Lithuania is a small Baltic country of population 2.8 million and land area 65,300 square kilometers. Compare that to China’s 1.4 billion population and 9.6 million square kilometers. Yet, Lithuania has taken a series of steps against the Chinese Communist Party in recent months that would at times have struck fear into the hearts of larger nations such as the United States, Japan, Germany, and France.
Apparently precipitated by a recognition of the genocide in China’s Xinjiang region, Lithuania blocked Chinese investment, started a trade office in Taiwan, and most recently on May 22, pulled out of a Beijing-led forum for economic cooperation in central and eastern Europe. Lithuania’s actions are indicative of a worsening relationship between the European Union, of which it is a member, and China. Agence France-Presse reports that Lithuania’s actions are angering Beijing.
People take part in a human chain protest in support of the Hong Kong Way, a recreation of a pro-democracy “Baltic Way” protest against Soviet rule three decades ago, in Vilnius, Lithuania on Aug. 23, 2019. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)
On Saturday, Lithuania terminated its relationship with China’s 17+1 forum for cooperation with eastern and central European states. The forum is now 16+1, and includes 11 EU countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia) along with Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The latter two are considered a single country.
In an apparent effort at divide-and-conquer, and to increase its influence, Beijing is providing the latter five countries with extensive free vaccines and masks. But a $1 billion loan to Montenegro for a road turned sour, with China’s monopolization of the money for its own construction company, allegations of kickbacks to “thief” politicians, repayments in arrears, the stalling of construction, and a threat of a Chinese takeover of key Montenegrin assets like its main port, which the country might have hocked as loan collateral. Any such takeover, according to EuroNews, could give China “sovereign” territory in Montenegro.
Given the increasingly overbearing circumstances of China’s global economic expansion and influence, Lithuania did the right thing. “There is no such thing as 17+1 anymore, as for practical purposes Lithuania is out,” Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said in an email to Politico.
The wealthier and more democratic EU is obviously the better choice for the country. “Vaccination rollout, tackling pandemics are just [a] few recent examples of the EU27 united in solidarity and purpose. Unity of [the] 27 is key to success in EU’s relations with external partners. Relations with China should be no exception,” the foreign minister told Politico.
Lithuania called the Beijing-led organization “divisive” of European Union unity. Lithuania urged other EU members to leave the forum given deterioration of ties with China over Uyghur forced labor and the sanctioning of EU officials.
According to Agence France-Presse, Landsbergis called upon EU members to seek “a much more effective 27+1 approach and communication with China.”
On May 20, Lithuania’s parliament recognized China’s genocide and crimes against humanity as such. It called for an investigation, by the United Nations, of the Uyghur concentration camps in the Xinjiang region of China, and asked for a review of relations with Beijing by the European Commission.
The same day, the European Parliament froze the EU-China investment deal, until China lifts sanctions against Members of the European Parliament and European scholars. The vote was a major blow to Beijing, which through its genocide and wolf-warrior diplomacy, is steadily alienating its biggest trade partners around the world. The two votes likely precipitated the foreign minister’s announcement of a break with Beijing’s 17+1 grouping. Its singular break, however, indicates continued confusion among EU member states over the need for political and economic distance from Beijing.
Lithuania’s History of Resistance Against Tyranny
Lithuania has extensive experience in trying to maintain its independence from foreign authoritarian rule, including multiple partitions and occupations of its territory in the 18th and 19th-centuries by Russia, Prussia, France, Germany, and Poland. This deep historical understanding of authoritarian imperialism likely in part drives Lithuania’s leadership in objecting to Beijing’s attempts to assert influence over the European Union.
Revolts against Russian rule over Lithuania in the 19th century led to Moscow’s attempts at Russification of the country, which lost its legal code, dating to the 16th century, in 1840. Russian cultural imperialism spurred Lithuanian nationalist and cultural resistance. Beneath the Russian yoke, Lithuanians continued to promote their culture and language through informal schools that utilized Lithuanian-language books smuggled in from Germany.
People form a human chain under the motto “The Baltic Way – It’s Us” from Gediminas Tower to the City Limits in Vilnius, Lithuania on Aug. 23, 2019. From Catalan separatists to Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, the human chain that helped the Baltic states win independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago still inspires freedom-seekers the world over. (Petras Malukas /AFP/Getty Images)
A 1905 Congress, which took advantage of liberalization during the Russian Revolution of 1905, demanded the establishment of an autonomous Lithuanian political entity. But in 1915, the German military occupied Lithuania with the goal of creating a satellite state. The state was proclaimed “independent” in February 1918, only to remain under German military control until the armistice in November 1918. In early 1919, the Soviet military occupied the country, to be pushed out by the Polish army in mid-1919. The Western Allies protected some territory for Lithuania, and two years later after some fighting with Poland, Lithuania joined the League of Nations as an independent sovereign state.
The Red Army, allied with Nazi Germany, re-occupied Lithuania in 1940 and absorbed the country into the Soviet Union. 35,000 Lithuanians were deported. Germany attacked the Soviets in 1941, and occupied Lithuania again. Approximately 250,000 Lithuanians died, most of whom were Jewish. In 1944, the Soviets reoccupied Lithuania, which fought back through guerrilla warfare into the early 1950s. Joseph Stalin deported approximately 220,000 Lithuanians from 1947 to 1949 and forced his cultural reforms on the country. Lithuania retained a fiercely nationalist underground movement, producing more underground publications than did any other republic of the Soviet Union.
Perestroika and glasnost (restructuring and openness) in the Soviet Union created the conditions for an independent Lithuanian legislature that declared independence in 1990. In 2004, after a decade of work, Lithuania achieved membership in the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Lithuania and China Today
The current Lithuanian population is not particularly anti-China. A 2019 Pew survey found that only 33 percent of Lithuanians had an unfavorable view of China, while 45 percent held a favorable view. Compare that to 85 percent of Japanese, 70 percent of Swedes, and 67 percent of Canadians who hold an unfavorable view of the Asian superpower.
The view of China in Lithuania is affected by the economic outlook of the respondent, which makes sense as a major complaint about China is that it steals jobs and technology. “In Lithuania, 55% of those who grade their economy as good have a favorable view of China; just 33% of those who say the economy is in poor shape share that opinion, a 22-point gap,” according to Pew. The median unfavorable view of China across 34 countries polled by Pew in 2019 was 41 percent.
Lithuanians have suffered at the intersection of empire for hundreds of years. The last thing they should want is another aspirant, this time to global hegemony, from as far away as Beijing.
The Lithuanian government has taken such a strong stand against the Chinese Communist Party and its divide-and-conquer tactics should be a signal to the rest of the EU, and to the world. These strong people, who experienced hundreds of years of foreign domination, and who finally achieved freedom in 1990, are telling us something about China. We should listen.