Last month, China called its ambassador to Lithuania back and told Vilnius to do the same in response to Lithuania’s plans to establish mutual diplomatic offices with Taiwan. Despite pressure from Beijing, the Lithuanian government has refused to give in to its plans to deepen relations with Taipei.
This Week On The Trend Lines Podcast This Week, Edward Lucas, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and former senior editor at The Economist, joined Elliot Waldman of WPR to share the story and context behind the powerful anti-authoritarian Ader to discuss in Lithuanian foreign policy.
Hear the full conversation here:
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The following is a partial transcript of the interview. It has been edited slightly for the sake of clarity.
World Politics Review: You wrote a few pieces recently on the confusion between China and Lithuania that I mentioned in the introduction. When exchanging representative offices with Taiwan, one might wonder why China is pushing back so loudly in this case. Don’t many countries have similar agreements with Taiwan?
Edward Lucas: You’re right. Most countries have a representative office in their capitals, usually called something like the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office. The big question for mainland Chinese is to uphold what they call “One China”: that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of it. Well, that has leeway because Taiwan’s official name is Republic of China, so you can have diplomatic ties with Taiwan and believe in one-china politics, or you can have diplomatic ties with Beijing and believe in one-china politics. What you can’t do is establish diplomatic relations with both Beijing and Taipei.
The Lithuanians have taken a step towards this by inviting the authorities in Taipei to open an office in Vilnius, which for the first time will be called the Taiwan Office and not the Taipei Office. This may seem like a few different consonants and vowels, but it’s a deliberate attempt to face the Chinese Communist Party and say, “We don’t obey your rules about how the rest of the world treats Taiwan. ”
WPR: What are the possible costs for Lithuania as a result of this attitude?
Edward Lucas: China is very angry with countries that come too close to Taiwan. However, this is not always achieved through actions as expressed in words. We saw in the summer of 2020 that a large Czech delegation led by the third largest elected politician in the Czech Republic, Senate spokesman Milos Vystrcil, traveled to Taiwan, where he gave a speech in the Taiwanese parliament – the Chinese were extremely angry. They said it was a serious violation of the One China policy. However, the actual sanctions were pretty ineffective. I think a direct flight was canceled and there were a couple of lost contracts, but not much happened in the end.
A small country can symbolically make a huge difference because it shows that China is not in the control it likes to believe.
To use the figurative language of Chairman Mao’s era, Chinese anger was a paper tiger. And I suspect that it will be the same for Lithuania. They lost their ambassador to Beijing, Diana Mickeviciene, who had to return home, and the Chinese called their ambassador from Vilnius. But I think from a Lithuanian point of view, life will go on. Fortunately, Lithuania does not have a huge dependency on Chinese exports, it is not particularly dependent on Chinese imports, and there are many other places that Lithuania can sell to. So if any country in Europe wants to take a stand, Lithuania is a pretty good candidate.
WPR: Taiwan could be one of the countries Lithuania could sell to. As far as I understand there are some Lithuanian export products that suddenly has become very popular in Taiwan.
Edward Lucas: Yes, it is true. Taiwan, with a population of around 20 million, will never be the same as a country of 1.3 or 1.4 billion people like mainland China. But for a country like Lithuania it doesn’t matter. So if even a million Taiwanese can buy basically Lithuanian products – be it beer, chocolate, cheese, whatever – that’s a big deal. Getting the same type of sales is much more difficult in mainland China, where Lithuania is a tiny feature of the commercial landscape. So it may well be that Lithuania will do better than worse in the end.
WPR: You’d think that when it comes to dealing with countries like China and Russia, which are known to throw their weight in global affairs, larger countries would have more leverage to stand up, while smaller ones like Lithuania might be forced to flex. But here we see exactly the opposite. Lithuania is probably the country with the most uncompromising attitude towards China in Europe, while the big powerhouse countries are much more cautious. How would you explain that?
Edward Lucas: I think there is no doubt that Lithuania is leading the charge against Chinese economic coercion and also against the kind of hegemonic discourse control that China likes to practice by dictating how other countries talk about things. There are six countries that have refused to participate in China’s so-called 17 + 1, a kind of beauty pageant for countries in the Eastern European region, but Lithuania is ahead.
