THE CHINA-LITHUANIA CONTROVERSY: AND ITS IMPACT ON THE EUROPEAN UNION?

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In July of last year, Lithuania took the bold step of permitting Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, under its own name. The nation accomplished this feat on November 18, 2021. In other European countries and the USA, Taiwan represents itself under the name of Taipei to avoid referencing itself as an island claimed by China. China also does not want nations to use language that might suggest Taiwan as a sovereign state.

Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Lithuania
Image courtesy- Twitter@The Taiwanese Representative Office in Lit
huania

China regards independent and democratic Taiwan as part of its territory. It resists any international support for Taiwan’s sovereignty. Lithuania’s initiative incurred Beijing’s wrath. China responded by downgrading its relations with Vilnius and blocking all exports from the European nation.

Lithuania possibly sees something of its history in that of Taiwan. Once, it was a tiny democracy struggling to assert independence against a huge communist empire. It was the first Soviet Republic to remove the title of Soviet from its name. It is a past that kindles solidarity. Economic self-interest is involved as well. Lithuania has benefited comparatively little from trade with China, whereas Taiwan offered it a billion dollars in credits and investment. 

A prominent factor uniting Lithuania with Taiwan is the former’s struggle to protect its democracy.
Image courtesy- Twitter@LithuaniaMFA

What does this mean for Lithuania?

Lithuania is one of the fifteen countries that have diplomatic ties with Taiwan. When Lithuania permitted Taiwan to open its representative office in July, China called on Lithuania to withdraw its ambassador a month later. Lithuania soon recalled its ambassador to Vilnius.

China’s General Administration of Customs suspended imports of beef, dairy products and beer from Lithuania, citing “lack of documentation” as their official reason. The real reason is well understood since this suspension occurred right after Lithuania warmed up to Taiwan. Anything with the label of “made in Lithuania” began to be blocked.

Lithuanian embassy in Beijing, China
Image courtesy- Reuters

China is a global superpower. It is the world’s top exporter, accounting for over twelve per cent of the global total. Hence, its massive economic strength gives it irresistible leverage over global supply chains. It has both the ability and audacity to strike wherever these supply chains intersect. 

China also halted its exports to Lithuania, depriving local small-scale manufacturers of the required components and raw materials. It is doing everything it can to cut Lithuania from the economic map.

Irena Marazaite-Lin, a German-Mandarin translator from Lithuania, has rightly commented: “It is easy for China to bully a small country like Lithuania, but it will not be so easy if all democratic countries can stand united.” The question remains–is the rest of the world doing enough? Or is Lithuania doomed in its attempt to stand up against bullies?

What has the European Union done so far?

Gabrielius Landsbergis, the foreign minister of Lithuania and one of the core motivators of its close ties with Taiwan, went to France in January to meet EU foreign ministers. All he received, in essence, were vague promises of support. The European Union in January filed a complaint regarding this conflict with the World Trade Organization. They called China’s actions against Lithuania “illegal and discriminatory.” Besides that, they have left one of its smallest and weakest members to fend for itself against a mighty force.

Flags of Lithuania and the European Union fluttering side by side
Image courtesy- Reuters

The EU has proposed an “anti-coercion instrument.” The European Commission published its official proposal on December 8, 2021. It claims that economic coercion can be considered a violation of international law. In the past, there have been multiple instances where more powerful nations have applied economic pressure on developing countries to coerce them into a particular course of action. 

There are certain limits to the anti-coercion instrument. First and foremost, we have not yet seen it in action, thus making it impossible to determine its potential. The various circumstances in the proposal suggest that only incidents of grave economic coercion will prompt the EU into action. 

This instrument should require majority support and not unanimity of all the twenty-seven member states. As of now, it is too easy for huge countries like China or Russia to convince one member state to vote in their favour. However, such limited scope of application makes sense from a diplomatic perspective. 

Giving in to the Chinese pressure

As Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels, has observed, most European leaders will look at Lithuania and decide that they will not do anything which might upset China. Interferences in trade would be a great source of worry for European governments and businesses. 

Port of Klaipėda, Lithuania.
China has been incessantly trying to have a controlling stake in this strategically important port through investments.

Suppose China can meddle with and cause disruptions in the economic chain of one country because of political disagreements. In that case, it can do the same to curb European trade with any other place whose political relations with China suddenly deteriorate. Consequently, European companies could easily reel under Chinese pressure over political disputes.

A scary future for Lithuania and the world 

We also get to see what economic coercion from China could look like.

“With Russia’s expansionist project in Ukraine, China’s intentions with Taiwan might sadly take an even darker turn.”

The European Union has rarely ever looked this united before. China has continually demonstrated its willingness in weaponizing its economy to pressure other countries into behaving as per its selfish political vision. The element of systemic rivalry in EU-China relations signals more possible conflicts, which is not something the world is ready for.

The role of the United States

The United States has not shied away from being openly critical of China’s improper activities. In January, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson of China, Wang Wenbin, lashed out at the US for defending Lithuania’s “erroneous act of creating ‘one China, one Taiwan’.” These remarks came after some US diplomats stated that the Chinese pressure against Lithuania was unwarranted.

Even in the recent turmoil in Ukraine, the United States has been vocal in its support for the European country under attack. The US has a significant role in this equation of rocky relations between Europe and China. This will most likely affect transatlantic trade and political relations.

Conclusion

The world is in a vulnerable spot.

“The lives of ordinary people, who want to survive, are being thwarted by the immature grievances of international leaders.”

China has vowed to retake Taiwan, and it seems like it will not refrain from using force.

Lithuania tried to help but, unfortunately, is paying the price for it. We cannot ascertain whether the European nations will become more vocal about Taiwan. However, what is happening in Ukraine is a wake-up call. Europeans have also noted international support for Ukraine. Hence, the actions of China and Russia might allow them to differentiate between allies and otherwise.

Read more about how China suppressed the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong here!

About the Author

VAISHNAVI SINGH

Vaishnavi Singh is a lover of poetry and literature. She is currently pursuing a major in English along with a minor in sociology. Vaishnavi has always been passionate about improving the world around her, one step at a time, and she hopes her time with The International Prism will contribute to that goal.

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