China has blocked all imports from Lithuania and has ordered multinational companies to sever ties with the Baltic country, in retaliation for Lithuania's decision to allow Taiwan to open a representative office in its capital, Vilnius. (Photo by Petras Makukas/AFP via Getty Images)
China has blocked all imports from Lithuania and has ordered multinational companies to sever ties with the Baltic country or face being shut out of the Chinese market.
The extraordinary sanctions, which amount to a full economic boycott of Lithuania, are in retaliation for the country's decision to allow Taiwan to open a representative office in its capital, Vilnius.
Taiwan has other offices in Europe and the United States, but they use the name of its capital city, Taipei, due to the host countries' preference to avoid any semblance of treating Taiwan as a separate country. Beijing insists that the democratically self-ruled island is a part of the territory of the communist People's Republic of China and has no right to the trappings of a state.
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda says that his country will not capitulate to bullying from China and that he is committed to defending the principles and values of democracy from attack.
Lithuania, which has a population of fewer than 3 million, regained independence in 1990 after almost half a century of occupation by the Soviet Union. Lithuania has become one of the strongest defenders of democracy within the European Union and NATO.
On December 9, Lithuania's Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mantas Adomėnas, said that China had warned multinational companies to stop doing business with Lithuanian suppliers:
"China has been sending messages to multinationals that if they use parts and supplies from Lithuania, they will no longer be allowed to sell to the Chinese market or get supplies there. We have seen some companies cancel contracts with Lithuanian suppliers."
The Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, which represents thousands of Lithuanian companies, confirmed that some multinational companies that buy goods from Lithuanian suppliers were being targeted by China. In an interview with the Reuters news agency, Confederation President Vidmantas Janulevičius said:
"This week was the first time we saw direct Chinese pressure on a supplier to drop Lithuanian-made goods. Previously, we only had threats it could happen, now they became reality.
"For us, the most painful part is that it's a European company. Many Lithuanian businesses are suppliers for such companies."
Lithuania's direct trade with China is relatively small; the country exported €300 million worth of goods to China in 2020, less than 1% of its total exports. It is, however, home to hundreds of companies that make products for multinationals that sell to China.
On December 1, China delisted Lithuania as a country of origin, meaning that its goods cannot clear customs. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that China effectively had blocked all imports from Lithuania.
In a December 3 interview with the Financial Times, Landsbergis denounced the "unannounced" and "unprecedented" sanctions. He said that Lithuania would ask the European Commission, the administrative body of the European Union, for assistance.
Lithuania's Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Arnoldas Pranckevičius, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in Washington, DC, warned that China's harassment of Lithuania should be a "wakeup call" for Europe:
"China is trying to make an example out of us — a negative example — so that other countries do not follow our path. Therefore, it is a matter of principle how the Western community, the United States, and European Union react."
Help from the European Commission is unlikely to come soon, as the EU is deeply divided over relations with China. Larger member states such as France and Germany are reluctant to jeopardize economic ties with China, while smaller member states, including Lithuania, Czechia, Slovakia and Slovenia have urged the EU to stand united against Chinese pressure.
On December 8, the European Commission issued a tepid statement which said that it would launch an investigation into whether China's measures against Lithuania are in breach of the rules of the World Trade Organization:
"The EU has been informed that Lithuanian shipments are not being cleared through the Chinese customs and that import applications from Lithuania are being rejected. We are in close contact with the Lithuanian government and are gathering information via the EU Delegation in Beijing in a timely manner. We are also reaching out to the Chinese authorities to rapidly clarify the situation....
"If the information received were to be confirmed, the EU would also assess the compatibility of China's action with its obligations under the World Trade Organization.
"The EU remains committed to its One China Policy and recognizes the government of the People's Republic of China as the sole government of China. Within the framework of this long-established policy, the EU will pursue cooperation and exchanges with Taiwan in areas of common interest."