I think the reason for this is because a small country – although its economy is more fragile – can more easily offset a trade shock, especially if it comes from a country far away. Lithuania only has 1 or 2 percent of its exports to China; maybe cut in half because of Chinese displeasure, but you can easily invest an additional half a percentage point of your exports to another country. On the other hand, if you are Germany and China is your main trading partner and you are one of the largest economies in the world, then dealing with this trade shock is much more difficult.
However, while I think a small country can make a very big difference symbolically – because it shows that China is not in the control it likes to believe – it is only a tentative part of the resistance. I think the big question will be: what is the European Union doing? Because the EU, with 420 million consumers and a GDP of 20 trillion dollars, is very well positioned to negotiate on an equal footing with China. And so it is very important that the European Parliament put an end to its investment deal with mainland China and go ahead with an investment deal with Taiwan. Because the Chinese may be able to harass a small country, but it is much more difficult for them to harass the European Union.
It doesn’t matter that the Chinese Communist Party alone is more than 30 times the total population of Lithuania and the Chinese population is about 400 times larger. They don’t mind.
WPR: What role does history play in this? You mentioned that you spent some time in the Baltic States in connection with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and I wonder to what extent we can speak of a kind of anti-authoritarian culture that has developed in Lithuania over the past few decades.
Edward Lucas: I wouldn’t say it has been developed since then; I would say it’s there from the start. The Lithuanians fought in the woods against their Soviet occupiers until the late 1950s and were the first to cover up their tracks in the Gorbachev era when they advocated the then unrealistic goal of independence.
One reason for this is Lithuanian history. Lithuania used to be a superpower. If you look at a historical atlas, it stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. It was bigger than modern Germany or France; it was the largest country in Europe at the time. And that is still present in Lithuanian thinking. They instinctively see the big picture and believe that in this picture they can make a huge difference. And they were justified because they triggered the avalanche that led to the collapse of the Soviet Union by unilaterally declaring the restoration of their independence on March 11, 1990 – at a time when this seemed to be a kind of suicide policy.
I was there then and I remember people laughing at the Lithuanians and declaring them crazy, but it worked. And they take the same stance towards the Chinese Communist Party. It doesn’t matter that the Chinese Communist Party alone is more than 30 times larger than the entire population of Lithuania, and the Chinese population is about 400 times larger. They don’t mind. They just mean: “Empires rise and fall. We have to do the right thing and if we show enough courage and stubbornness, we will win in the end. “
WPR: It seems to be a similar attitude to the one that Lithuania is taking towards Belarus and Russia, for example by receiving the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and offering her a platform to speak out against the dictator Alexander Lukashenko. To what extent are these government steps also supported by the Lithuanian public?
Edward Lucas: Well, I’m glad you mentioned Belarus because that really fits that idea of Lithuanian history. There was a time when today’s Lithuanian language was widely spoken in Belarus, and there is much common history between these countries as well as with Poland and Ukraine. The year 1863 is of great importance in all of these countries because it was the uprising against tsarist rule that ended catastrophically but ignited the fire that one might think would eventually lead to the fall of the Russian Empire and the restoration of independence has Poland, Lithuania and other countries in 1918. This rebellion had the slogan “For your and our freedom”. These words are as dear to their hearts as the phrase “We take these truths for granted” to American listeners. It resonates immediately.
So Lithuania has always been very interested in Belarus, and they were instrumental in starting the pro-democracy movement there in its most recent outbreak by finding and re-entertaining one of the heroes of that 1863 uprising, Konstanty Kalinowski. He was given some sort of state funeral in Lithuania in the summer of 2019, and I think that really helped Belarusians see that they are part of a bigger whole and that that still resonates in the pro-democracy movement. It is a very big thing in Lithuania.
Of course, not all Lithuanians see it the same way, but many do. We have seen big demonstrations for Belarus, and I would say that there is probably a stronger national consensus in Lithuania on Belarus policy than on China policy because some Lithuanians say, “Hang on, want to do we really fight both of them? Putin, who is our greatest neighbor, the Belarusians and the Chinese Communist Party at the same time? ”That may seem daunting even to the bravest Lithuanian. But that’s what they do.