strain on building a broad consensus on the subject.
What has China’s actions cost Lithuanian companies so far?
We’re talking in the millions. In the tens of millions. What we’re doing is trying to help the companies get their cargo out [of China]. It’s a lot of strain on the government as well. The biggest problem is that China has escalated, targeting European companies, targeting German companies. This is why we believe that it’s no longer just a bilateral issue. It’s a European one. And there has to be a European solution.
Have the Chinese done this in the hopes that the E.U. will pressure Lithuania to back down?
That is one of the possible explanations.
Is that tactic going to work?
It very much depends on the European answer. There is a possibility that Europe, that European companies, the big multinational companies, will pressure Lithuania. It’s now a question of whether the European Union can withstand the pressure because obviously it’s not that hard to put a lot of pressure on Lithuania and expect it to break. Because there’s only so much pressure we can take. But if we stand in solidarity, if we give a very clear response that such coercion is not just against one country in the union that China tends not to like, but it’s more an incursion on the single market, than we send a signal that this is against European rules.
Surely Lithuania knew China would respond forcefully to allowing Taiwan — which Beijing claims as part of China — to open a representative office under its own name, as opposed to using Chinese Taipei, a title other countries often use to get around this question.
We stand by the belief that people can have a name for their representative office of their liking if it’s agreed between the two sides and if it’s not infringing on any international obligations. So we stand by it. But the escalation level that China decided to choose is beyond anything that’s happened before against any other country in the world. This is like the Spanish Inquisition, which nobody had expected.