The daily tabloid Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, warned the EU to "act with caution" when it comes to Lithuania's trade complaint:
"Even though Lithuania is an EU member, there is no need to let China-EU trade be derailed or hijacked by Lithuania's wanton provocation of China's internal affairs.
"Nevertheless, we have no intention to deny that economic and trade cooperation between Lithuania and China will be affected after China downgraded its diplomatic relations with Lithuania to the level of chargé d'affaires, the lowest rank of diplomatic representative, over the latter's breach of the One-China principle.
"Make no mistake that any country that provokes China's core interests is bound to find itself on the receiving end of countermeasures."
On December 13, during a meeting of EU's 27 foreign ministers, the Lithuania-China issue reportedly was not even discussed, even though it was earmarked by Germany's new foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock. The issue presumably was vetoed by France, which currently holds the six-month rotating EU presidency.
Laurence Norman, Europe correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, tweeted:
"EU foreign mins did not discuss Lithuania-China situation today. Extraordinary. A silence which will ring very loud in Beijing."
Meanwhile, Landsbergis, the Lithuanian foreign minister, said that he would not be attending the 2022 Olympic Games in China. France countered that it would not take part in any boycott. Luxembourg's Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said that any common EU position would not be reached quickly: "You know as well as I do that we will not find a solution regarding the Olympic Games today or this week."
China analyst Theresa Fallon tweeted:
"EU demonstrates once again that values are only talked about at conferences... lonely Lithuania stated it will have diplomatic Olympic boycott. But France, Luxembourg, Hungary will attend Olympics."
The Reuters news agency noted:
"The bloc is torn over whether to join the United States, Canada, Australia and Britain in deciding not to send their government officials to the Beijing Winter Games in February, fearful of Chinese retaliation that would hurt trade."
Analyst Giovanni Giamello, writing for the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies, noted that Lithuania's deepening relations with Taiwan are part of a broader strategy to strengthen relations with the United States:
"Beijing requires its partners to recognize only the People's Republic of China (PRC) and to treat the so-called Republic of China not as an independent Taiwan but as a 'rogue province' of the PRC. Vilnius' defiance of this requirement should not be misread as potentially reckless idealism — it is a deft move by a small state on the geopolitical stage....
"Lithuania perceives Beijing as a threat more than other EU countries do — not least because of China's relationship with Russia....
"It was a conscious choice by Vilnius to stress — and strengthen— its ties with the US as the threat from China was seen to be rising. The US is Lithuania's most valuable ally and security guarantor — the same role it has in Taiwan. Other Baltic states share the same concerns, and some Central and Eastern European countries are starting to take more interest in Taiwan....
"Vilnius has taken a clear geopolitical decision to stand up to China and side with the US.... It is time for other EU countries that are discontented with or wary of China to clearly spell out similar stances."
The London-based magazine, The Economist, wrote:
"The governments in many eastern European countries can trace their roots back to the anti-Soviet movements of the late 1980s and 1990s. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Slovakia are all led by centrist or center-right coalitions that are increasingly hawkish on China. Many see similarities between the Soviet Union, which once controlled them, and today's oppressive China.
"But their concerns are not just historic. In the Czech Republic, for example, public opinion began to sour towards China in 2017 when it was accused by journalists and politicians of trying to interfere in Czech politics by dangling the promise of massive investments. In 2018 the Czech intelligence service said Chinese espionage was a greater threat to the country's security than Russian interference.
"Marcin Jerzewski of Taiwan NextGen Foundation, a Taipei-based think-tank, says there is a growing awareness in central and eastern Europe that Taiwan 'is the best partner for sharing best practices against authoritarianism.'"
