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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. Now, the Foreign Ministry clarifies that they never declared any diplomatic boycott against 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. How did this happen?
Our companies could no longer find Lithuania as a clearance option in Chinese customs. We were removed from the list as a country. This was the strongest piece of evidence. There are many other documents. We are now giving all of the information we have to the European Commission trade department. They will evaluate it legal.
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. *) It was not a mistake. It was not a mistake for Taiwanese to be allowed to claim Taiwanese citizenship. It hasn’t violated the one China policy, and we are clear about that. … So what we are calling a mistake is China’s reaction — what our companies, European companies, are now facing. The error is [the Chinese government’s decision to] to unilaterally rename the Embassy of Lithuania in Beijing. It is an error, and some might argue that it is in violation of international regulations.
What did the Chinese change the name to?
I think that they’re calling it something like an office of charge d’affaires. Our legislation doesn’t allow us to call our offices this. 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. The Foreign Ministry clarified, however that Lithuania was not participating in such a boycott. Could you please explain?
What we’ve consistently said is that there was no official decision to call it a boycott. However, neither a diplomat nor an official will be attending. When asked if it could be called a diplomatic boycott, we explained that there had been no decision made by Parliament or the government to do so.
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. This is official news. It’s not how I would have liked it to be phrased. As a politician I can only say that the Chinese pressure on companies in our country is putting an undue strain on efforts to build consensus.
What has China’s actions cost Lithuanian companies so far?
We’re talking in the millions. We’re talking in the millions. We’re trying to assist companies in getting their cargo out [of China].. This puts a great deal of pressure on the government. China is escalating its attacks on European and German businesses. We believe it is not a bilateral problem. This is a European issue. There must be a European solution.
Have the Chinese done this in the hopes that the E.U. Do you think the Chinese are trying to pressure Lithuania into a concession?
That is one of the possible explanations.
Is that tactic going to work?
It very much depends on the European answer. It is possible that Europe and the large multinational corporations will put pressure on Lithuania. The question now is whether or not the European Union will be able to withstand this pressure. It’s easy to place a lot pressure on Lithuania, and then expect it to fall. We can only take so much pressure. We can only take so much pressure. But, we must stand united.
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. We stand behind it. China’s decision to escalate is unlike anything else that has happened against other countries in the world. It’s akin to the Spanish Inquisition.