[Editorial] China-Lithuania Tensions

What are the recent developments?

  • Recently, top diplomats from the European Union met to discuss ways to de-escalate the rising tensions between China and Lithuania– ahead of the upcoming EU-China Summit. Lithuania, notably, is a member of the EU and the NATO.
  • The foreign ministers came together for a 2 day meeting in France.
  • Following the meeting, the EU Foreign Policy Chief expressed ‘solidarity’ with the Baltic nation. However, the statement stopped short of announcing any solid action to address the situation.

Why did the tensions develop?

  • The tensions between China and Lithuania started rising in 2021 with the Baltic country announcing the establishment of the Taiwanese Representative Office– Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Vilnius.
  • This announcement accompanies a number of other developments:
    • The Baltic nation had elected a coalition government to power which highlighted the importance of ‘democratic values’ in its foreign policy.
    • This former Soviet republic, the first to declare independence from the erstwhile Soviet Union, is also pushing for closer ties with the USA.
    • In May 2021, Lithuania announced that it was quitting the 17+1 cooperation forum of China- terming it divisive. The 17+1 forum includes central and eastern European countries.
    • In 2019, the country identified Chinese espionage as a threat to its national security. Its 2019 National Threat Assessment report raised concerns over the activities of Chinese intelligence and security services.
  • China, in response, has downgraded its diplomatic ties with Lithuania and recalled its ambassador.
  • It has imposed an effective trade blockade and is pressuring European companies to stop sourcing products from Lithuania if they sought to continue accessing the Chinese market.

Why is this significant?

  • The move to allow the opening of a de facto Taiwanese embassy is not especially unusual. The issue is with the naming. Elsewhere, these offices are not called ‘Taiwanese’ as most countries stick to the ‘One China Policy’ and don’t have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. For instance, in New Delhi, such offices are named ‘Taipei Economic and Cultural Centres’.
  • Though Lithuania has stated that the name doesn’t change its ‘One China Policy’, the move crossed a sensitive red line for China.
  • For EU, the tensions are a cause for concern as Lithuania, one of its members, is facing the full weight of the Chinese coercive diplomacy, even as the bloc continues to protect its $828 billion annual trade with China.
  • The forcefulness of Chinese response has alarmed the bloc. The response suggests an attempt to “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys” i.e. ensuring that other countries don’t follow suit by making an example out of Lithuania.
  • Beyond the bilateral tensions between the two countries, what is of significance to India is how the EU, a major power, proceeds with its ties with China as it weighs strategic considerations against trade relation.
  • Another matter of concern is how China is using trade as a method of coercion– in stark contrast to its October declaration (on the 50th anniversary of its UN membership) that it eschews ‘hegemony’ and ‘power politics’.

What is the way ahead?

  • Lithuania is an exceptional case given its trade surplus with China. It has no pressing need to access the Chinese market. However, other European countries are unlikely to follow its example.
  • Meanwhile, the EU finds itself in a bind over the worsening tensions between one of its member nations and one of its important trading partners.
  • How the bloc assesses the costs and benefits of taking of the Asian giant on the important issue of Taiwan will be closely observed in New Delhi, as India works on recalibrating its modus vivendi with China.

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