Asia analyst Gautam Chikermane, Vice President of the Observer Research Foundation, an India-based foreign policy think tank, noted that Lithuania's embrace of Taiwan provides the EU with an opportunity to stand up to China's bullying tactics:
"In terms of GDP, Lithuania ranks 22nd out of 27, below Luxemburg, Bulgaria, and Croatia. In terms of per capita income, it ranks 19th, below Estonia, Czech Republic and Portugal. But in terms of taking a moral and spirited stance against the excesses of China, the tiny nation of Lithuania is punching way above its weight and has set a benchmark that the rest of the European Union (EU) must support and follow. Such leadership, particularly when stronger countries like Germany and France are buckling under the pressure and onslaught of this rising rogue nation, needs to be supported by countries across the world....
"What's surprising, even shocking, is the way the EU biggies are bending over backwards to accommodate the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), ignoring human rights issues and labor camps in China....
"While the Big 2 [France and Germany] continue to make spaces to accommodate Chinese hegemony, ignore its use of forced labor in Xinjiang and allow it to infiltrate the EU, it is the smaller and younger countries like Lithuania that are taking the moral high ground, by standing up for the principles on which the EU was founded....
"Under the Chairman of Everything in China, Xi Jinping, the country has told the world that it has economic power and will weaponize it to smother everything, from using democracy and its institutional fractures to rewriting maps for conquest to extending its surveillance state architecture to the rest of the world. It is time for the EU to end its extramarital affairs with authoritarianism.... That China is a threat to democracies, in general, and the EU, in particular, is visible to all but the EU. Other than geography, the essence of the EU is values. And one event after another, one country at a time, the EU is giving them up....
"For the moment, it seems Brussels is hiding its head and values in the sands of trade. Instead, it should use Lithuania to ramp up the unity, collate interests, and declare a state of reciprocity.
"Intoxicated by the servility and the accommodation by the EU, the CCP is running amok. It has hit Lithuania with unofficial trade sanctions, as it did earlier with eight countries: Canada, Japan, Lithuania, Mongolia, Norway, the Philippines, South Korea, and of course, Taiwan.
"This entire narrative of assuaging an 'angry China' is manipulated by the CCP, fed to a pliant media, and digested by policyframers. That the EU is following this narrative as a US $15-trillion strong concert of democratic nations is a shame. It needs to understand its own power, economic as well as strategic, and prevent further assaults by China on its members.
"The CCP has no scruples; it does not believe in the rule of law. When countries kneel, Beijing kicks. This is natural. Bend before a bully and you strengthen the bullying. At such a time, when smaller nations are raising the pitch, the hands-off approach from the EU is a shame. It is Vilnius today. To think that this assault will not reach Berlin and Paris tomorrow is being strategically naïve — the barbarians from Beijing will be at their gates sooner rather than later.
"It's time the EU got its act together. And the first step, howsoever late, begins with Lithuania."
Jakub Janda, director of the Prague-based European Values Center for Security Policy, concluded:
"China as a communist superpower is so scared of 3-million Lithuania on the other side of the globe. Lithuania is the bravest country in Europe. We should all stand up with Lithuania."
Appendix 1: Timeline of Bilateral Relations
Lithuania established formal diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC) in September 1991, after it regained its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union. As part of its diplomatic agreement with the PRC, Lithuania recognized the so-called One-China policy, which asserts that Taiwan is part of China.
The Chinese government says that Lithuania, by allowing Taiwan to use its official name on its representative office mission in Vilnius, is violating the 1991 agreement. Lithuanian Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė counters that the agreement signed with China has not been violated and is still in force. She adds that the opening of Taiwan's representative office, which does not have a formal diplomatic status, should not have come as a surprise to anyone:
"Our government's program says Lithuania wants a more intense economic, cultural and scientific relationship with Taiwan. I want to emphasize that this step does not mean any conflict or disagreement with the 'One China' policy."
In recent years, Lithuania, much to the irritation of China, has repeatedly voiced support for Taiwan. In April 2020, for instance, more than 200 Lithuanian political and intellectual elites jointly sent a letter to Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda calling on the government to support Taiwan's participation in the World Health Organization (WHO) and other international organizations. In May 2020, the Lithuanian foreign ministry called on WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to invite Taiwan to an international assembly on the Coronavirus pandemic.
