Lithuania vs. China: A Baltic minnow defies an emerging superpower
VILNIUS, Lithuania – It has never been a secret that China strictly controls what its people can read and write on their cell phones. But it came as a shock to officials in Lithuania to discover that a popular Chinese-made cell phone sold in the Baltic States had a hidden, if dormant, feature: a censorship register of 449 items banned by the Chinese Communist Party.
Lithuania’s government was quick to advise officials to use the phones to dispose of them, which infuriated China – and not for the first time. Lithuania has also embraced Taiwan, a vibrant democracy that Beijing regards as a breakaway province, and has withdrawn from a China-led regional forum that it despised as divisive for the European Union.
Beijing furiously recalled its ambassador, suspended a Chinese freight train and made it almost impossible for many Lithuanian exporters to sell their goods in China. Chinese state media have attacked Lithuania, ridiculing its small size and accusing it of being the “anti-Chinese avant-garde” in Europe.
On the geopolitical battlefield, Lithuania is hardly a fair fight against China – a tiny Baltic nation of fewer than 3 million people versus a burgeoning superpower of 1.4 billion. Lithuania’s military has no tanks or fighter jets, and its economy is 270 times smaller than China’s.
But, surprisingly, Lithuania has shown that even tiny countries can be a headache for a superpower, especially one like China, whose diplomats seem determined to get other nations to join their line. Lithuania, which has little trade with China, has indeed caused so much stink that its counterparts in the European Union are expected to meet next week to discuss the situation. Nothing could be worse for Beijing than if other countries followed Lithuania’s example.
For Lithuania, the Beijing threats and tantrums have not weakened the government’s resolve, partly because China has little control over them. In an interview, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the country had a “value-based foreign policy” that “supports people who support democratic movements”.
Other European countries that profess democratic values have rarely considered them in their relations with China. However, Mr Landsbergis’ party has made action part of its appeal to local voters: its election manifesto last year included the promise to “maintain the value backbone” in foreign policy “with countries like China”.
Lithuania’s small size, lamented the Foreign Minister, “made us easy targets” for China, because “their calculation is that it is good to pick enemies far, far below your size, pull them into the ring, and then beat them Cellulose.”
In order not to be beaten, Mr. Landsbergis visited Washington this month and met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who pledged “iron US support to Lithuania in the face of attempted coercion by the People’s Republic of China”.
Despite its meager size, Lithuania is surprisingly big in Chinese calculations, said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing, in part because of its role as a transit corridor for trains carrying goods from China to Europe.
It also attracts Chinese attention for its oversized role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, a drama China studied in hopes of fending off similar centrifugal forces at home. In 1990 Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to declare its independence from Moscow – led by the foreign minister’s grandfather, Vytautas Landsbergis.
“China sees Lithuania as a museum to save itself from a Soviet-style collapse,” said Mr. Wu
The rift between the two countries comes from many sources, including an attempt by Taiwan to gain political support and last year’s Lithuanian elections that brought to power a new coalition government led by Mr Landsbergis’ pro-American Conservative Party and Liberals The defense of human rights was dominated loudly.
But it also reflects a broader backlash against China’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy across Europe and disillusionment with soaring Chinese exports that far outstripped imports from Europe.
In recent years, China has generated resentment through pounding behavior that reminds many in Lithuania of previous bullying by Moscow. In 2019, Chinese diplomats organized a martial protest against a rally by Lithuanian citizens in support of the Hong Kong democracy movement. The Chinese intervention led to scuffle in Cathedral Square in Vilnius, the capital.
“This approach does not make China friends,” said Gintaras Steponavicius, a former lawmaker who helped set up a lobby group, the Taiwan Forum. “We are not used to being told by a superpower how we should behave.”
Tired of pressure from Beijing, prominent politicians joined a Taiwanese friendship group in parliament and attended a Taiwan National Day celebration in Vilnius last October.
Not everyone supports government policies. Linas Linkevicius, a former foreign minister, notes that Lithuania has already drawn daggers with Russia and neighboring Belarus, whose exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya operates from Vilnius.
“We’re exposed on too many fronts,” he said.
Opinion polls by the European Council on Foreign Relations show that most Europeans don’t want a new Cold War between the US and China. But they also show a growing caution towards China.
“There is a general change in sentiment,” said Frank Juris, a researcher at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute who monitors Chinese activities in Europe. “Promises have not been fulfilled and countries are tired of being constantly threatened with the whip.”
That whip is now being hit hard on Lithuania, a member of the European Union and also of NATO.
Particularly annoying for Beijing was Lithuania’s announcement in July that it had accepted an application from Taiwan to open a “Taiwanese representative office” in Vilnius.
China’s Foreign Ministry accused Lithuania of crossing a “red line” and called on it to “correct its wrong decision immediately” and “stop going the wrong way.”
Many countries, including Germany and neighboring Latvia, have similar Taiwanese offices, but so as not to upset Beijing, they officially represent Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, not Taiwan itself.
And in May, Lithuania withdrew from a diplomatic forum that brings together China and 17 countries in Eastern and Central Europe, promoting Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road initiative, a multi-billion dollar infrastructure program.
From a Chinese perspective, the release of a report on Chinese-made cell phones by the Cyber Security Center of the Lithuanian Defense Ministry last week was another provocation. The hidden register found by the center enables the recognition and censorship of phrases such as “student movement”, “Taiwan independence” and “dictatorship”.
The blacklist, which is automatically updated to reflect evolving concerns from the Communist Party, rests on phones exported to Europe, but according to the cyber center, the disabled censorship tool can be activated with a switch in China.
The register “is shocking and very worrying,” said Margiris Abukevicius, an assistant defense minister in charge of cybersecurity.
The maker of the Chinese phones in question, Xiaomi, says its devices “don’t censor communications”.
In addition to asking government agencies to dispose of the phones, Abukevicius said in an interview that ordinary users should decide “their own risk tolerance”.
The Global Times, a nationalist news agency controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, derided the Lithuanian report as a “new trick” by a petty “farmer” on Washington’s anti-China agenda.
China has steadily increased the pressure on Lithuania, dismissing its ambassador from Vilnius last month and urging the Lithuanian envoy in Beijing to go home, which she did. It stopped a regular freight train to Lithuania, but has other trains running through the Baltic country, which is filled with Chinese goods for Germany.
While China has not announced any formal sanctions, it has taken bureaucratic measures to prevent Lithuanian exporters from selling goods in China.
Lithuania’s Minister of Economic Affairs, Ausrine Armonaite, downplayed the damage, noting that Lithuania’s exports to China accounted for only 1 percent of total exports. Losing that, she said, “is not too harmful”.
A bigger blow, according to business leaders, has been the interruption in supplies of Chinese-made glass, electronic components and other items that Lithuanian manufacturers need. Around a dozen companies that rely on goods from China received almost identical letters from Chinese suppliers last week claiming that power outages made order processing difficult.
“They are very creative,” said Vidmantas Janulevicius, president of the Lithuanian Federation of Industrialists, noting that the delays were “very precisely targeted”.
Lithuania has made “a clear geopolitical decision” to side with the US, a long-time ally, and other democracies, said Laurynas Kasciunas, chairman of the national security and defense committee. “Everyone agrees on this. We are all very anti-communist Chinese. It’s in our DNA. “
Tomas Dapkus in Vilnius, Monika Pronczuk in Brussels and Claire Fu contributed to the reporting