Lithuania on Thursday became the first country to host a diplomatic representation of Taiwan in Europe in 18 years. What irritate Beijing to the highest point. Especially since this is not Lithuania’s first provocation against China.
It is a small European thorn that continues to sink ever deeper into the foot of the Chinese giant. Lithuania continues to challenge Beijing and, Thursday, November 18, it became the first European country in 18 years to host a Taiwanese diplomatic representation on its soil.
“What is very important here is the semantics: it is officially a question of a Taiwanese delegation, and not of Taipei, that is to say the name accepted by Beijing”, underlines Grzegorz Stec, specialist. relations between China and Eastern European countries for the Mercator Institute for Chinese Studies (Merics), contacted by France 24.
This unprecedented opening of what is closest to a de facto embassy in Europe for Asian territory also comes at a time of sharp Sino-American tensions around the question of the status of Taiwan.
No wonder in this context that Beijing reacted without delay, describing the Lithuanian decision as “particularly odious”. The superpower added that Lithuania should henceforth “hold itself responsible for whatever happens to it”. A fuzzy threat that suggests the worst is yet to come for Vilnius.
“We are experiencing a deep diplomatic crisis between our two countries. China no longer has ambassadors in Lithuania [depuis juillet 2021] and we also withdrew ours ”, acknowledges Konstantinas Andrijauskas, researcher at the Institute of International Relations at Vilnius University and one of the main China specialists in Lithuania, contacted by France 24.
And it’s not just because of Taiwanese diplomatic representation. For several months, Lithuania has behaved like a particularly provocative David with regard to the Asian Goliath.
Vilnius has decided to leave, in May 2021, the “17 + 1 group”, a diplomatic platform bringing together China and seventeen European countries. Not content with slamming the door on this initiative, Lithuania also called on other countries to follow it.
The Lithuanian government then “recommended”, in September, to Chinese smartphone users to “throw them away as soon as possible” while advising others not to buy them. The Lithuanian National Center for Cybersecurity had concluded that manufacturers like Xiaomi had installed “sleeping” spyware in their devices.
“We can say that Lithuania is the country which has taken the most radical anti-Chinese measures in Europe,” admits Emilian Kavalski, specialist in relations between China and the countries of Eastern Europe at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. , contacted by France 24.
A new government more hostile to China
It is no coincidence that it is precisely this Baltic country that has become the first opponent to China in Europe. Several factors contributed to this, starting “with a series of unfortunate incidents in 2019 which exacerbated anti-Chinese sentiment in Lithuania”, recalls Una Bērziņa-Čerenkova, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Riga (Latvia), contacted by France 24. In August 2019, while pro-Hong Kong protests were taking place in Vilnius, officials from the Chinese Embassy in Lithuania were accused of organizing and participating in counter-demonstrations “which constituted a serious violation of the obligations of diplomatic personnel and provoked strong reactions ”, underlines Una Bērziņa-Čerenkova.
A few months later, a Chinese tourist filmed removing a cross at one of Lithuania’s most sacred religious sites. An act of vandalism which shocked the country all the more because this place “is not only religious, it is also a place of political pilgrimage and the cross which had been placed was a sign of support for the democratic movement in Hong Kong ”, explains the Riga University researcher.
After public opinion, it is the government’s turn to become more hostile towards Beijing thanks to the victory of the center-right conservatives – much more aligned with American foreign policy priorities – in the legislative elections of October 2020 The new Prime Minister, Ingrida Šimonytė, appoints as Foreign Minister a man, Gabrielius Landsbergis, whose grandfather, Vytautas Landsbergis, was the first president of post-Soviet Lithuania and one of the most important figures of the opposition to the communist regimes (Russia and China) in the history of the country.
The government “then decides to reorient its foreign policy in favor of countries which share more its political values”, explains Konstantinas Andrijauskas, of the University of Vilnius. Lithuania has had “enough of waiting to take advantage of the economic benefits promised for more than a decade by China and which seemed to it very meager until now”, continues Grzegorz Stec.
This Merics researcher adds that Vilnius “made the bet that there was more to gain than to lose by moving away from China”. Beijing has very few leverage because “Lithuania is one of the European countries least economically dependent on China,” says Konstantinas Andrijauskas.
An example to follow in Europe?
For now, China has made life impossible for a few Lithuanian dairy-exporting companies and has threatened to block freight trains heading to Lithuania. “But that doesn’t weigh much compared to the prospect of hosting, perhaps, the next semiconductor plant in Europe from Taiwanese giant TSMC if economic relations with Taiwan deepen,” says Grzegorz Stec.
It also sends a signal to Washington. “By criticizing China while drawing closer to Taiwan, Lithuania reminds the United States that they have a reliable ally who shares their values in this part of the world and that they would do well to protect it in the face of the regional ambitions of the United States. Russia and Belarus ”, notes Emilian Kavalski.
For China, the Lithuanian provocations are all the more dangerous as they prove “how fragile the Asian superpower can be when it does not have the economic weapon to put pressure on a country”, notes Emilian Kavalski. Nor can it be too threatening for “fear of alienating itself a little more the European Union which remains, among the great Western powers, the one which is still the least hostile to China”, notes Una Bērziņa- Čerenkova.
If this confrontation turns in Lithuania’s favor, the risk is that other European countries will follow suit and that the Asian Goliath will find itself facing an army of David. “Large countries like Germany or France are too dependent economically on China, but it will be interesting to see the influence of Lithuanian policy on states like the Czech Republic and Hungary”, notes Emilian Kavalski.
The Czech Republic has just elected a new conservative majority in October 2021 which could be inspired by the Lithuanian example, while Hungary could vote against Viktor Orban, a great friend of Xi Jinping, in the 2022 elections.