Since then, recent events include:
November 9, 2020. Lithuania's new government pledged to support "freedom fighters" in Taiwan. A coalition agreement — signed by leaders of the Homeland Union, Liberal Movement and Freedom parties, which together won 74 seats in the 141-seat parliament during elections held on October 25 — committed the new government to carry out a "values-based" foreign policy: "We will actively oppose any violation of human rights and democratic freedoms, and will defend those fighting for freedom around the world, from Belarus to Taiwan."
Taiwan's Foreign Ministry thanked Lithuania for its support:
"Lithuania and Taiwan are like-minded partners, and the foreign ministry sincerely thanks friends in Lithuania for continuing to take concrete actions to defend shared values."
China's embassy in Vilnius said that Beijing is ready to work with Lithuanian government "on the basis of mutual respect to sovereignty and territorial integrity as well as non-interference in each other's domestic affairs."
March 22, 2021. The European Union and the United Kingdom joined the United States and Canada and imposed sanctions on four Chinese officials accused of responsibility for abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, a remote autonomous region in northwestern China. The Chinese government responded to the EU sanctions by announcing its own sanctions on 14 European entities and persons, including Lithuanian Member of Parliament Dovilė Šakalienė, who has publicly criticized the Chinese government for human rights abuses.
May 20, 2021. The Lithuanian Parliament approved a non-binding resolution which described China's treatment of its Uyghur minority as "genocide." The Parliament called for a U.N. investigation of internment camps and asked the EU to review relations with Beijing. The resolution further called on China to abolish a national security law in Hong Kong, and to let observers into Tibet and to begin talks with its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Lithuanian Member of Parliament Dovilė Šakalienė, who sponsored the resolution, said: "We support democracy, as we will never forget the cruel lesson of living under occupation by a Communist regime for 50 years."
May 22, 2021. Lithuania withdrew from a '17+1' dialogue forum between China and Central and Eastern European countries. The so-called Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC) was established by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2012. Critics argue that the forum is part of a "divided and conquer" strategy designed to benefit China at Europe's expense. Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the group was "divisive" and the urged EU to pursue "a much more effective 27+1 approach and communication with China."
July 20, 2021. Taiwan's Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, announced that Taiwan would open a representative office in Lithuania to expand its relations with the Baltic nation and other Central European countries. He said that the new office would be called the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania — the first time the island's name has been used for one of its offices in Europe. Lithuanian MP Dovilė Šakalienė tweeted: "What a beautiful morning #Lithuania and #Taiwan will become even closer friends. We both are small democratic states, both neighbored by bloody authoritarian regimes, but both not easily intimidated."
August 10, 2021. China recalled its ambassador to Lithuania. In a statement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said: "We urge the Lithuanian side to immediately rectify its wrong decision, take concrete measures to undo the damage, and not to move further down the wrong path."
August 11, 2021. The European Union External Action Service said that the EU does not regard the opening of a representative office [as opposed to an embassy or consulate] in or from Taiwan as a breach of the EU's One-China policy.
August 13, 2021. China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hua Chunying replied:
"There is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China's territory. The People's Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China. This is an indisputable fact, a universally recognized norm governing international relations and the common consensus of the international community. Any country, when following the one-China policy, must strictly abide by the one-China principle, including severing all official ties with the Taiwan authorities. Certain countries and people are trying to confuse public opinion with malicious intentions, but their plot is doomed to fail. China urges the EU to uphold a correct position on Taiwan-related issues and refrain from sending wrong signals on issues concerning China's core interests and creating new troubles for China-EU relations."
August 15, 2021. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, in an interview with the Financial Times, said:
"We would like to also have relations with China based on the principle of mutual respect. Otherwise, the dialogue turns into unilateral ultimatums, requirements which are not acceptable in international relations...
