Lithuania fights for more than national interests in dispute with China
Last month, China recalled its ambassador to Lithuania and demanded that Vilnius do the same in response to Lithuania’s plans to establish reciprocal diplomatic offices with Taiwan. Despite pressure from Beijing, the Lithuanian government refused to back down on its plans to deepen relations with Taipei.
This week on the Trend Lines podcast this week, Edward Lucas, a non-resident senior researcher at the Center for European Policy Analysis and former editor-in-chief of The Economist, joined WPR’s Elliot Waldman to discuss the history and background behind the strong anti-authoritarian streak. in Lithuania’s foreign policy.
Listen to the full conversation here:
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The following is a partial transcript of the interview. It has been slightly edited for clarity.
Global Policy Review: You recently wrote a few songs on the dust between China and Lithuania that I mentioned in the introduction. When it comes to swapping representative offices with Taiwan, one can apologize for wondering why China is backing down so loudly in this case. Don’t many countries have similar deals with Taiwan after all?
Edouard Lucas: You’re right. Most countries have a representative office in their capital city, which is usually called something like the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. The big question for the mainland Chinese is to preserve what they call the “One China” policy: that there is only one China, and that Taiwan is part of it. Now, it has wiggle room because Taiwan’s official name is the Republic of China, so you can have diplomatic relations with Taiwan and believe in the one-China policy, or you can have diplomatic relations with Beijing. and believe in the one-China policy. What you cannot do is have diplomatic relations with Beijing and Taipei.
The Lithuanians have taken a step in this direction by calling on the Taipei authorities to open an office in Vilnius, which will be called the Taiwan office for the first time, and not the Taipei office. It might seem like just a few consonants and vowels of difference, but it is a deliberate attempt to face the Chinese Communist Party and say, “We are not obeying your rules on how the rest of the world interacts with Taiwan.” . “
WPR: What costs could Lithuania incur by taking this position?
Edouard Lucas: China is getting very angry with countries getting too close to Taiwan. However, this does not always correspond to acts as expressed in words. We saw, in the summer of 2020, that a large Czech delegation led by the third elected politician of the Czech Republic, Senate Speaker Milos Vystrcil, visited Taiwan, where he delivered a speech to parliament. Taiwanese, about which the Chinese were extremely furious. They said it was a serious violation of the “One China” policy. However, the actual sanctions were quite ineffective. I think a direct flight was canceled and there were a few lost contracts, but in the end not much happened.
A small country can make a very big difference in symbolic terms, because it shows that China doesn’t have the control it likes to think about.
So, to use the figurative language of Chairman Mao’s day, Chinese anger was a paper tiger. And I suspect it will be the same for Lithuania. They lost their ambassador in Beijing, Diana Mickeviciene, who had to return home, and the Chinese called their ambassador out of Vilnius. But I think from the Lithuanian point of view, life will go on. Fortunately, Lithuania is not very exposed to Chinese exports, it is not particularly dependent on Chinese imports, and there are many other places where Lithuania can sell. So if a country in Europe wants to take a stand on this, Lithuania is a very good candidate to do so.
WPR: Taiwan could be one of those countries Lithuania could sell to. From what I understand, some Lithuanian export products suddenly become very popular in Taiwan.
Edouard Lucas: Yes, it’s true. Taiwan, with a population of around 20 million, will never be the same as a country of 1.3 billion or 1.4 billion, like mainland China is. But for a country like Lithuania, it doesn’t really matter. So if even a million Taiwanese start buying Lithuanian products on principle, be it beer, chocolate, cheese or whatever, that’s a big deal. Getting the same type of sales in mainland China, where Lithuania is a tiny part of the business landscape, is much more difficult. So it may well be that in the end Lithuania is doing better than worse.
WPR: You would think that when it comes to dealing with countries like China and Russia which are known for their weight in world affairs, the big countries would have more leverage to stand up, while the bigger ones little ones like Lithuania might be forced to fold. However, here we are witnessing precisely the opposite. Lithuania is probably the one with the most intransigent stance vis-à-vis China in Europe, while the major powers are moving much more cautiously. How do you explain that?
Edouard Lucas: I think there is no doubt that Lithuania is leading the charge against Chinese economic coercion and also against the kind of hegemonic control of speech that China likes to practice by dictating how other countries talk about things. There are six countries that refused to participate in China’s so-called 17 + 1, which is a kind of beauty pageant for countries in the Eastern European region, but Lithuania is far ahead. .
