Lithuania vs China: Baltic minnow challenges rising superpower


VILNIUS, Lithuania – It has never been a secret that China tightly controls what its people can read and write on their cell phones. But it came as a shock to Lithuanian officials when they discovered that a popular phone made in China and sold in the Baltic country had a hidden but dormant feature: a censorship register of 449 terms banned by the Chinese Communist Party.

The Lithuanian government quickly advised authorities to use the phones to throw them away, angering China – and it’s not the first time. Lithuania also embraced Taiwan, a vibrant democracy Beijing sees as a renegade province, and withdrew from a China-led regional forum it despised as a source of division for the European Union.

Furious, Beijing recalled its ambassador, halted the travel of a Chinese freight train to the country and made it nearly impossible for many Lithuanian exporters to sell their goods in China. Chinese state media assaulted Lithuania, mocked its small size and accused it of being the “anti-Chinese vanguard” in Europe.

On the geopolitical battlefield, Lithuania against China is not a fair fight – a small Baltic nation of less than 3 million people against a rising superpower of 1.4 billion. The Lithuanian military has no tanks or fighter jets, and its economy is 270 times smaller than that of China.

But, surprisingly, Lithuania has proven that even small countries can create headaches for a superpower, especially one like China whose diplomats seem determined to get other nations to follow their line. Indeed, Lithuania, which does little trade with China, has made enough noise for its fellow members of the European Union to discuss the situation at a meeting next week. Nothing could be worse for Beijing than if other countries followed Lithuania’s lead.

For Lithuania, threats and tantrums from Beijing have not weakened the government’s resolve, in part because China has little influence over it. In an interview, Gabrielius Landsbergis, the foreign minister, said the country had a “value-based foreign policy” of “supporting people supporting democratic movements”.

The other European countries declaring themselves faithful to democratic values ​​have rarely acted accordingly in their relations with China. Mr Landsbergis’ party, however, made the action part of its appeal to national voters: its pre-election manifesto last year included a pledge to “keep the backbone of value” in politics. foreign “with countries like China”.

The small size of Lithuania, lamented the Foreign Minister, “made us an easy target” for China because “their calculation is that it is good to choose enemies well below your size, to lure them into the ring and then beat them to pulp. “

Eager to avoid getting bludgeoned, Mr Landsbergis visited Washington this month and met State Secretary Antony Blinken, who pledged “unwavering American support to Lithuania in the face of an attempted coercion by the People’s Republic of China.”

Despite its small size, Lithuania looms surprisingly high 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 China. Europe.

It is also attracting Chinese attention because of its oversized role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, a drama that China has studied in hopes of pushing back similar centrifugal forces at home. In 1990, Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to declare independence from Moscow, a cause led by the grandfather of Foreign Minister Vytautas Landsbergis.

“China sees Lithuania as a museum to save itself from a Soviet-style collapse,” Wu said.

The rift between the two countries stems from many sources, including a desire by Taiwan to garner political support, as well as last year’s Lithuanian elections which brought to power a new coalition government dominated by the pro-conservative party. America of Mr. Landsbergis and the noisy liberals. on the defense of human rights.

But it also reflects a wider backlash against China’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy across Europe and disenchantment with the surge in Chinese exports that has left imports from Europe far behind.

In recent years, China has created resentment through harassing behavior that reminds many Lithuanians of past bullying from Moscow. In 2019, Chinese diplomats staged a belligerent protest to counter a rally of Lithuanian citizens in support of the Hong Kong democratic movement. The Chinese intervention led to scuffles in Cathedral Square in Vilnius, the capital.

“This approach is not winning any friends in China,” said Gintaras Steponavicius, a former lawmaker who helped create a pressure group, the Taiwan Forum. “We’re not used to being told how to behave, even by a superpower.”

Tired of being pressured by Beijing, prominent politicians joined a Taiwanese friendship group in parliament and attended a Taiwan National Day celebration in Vilnius last October.

Some have doubts about the idea. Linas Linkevicius, former foreign minister, notes that Lithuania already has daggers fired with Russia and neighboring Belarus, whose exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya operates from Vilnius.

“We are exposed on too many fronts,” he said.

The opinion polls of the European Council on Foreign Relations indicate that most Europeans do not want a new cold war between the United States and China. But they also show growing mistrust of China.

“There is a general change in mood,” said Frank Juris, researcher at the Estonian Institute for Foreign Policy who follows Chinese activities in Europe. “The promises have not come true and countries are tired of being constantly threatened with the whip.”

This whip is now falling hard on Lithuania, a member of the European Union and also of NATO.

Particularly infuriating for Beijing was Lithuania’s announcement in July that it had accepted a request from Taiwan to open a “Taiwanese representative office” in Vilnius.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry accused Lithuania of crossing a “red line” and urged it to “immediately rectify its bad decision” and “not to go further down the wrong path”.

Many countries, including Germany and neighboring Latvia, have similar Taiwanese offices but, to avoid angering Beijing, they officially represent Taiwan’s capital Taipei, not Taiwan itself.

And in May, Lithuania withdrew from a diplomatic forum involving China and 17 countries in Eastern and Central Europe that promotes Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multibillion-dollar infrastructure program. .

From a Chinese perspective, the publication last week of a report on mobile phones made in China by the Cyber ​​Security Center of the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense was still a provocation. The hidden register found by the center allows the detection and censorship of phrases such as “student movement”, “Taiwan independence” and “dictatorship”.

The blacklist, which updates automatically to reflect the evolving concerns of the Communist Party, is dormant in phones exported to Europe but, according to the cyber center, the disabled censorship tool can be activated by simply tapping on a switch in China.

The register “is shocking and very worrying,” said Margiris Abukevicius, deputy defense minister responsible for cybersecurity.

The manufacturer of the Chinese phones in question, Xiaomi, claims that its devices “do not censor communications.”

In addition to telling government offices to throw away the phones, Mr. Abukevicius said in an interview that ordinary users should decide “on their own taste for risk.”

The Global Times, a nationalist media outlet controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, ridiculed the Lithuanian report as “new stuff” by a small “pawn” on Washington’s anti-China agenda.

China has steadily stepped up pressure on Lithuania, recalling its ambassador from Vilnius last month and urging Lithuania’s envoy to Beijing to return home, which it did. He interrupted a regular freight train to Lithuania, although he still lets other trains pass through the Baltic country full of Chinese goods destined for Germany.

Without announcing formal sanctions, China added red tape to prevent Lithuanian exporters from selling goods to China.

Lithuanian Economy Minister Ausrine Armonaite played down the damage, noting that Lithuanian exports to China represented only 1% of total exports. Losing that, she said, “isn’t too bad.”

A bigger blow, according to business leaders, has been the disruption of the supply of glass, electronic components and other Chinese-made items that Lithuanian manufacturers need. A dozen companies that depend on goods from China received nearly identical letters from Chinese suppliers last week saying power outages made it difficult to fill orders.

“They are very creative,” said Vidmantas Janulevicius, president of the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, noting that the delays were “targeted very precisely”.

Lithuania has made “a clear geopolitical decision” to firmly side with the United States, a longtime ally, and other democracies, said Laurynas Kasciunas, chair of the national security and defense committee. “Everyone here 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 reporting

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