"As a sovereign and independent country, Lithuania is free to decide which countries or territories it develops economic and cultural relations with."
Nausėda said that Lithuania had learned "certain moral lessons" since independence:
"We really take our responsibility as a new member of NATO and the EU very seriously because of our historical lessons and experience. Our history was painful, our history was complicated. But we think that principles and values even in the 21st century mean a lot and we try to defend them."
September 3, 2021. Lithuania recalled its ambassador to China.
September 22, 2021. Lithuania donated more than 200,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Taiwan. This is in addition to 20,000 doses it donated to Taiwan in June. Taiwan's vaccination program has been hobbled by supply delays
September 30, 2021. Lithuania's Parliament passed a law that establishes the legal basis for the country to open an economic and trade office in Taiwan. The new office, which is expected to open by the end of 2021, could be named the "Lithuanian Representative Office" or the "Lithuanian Trade Representative Office," according to Lithuania's Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mantas Adomėnas. Lithuanian Economy Minister Aušrinė Armonaitė said that many other members of the European Union have already opened an office in Taiwan, and that Lithuania will do the same.
November 18, 2021. Taiwan formally opened its office in Vilnius. In a statement, Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said:
"The Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania officially commences its operation in Vilnius on November 18, 2021. The blessed opening will charter a new and promising course for the bilateral relations between Taiwan and Lithuania....
"Taiwan and Lithuania have huge potential for cooperation in various industries such as semi-conductor, laser, fintech and many others. Just recently in late October, a Taiwan delegation promoting economic, trade and investment ties with Lithuania had a successful visit in Vilnius. The two sides signed six MOUs, ushering in a shared vision of blueprint for closer cooperation ahead, laying a solid foundation for greater bonds of our two peoples. Taiwan will cherish and promote this new friendship based on our shared values."
November 19, 2021. In a statement, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said:
"The Lithuanian government, in disregard of the Chinese side's strong objection and repeated dissuasion, has approved the establishment of the so-called 'Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania' by the Taiwan authorities. This act creates the false impression of 'one China, one Taiwan' in the world, flagrantly violates the one-China principle, and renounces the political commitment made by Lithuania in the communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. It undermines China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and grossly interferes in China's internal affairs. The Chinese government expresses strong protest over and firm objection to this extremely egregious act, and will take all necessary measures to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Lithuanian side shall be responsible for all the ensuing consequences."
November 21, 2021. China downgraded its diplomatic ties with Lithuania to the level of chargé d'affaires, a rung below ambassador. In a statement, China's Foreign Ministry said that Lithuania had "undermined China's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and grossly interfered in China's internal affairs," thereby creating a "bad precedent internationally."
November 23, 2021. Lithuania signed a $600 million export credit agreement with the U.S. Export-Import Bank. The deal could more than offset the Chinese economic sanctions against Lithuania.
December 1, 2021. China delisted Lithuania as a country of origin, meaning that its goods cannot clear customs. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that China had blocked all imports from Lithuania.
December 2, 2021. Seventeen Lithuanian MPs from the ruling coalition called on politicians, the National Olympic Committee and athletes to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics. A statement said that prestigious sporting events should not be hosted by authoritarian countries that use sports to try to improve their image.
December 15. 2021. Lithuania's diplomatic delegation to Beijing (a group of 19 people comprising embassy personnel and dependents) left China in a hastily arranged departure. The move was in response to "intimidation" and growing concerns for their safety. Lithuania's Ambassador to China, Diana Mickevičienė, tweeted: "Diplomats cannot be hostages in diplomacy."
Appendix 2. China's Anti-Lithuanian Propaganda
Chinese officials and government media outlets have produced a steady stream of highly aggressive anti-Lithuanian propaganda consisting of threats, insults and smears, all aimed, apparently, at tarnishing Lithuania's reputation.
