Democracies must stand with Lithuania against China’s aggression
Lithuania is in the line of fire for standing up to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on matters of principle. The question that remains is whether the rest of Europe will back its ally.
In November, the Lithuanian government permitted the Republic of China to open a representative office in Vilnius under the name “Taiwanese,” which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has declared is in direct violation of the One China principle that it has thrust on the rest of the world. This should come as no surprise. In the past 18 months, the Republic of Lithuania has fearlessly stared into Chinese crosshairs by leaving the 17+1 investment framework, defining Chinese treatment of their Uyghur minority as genocide, and now recognizing the Taiwanese government.
In response, the PRC has cut diplomatic ties with Lithuania, expelled Lithuanian representatives from Beijing, permanently recalled its own representatives from Vilnius, and waged what can be described only as economic warfare against the Baltic country of fewer than 3 million citizens.
The PRC’s trade relationship with Lithuania never has been substantial. Only about 1 percent of Lithuanians exports went to China. And while this undoubtedly has made it easier for Lithuania to take a principled stand in defense of Taiwanese political sovereignty, for Beijing it ultimately meant that simply cutting trade ties would not be a sufficient punishment for Lithuania’s disobedience. The PRC, therefore, also turned to its business partners in Europe — namely, the German auto parts manufacturer Continental AG — to apply pressure on the Lithuanian economy.
Continental has several production facilities in Lithuania that produce parts for export, China being one of the larger importers of Continental auto parts. Beijing reportedly has demanded that Continental, among other automotive and agricultural companies, halt their use of Lithuanian-made parts. Beyond the impact that this will have on the Lithuanian economy, it also puts the global supply chain at risk.
This is just one example of what Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called “economic blackmail.”
Over the past few months, China has halted freight trains into Lithuania, cut credit limits, and there have even been reports of Lithuanian exporters being unable to clear Chinese customs for their goods, citing a glitch that supposedly removed Lithuania from the Chinese customs registry.
If it is indeed the case that China is embargoing imports from and exports to Lithuania, this would be a direct violation of international trade law. Furthermore, there is a case to be made that China’s interference in private companies’ business such as Continental is also illegal. The European Commission has discussed the possibility of a World Trade Organization lawsuit, though little progress has been made thus far.
They say that the first one through the wall always gets bloody. The problem for Lithuania is that it now is standing alone on the other side of the wall, with seemingly little to no reinforcement to follow, particularly in Europe.
Lithuania has a history of standing up against powerful authoritarian forces. From the post-World War I “Freedom Struggles” against the Bolsheviks, to becoming the first Soviet state to declare independence from the USSR in 1990, democratic ideals and dreams of political sovereignty at home and abroad are deeply ingrained in the democratic Lithuania’s DNA.
And as it stands, Lithuania is proving to be the main beacon of democratic liberalism in Europe. It is the only European country that has shown a real willingness to speak out against the PRC, whether as an ally of the Taiwanese government or by calling attention to atrocities in Xinjiang.
The PRC has made no secret of its intentions. China wants to sweep Lithuania into “the garbage bin of history,” as conveyed by the Global Times, the CCP’s English propaganda outlet.
What will it say to the rest of the world if the powerful nations of the Transatlantic community turn their backs on Lithuania now? Now is not the time for democratic states in Europe and the United States to back down in the face of the PRC’s economic coercion.
China’s target is not just Lithuania, but the world. This is the precedent that the PRC is trying to set, and it is the responsibility of the Transatlantic partnership to ensure that this behavior of economic coercion and blackmail will not prevail.
John Shimkus is a former congressman from Illinois and the founder of the House Baltic Caucus. Jan Surotchak is the senior director for transatlantic strategy at the International Republican Institute.