Just a few years ago, it would have been hard to imagine that one of the most fiercely anti-Chinese countries in the world would turn out to be little Lithuania, yet in the last year its relationship with China has deteriorated more than that of any other country in Europe. Vilnius has slammed Beijing for its treatment of the Uyghurs, for its repression of protests in Hong Kong, and for trying to use investment in infrastructure to strengthen its influence on the European market. The tension culminated this month in Vilnius allowing Taiwan to open a representative office there.

Various explanations have been put forward for this drastic turn against China in Lithuanian foreign policy, from a mission to uphold democratic values around the world to the desire to keep up with the latest trends in Washington. Indeed, both of these motivations play a role in the Lithuanian leadership’s actions. Yet just as important is Lithuania’s traditional fear of Russia. Paradoxically, Vilnius now considers criticism of Beijing to be one of the most effective forms of defense against Moscow.

The first signs of worsening relations between Lithuania and China appeared in 2019, when the Lithuanian Department of State Security first named China in its annual report on threats to the country. At around the same time, President Gitanas Nauseda spoke out against raising Chinese investment to develop Lithuania’s ports.

In 2021, the relationship took a sharp turn for the worse. In May, Lithuania announced it was withdrawing from the 17+1 format: a framework for China’s cooperation with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time, Lithuanian military intelligence said that the involvement of China’s Huawei company in the development of 5G infrastructure was a threat to national security.

In September, Lithuania’s Defense Ministry accused the Chinese companies Huawei, Xiaomi, and OnePlus of posing risks to cybersecurity. Soon afterwards, Lithuania announced its willingness to become the only country in Europe to host an official representative office for Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory.

Other countries in the region, including Romania, Slovakia, Czechia, and Poland, have also spoken about the dangers of Chinese investment. Some countries have stopped allowing the Chinese to take part in tenders for projects related to key sectors of the economy, from telecom to highway construction. But Lithuania has gone the furthest, undeterred by the risk of economic losses or political pressure by the world’s second-biggest economy.

Vilnius has inspired other Western countries and institutions to take similar measures: the European Parliament has approved a resolution on cooperation with Taiwan, and the EU Parliament and U.S. Congress and State Department have all praised Lithuania’s initiative in this area. The small Baltic republic, whose international activity was until recently associated almost exclusively with standing up to Russia, has opened a second front by entering into a confrontation with China.

Officially, Vilnius simply wants to protect freedoms and democracy across the world, from Minsk to Taipei. Upon closer inspection, however, Vilnius is selective in where it chooses to uphold its democratic values. It appears to be far more concerned by the situation in Belarus, Russia, and now China than in Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and other places.

Behind the noble rhetoric, a pragmatic calculation can be discerned. By acting as the driving force behind anti-Chinese initiatives, Lithuania hopes to focus U.S. attention on the region and procure guarantees that Washington will not scale back its presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states. Vilnius is jumping on the bandwagon of the U.S. fight with China for global leadership.

That’s not to say that the country is acting at the direct behest of the White House. It’s more likely a kind of partnership between Lithuanian politicians and certain influence groups in Washington, which help each other to lobby for their own interests. A U.S. Senate resolution from November 5, for example, was almost entirely devoted to supporting Lithuania’s relationship with Taiwan.

Vilnius’s main aim in this process is securing U.S. favor in what really matters to it: relations with Russia. It’s no secret that the Joe Biden administration has changed priorities. U.S. foreign policy is increasingly focused on containing China and building up Washington’s military potential in the Indo-Pacific, together with its allies. Russia is not as interesting to the Americans as it once was. That, at least, is how Lithuania understands the state of affairs. It is trying to capture the changing mood and to be proactive.

Lithuania’s regional foreign policy has always been bold, which has caused the country to become a hostage of the single issue of Russia. Now the Lithuanian establishment is beginning to wake up to the need to escape the confines of its reputation, and to enhance the usual statements about the Russian threat with something more pertinent that will fire Washington’s imagination. Otherwise, U.S. interest—both in the region and in Lithuania as an ally—could fall to dangerous levels. 

This approach by Vilnius is clearly not without its risks. Until recently, relations between Lithuania and China were good. They began to worsen after a three-party liberal-conservative coalition came to power in October 2020. In just a few months, the new government deliberately dismantled everything that the previous two left-centrist cabinets had worked toward with regard to China. Those governments had done everything they could to encourage Lithuanian businesses to enter the Chinese market, especially after 2014, when Russia banned imports of many EU food items in response to Western sanctions.

Those efforts bore fruit, and in the last decade, Lithuanian exports to China grew almost tenfold to a value of 316 million euros. The total trade turnover between the two countries reached 1.5 billion euros (compared with just 85 million euros between Lithuania and Taiwan).

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the new government’s anti-Chinese actions did not meet with approval in all quarters of the Lithuanian establishment, especially among the left-leaning opposition and the current president, Gitanas Nauseda. His administration has attempted to smooth over the harsh statements made by the government and Foreign Ministry, but without much success.

If, therefore, the next elections in 2024 bring about a change in government, then a new, more left-leaning cabinet may try to repair relations with China. There is also the possibility of a new government in Taiwan. If the conservative and more Beijing-friendly Kuomintang is elected at the next elections, Taipei may well lose interest in cooperation with Lithuania, which will reduce any economic benefits from Vilnius’s anti-Chinese actions even further.

Still, for now, neither the economic nor the political risks appear big enough to force Vilnius to abandon its anti-Chinese policy. The course it has embarked upon fits in with the Lithuanian leadership’s vision of their country’s role in international relations. It combines the politics of values, anti-communism, the quest to keep Washington’s attention on the region, and the desire to grow beyond the narrow niche of Russia’s eternal critic. Finally, the United States is prepared to support Lithuania in its endeavors: the Baltic state could help to nudge older EU countries toward more anti-Chinese positions, as well as serve as an acid test to see how far Beijing is prepared to go in response to harsh criticism and cozying up to Taiwan.

This publication is part of a project carried out with the support of the Royal Danish Embassy in Moscow.

By:
  • Denis Kishinevsky