Facing increasing pressure from China, Lithuania has been gaining support this week in a standoff that began over trade and was elevated when the small Baltic nation became the first European Union member to allow Taiwan to use its name on a de facto embassy.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis met on Wednesday and agreed to step up cooperation on challenges rising from China’s pressure on both countries. Landsbergis traveled to Canberra to open Vilnius’ first embassy in Australia.
Payne said it’s important for like-minded countries to work together to maintain an international rules-based order. “We are sending the strongest possible message about our rejection of coercion and our rejection of authoritarianism,” she said.
That meeting came after Britain announced on Monday that it would be joining an EU case against China over Beijing’s trade curbs on Lithuania. The EU launched a challenge at the World Trade Organization late last month, accusing China of discriminatory trade practices against Lithuania.
“We support our allies, Lithuania & the EU, in standing against China’s use of coercive trading practices,” Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Britain’s international trade secretary, said on Twitter.
The dispute began early in 2021, when Lithuania’s talks with China about export permits for feed, nonanimal products and edible offal began faltering, according to The Baltic Times. By August, Beijing had stopped approving new permits for Lithuanian food exports to China and halted direct freight train service to Lithuania.
On November 18, Lithuanian authorities allowed Taiwan to open a representative office in its capital under the name “Taiwan” instead of “Taipei,” the term preferred by Beijing, which views Taiwan as part of its territory.
Since then, China has recalled its ambassador from Vilnius while ordering Lithuania’s ambassador to leave Beijing, and it has implemented an embargo against Lithuania, boycotting all its exports as well as any EU products that use Lithuanian-made components.
By December 9, China was “sending messages to multinationals that if they use parts and supplies from Lithuania, they will no longer be allowed to sell to the Chinese market or get supplies there,” according to Mantas Adomenas, Lithuania’s vice minister for foreign affairs.
Jonathan Hackenbroich, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Task Force for Strengthening Europe Against Economic Coercion, called China’s move “a wake-up call.”
“Imagine China has disputes with Lithuania, and then it starts telling German, French and Swedish companies to stop trading with Lithuania. Then you could easily imagine if China had a dispute with Taiwan or another country, it could also start telling German, French or Swedish companies to stop trading with that country,” Hackenbroich told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview. “Now Beijing has done it once. You can’t exclude the possibility that it will happen in the future.”
The European Commission in December proposed legislation to create an EU anti-coercion instrument, with the goal of strengthening the protection of its members against economic coercion. It’s the first legal framework allowing EU members to act against economic coercion by nonmember states.
“You will have the full power of the EU market in response to grave acts of economic coercion,” Hackenbroich said.
At a daily press briefing Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that China was adhering to WTO rules in its dealings with Lithuania.
“The ins and outs of the fraught China-Lithuania relations are very clear,” he said. “China has responded properly in defense of its legitimate rights and interests and international justice, which is completely legitimate and lawful. China always follows WTO rules.
“The so-called ‘coercion’ of China against Lithuania is purely made out of thin air,” Zhao said. He added that Lithuania “should stop confounding right with wrong and maliciously hyping things up, let alone trying to rope other countries in to gang up on China.”
Optimism on anti-coercion measure
Matas Maldeikis, a member of the Lithuanian Parliament, told VOA Mandarin that France, which holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union from January to June this year, has promised to accelerate adoption of the anti-coercion instrument.
“Unfortunately, as we have to negotiate between the 27 very different countries, it takes time to come to decisions. Good news is many understand the necessity of such an instrument and the importance of unity within the EU,” he told VOA in an email.
Andrius Kubilius, a member of the European Parliament and former prime minister of Lithuania, told CNN in January that he didn’t expect bigger EU countries to take it upon themselves to stand up to China. But, he added, “maybe from Lithuania it will spread to others, and in time, Europe will stand united against a country that doesn’t meet our standards.”
“China needs to learn lessons, because until now, they have been allowed to behave in a way that doesn’t adhere to our values and rules, simply because they were so wealthy,” he told CNN.
Kubilius told VOA in an email that EU members could adopt several actions to help counter economic coercion, including taking a “unified stance,” settling disputes in the WTO and providing EU financial support for businesses that suffer losses.