The Global Times, which reflects the sentiments and values of Chinese Communist Party officials, publishes daily diatribes against Lithuania. During a three-week period (November 23-December 14) the tabloid published dozens of articles in which it variously described Lithuania as: "a modern-day Nazi state," "a short-sighted pawn," "a trivial force," "a trouble maker," "despicable," "extreme," "filled with anger and hatred," "hypocritical," "irrational," "irresponsible," "mouse dung," "muddleheaded," "non-mainstream," "non-sensical," "not a country but a geographical destination," "on thin ice," "opportunistic," "oversensitive," "provocative," "racially puritan," "radical," "reckless," "rogue," "unreasonable," "unscrupulous," and "white supremacist."
According to the Global Times, Lithuania is guilty of: "anarchy," "antagonizing Beijing," "assaulting China," "brutal betrayal," "challenging China's bottom line," "challenging the red line," "chicanery," "collusion," "continuing on the wrong path," "continuous daydreaming," "damaging bilateral political bias," "deliberate provocation," "deliberate sabotage," "diplomatic provocation," "following orders," "following twisted and rogue logic," "gambling," "going against the trend of the times," "going too far," "hijacking," "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people," "instigating conflicts," "kidnapping the EU," "kidnapping the interests of more than 2 million Lithuanians," "losing diplomatic independence," "making excuses," "making mistakes," "miscalculation," "overestimating itself," "painting 'beautiful' skin on its ugly face," "political provocation," "punching above its weight," "putting other countries on the 'pirate ship,'" "reckless provocation," "repeatedly touching China's red line," "sacrificing people's real interests for politicians' abstract values," "setting a bad precedent," "short-sighted provocation," "sophistry and political maneuvering," "souring diplomatic relations," "standing on the anti-China forefront," "supporting secessionist forces," "trampling on China's sovereignty," "treachery," "trying to gain bargaining chips," "walking along this path of tragedy," "walking on the wrong path," and "wanton provocation."
Lithuania's actions are: "a bad precedent," "a mistake," "a smear," "a stunt," "coming to a dead end," "completely unnecessary," "crazy," "dangerous," "delusional," "despicable," "diplomatic and economic suicide," "doomed to reach a dead end," "extremely immoral," "faithless," "hostile," "malicious," "mean," "polluting friendly ties," "potentially high-cost," "provocative," "reckless," "self-defeating," "short-sighted," "stupid," "surprisingly naïve," and "very risky."
Lithuania seeks: "attention," "international exposure," "short-term political gain," "recognition," "rewards," "the international spotlight," and "to position itself as the EU leader in the forthcoming clash between the EU and China."
Lithuania must: "adhere to the One-China principle," "correct its mistakes," "immediately correct its mistake," "pay a price," "pay the price," "realize its mistakes," "realize the seriousness of its blunder," "stop the smear bias," "suffer consequences," and "take responsibility for its wrong actions."
In a November 22 editorial titled, "Let's Have a Frank Talk about Lithuania over Taiwan Question," the Global Times referred to Lithuania as vermin:
"Lithuania is a small country. Is it even qualified to spoil the situation and stir up trouble with China? The country's population is not even as large as that of Chaoyang district in Beijing. It is just a mouse, or even a flea, under the feet of a fighting elephant."
On November 30, China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian falsely accused Lithuania of anti-Semitism. He tweeted:
"In #Lithuania, there was once massacre of Jews in history. Today, racism remains a grave problem in the country, with Jews and other ethnic minorities suffering serious discrimination."
The Jewish Community of Lithuania (JCL) refuted his claim: "Lithuania is a democratic country that respects its Jewish citizens and treats all its citizens equally."
The irony seems lost on Zhao. Human rights experts say that the Chinese Communist Party has detained at least one million Uyghur Muslims in up to 380 internment camps, where they are subject to torture, mass rapes, forced labor and sterilizations.