I think the reason is that a small country, even if its economy is more vulnerable, can more easily compensate for a trade shock, especially when it comes from a far away country. Lithuania exports only 1 or 2% of its exports to China; maybe it’s halved because of Chinese dissatisfaction, but you can easily put an extra half a percentage point on your exports to another country. Whereas if you are Germany and China is your main trading partner and you are one of the biggest economies in the world, dealing with this trade shock is much more difficult.
However, while I think that a small country can make a very big difference in symbolic terms, because it shows that China is not in control that it likes to think it is, it is only ‘a preliminary part of the resistance. I think the big question will be: What is the European Union doing? Because the EU, with 420 million consumers and a GDP of 20 trillion dollars, is in a very good position to negotiate with China. And that is why it is very important that the European Parliament blocked its investment deal with mainland China and pushed forward an investment deal with Taiwan. Because the Chinese may be able to intimidate a small country, but it is much more difficult for them to intimidate the European Union.
Never mind that the Chinese Communist Party alone is more than 30 times the total population of Lithuania and the Chinese population is about 400 times larger. They don’t mind.
WPR: What role does history play in all of this? You mentioned that you spent time in the Baltic States around the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I wonder to what extent one can speak of a kind of anti-authoritarian culture that developed in Lithuania during of the last decades.
Edouard Lucas: I wouldn’t say it has grown since; I would say it’s been there from the start. The Lithuanians fought their Soviet occupiers in the forests until the late 1950s and were the first to erase the traces of the Gorbachev era who began by campaigning for what then seemed to be the very goal. unrealistic independence.
One of the reasons is Lithuanian history. Lithuania was a superpower. If you look at a historical atlas, it stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. It was bigger than modern Germany or France; it was the largest country in Europe at that time. And it is still there in Lithuanian thought. They instinctively see the big picture, and they feel they can make a big difference in that picture. And they were right about that, because they unleashed the avalanche that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, unilaterally declaring the restoration of their independence on March 11, 1990, at a time when it seemed to be sort of suicidal policy.
I was there at the time, and I remember how people laughed at Lithuanians and called them crazy, but it worked. And they adopt the same attitude towards the Chinese Communist Party. Never mind that the Chinese Communist Party alone is more than 30 times the size of the entire population of Lithuania, and the Chinese population is about 400 times the size. They don’t mind. They just think, “Empires rise and fall. We have to do the right thing and, if we show enough courage and stubbornness, we will win in the end. “
WPR: It sounds like a similar stance Lithuania has taken towards Belarus and Russia, for example welcoming Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and providing her with a platform to speak out against dictator Alexander Lukashenko . To what extent are these government measures also supported by the Lithuanian public?
Edouard Lucas: Well I’m glad you mentioned Belarus because it really fits into this idea of Lithuanian history. There was a time when what is now the Lithuanian language was widely spoken in Belarus, and there is a lot of common history between these countries, as well as with Poland and Ukraine. The year 1863 is extremely important in all of these countries, for it was the uprising against Tsarist rule, which ended in disastrous terms but started the fire which one could claim to have ultimately led to the downfall of the Russian Empire and the restoration of independence for Poland, Lithuania and other countries in 1918. This rebellion had the slogan “For your freedom and ours”. These words are as close to their hearts as the phrase “We take these truths to be self-evident” is to American listeners. It resonates instantly.
Thus, Lithuania has always taken a keen interest in Belarus, and they helped start the pro-democracy movement there in its last eruption, finding and burying one of the heroes of this uprising of 1863, Konstanty Kalinowski. He had sort of a state funeral in Lithuania in the summer of 2019, and I think it really helped Belarusians understand that they are part of a larger whole and that it still resonates within the movement. pro-democracy. It is very important in Lithuania.
Now obviously not all Lithuanians see it the same way, but many do. We have seen some big protests for Belarus, and I would say there is probably a stronger national consensus in Lithuania around Belarusian politics than there is around Chinese politics, as some Lithuanians say : “Wait, do we really want to fight the two Putins, who are our biggest neighbor, the Belarusians and the Chinese Communist Party at the same time? This may sound intimidating, even to the bravest of Lithuanians. But then, that’s what they do.