Lithuania vs China: a Baltic minnow defies a rising superpower

Lithuania vs China: a Baltic minnow defies a rising superpower
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Lithuania vs China: a Baltic minnow defies a rising superpower

Lithuania vs China: a Baltic minnow defies a rising superpower

VILNIUS, Lithuania – It was never a secret that China has tight control over what it can read and write on its cellphones. But it came as a shock to authorities in Lithuania when they discovered that a popular Chinese-made handset sold in the Baltic nation had a hidden though inactive feature: a censorship registry of 449 terms banned by the Chinese Communist Party.

Lithuania’s government swiftly advised officials using the phone to anger China – and not for the first time. Lithuania has also embraced Taiwan, a vibrant democracy that Beijing regards as a renegade province, and exited a Chinese-led regional forum that it sees as divisive to the European Union.

Furious, Beijing has recalled its ambassador, halted travel by 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 have attacked Lithuania, ridiculing its small size and accusing it of being an “anti-China pawn” in Europe.

In the battlefield of geopolitics, Lithuania versus China is hardly a fair fight – a small Baltic nation with less than 3 million people against a growing superpower with 1.4 billion. Lithuania’s military has no tanks or fighter jets, and its economy is 270 times smaller than that of China.

But, astonishingly, Lithuania has proved that even small countries can cause headaches for a superpower, especially one like China whose diplomats are determined to put other countries in their line. In fact, Lithuania, which does little trade with China, has caused enough stink that its fellow members in the EU are expected to discuss the situation at a meeting next week. Nothing could be worse for Beijing if other countries follow the example of Lithuania.

For Lithuania, Beijing’s threats and tantrums have not weakened the government’s resolve, as China has little advantage over it. In an interview, Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the country had a “values-based foreign policy” of “supporting people who support democratic movements”.

Other European countries have rarely acted upon them in their relations with China, declaring allegiance to democratic values. Mr Landsbergis’ party, however, has made part of its appeal to domestic voters: its pre-election manifesto last year included a promise to “maintain the value backbone” in foreign policy “with countries like China”.

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Lithuania’s small size, lamented the foreign minister, “made us an easy target for China” because “their calculations are that it is good to pick enemies way, way, below their size, drag them into the ring of battle and Then it’s pulp to beat them.”

To avoid backlash, Mr. Landsbergis visited Washington this month and met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who “convinced US support for Lithuania in an attempt to coerce the People’s Republic of China.”

Despite its small size, Lithuania is surprisingly large in Chinese calculations, said Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing, partly because of its role as a transit corridor for trains carrying goods from China to Europe.

It attracts Chinese attention due to its large role in the collapse of the Soviet Union, a play that China has studied at home in hopes of warding off similar centrifugal forces. In 1990, Lithuania was the first Soviet republic to declare its independence from Moscow.

“China treats Lithuania as a museum to save it from a Soviet-like collapse,” said Mr. Wu.

The rift between the two countries flows from a number of sources, including a campaign by Taiwan to rally political support, as well as last year’s Lithuanian election, which saw Landsbergis’s pro-American conservative party and a new coalition government dominated by moderate liberals. brought to power. About the protection of human rights.

But it also reflects a widespread backlash against China’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy across Europe and disillusionment with rising Chinese exports that far outpaced imports from Europe.

In recent years, China has caused outrage through hectoring behavior that reminds many in Lithuania of past bullying by Moscow. In 2019 Chinese diplomats organized a belligerent protest to counter a rally by Lithuanian citizens in support of Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Chinese intervention led to a scuffle in Vilnius’s Cathedral Square.

“This approach doesn’t win China over any friends,” said Gintaras Steponavicius, a former lawmaker who helped set up the Taiwan Forum’s lobbying group. “We are not used to being told how to behave even by a superpower.”

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Tired of pressure from Beijing, prominent politicians joined Taiwan’s Friendship Group in parliament and attended Taiwan’s National Day celebrations in Vilnius last October.

Not everyone supports the policy of the government. Former Foreign Minister Linas Linkavisius, notes that Lithuania already has daggers with Russia and neighboring Belarus, whose exiled opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, operates from Vilnius.

“We have been exposed on a lot of fronts,” he said.

Opinion polls conducted by 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 China’s increasing maneuverability.

“There is a general shift in mood,” said Frank Juris, a researcher at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute that tracks Chinese activities in Europe. “Promises have not been fulfilled and the country is tired of the constant threat of whipping.”

That whip is now being hit hard on European Union member Lithuania and NATO as well.

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

China’s Foreign Ministry accuses Lithuania of crossing the “red line” and urged it to “immediately correct its wrong decision” and “not to proceed on the wrong path”.

Taiwan has similar offices in several countries, including Germany and neighboring Latvia, but to avoid angering Beijing, they officially represent the capital of Taiwan, Taipei, not Taiwan.

And in May, Lithuania withdrew from a diplomatic forum grouping 17 countries in China and Eastern and Central Europe to promote Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative, a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure program.

From China’s perspective, the release of a report on Chinese-made cellphones by Lithuania’s Defense Ministry Cyber ​​Security Center last week was another provocation. The hidden registry found by the center allows the detection and censorship of phrases such as “student movement,” “Taiwan independence,” and “dictatorship.”

NS The blacklist, which updates automatically to reflect emerging concerns of the Communist Party, is dormant in phones exported to Europe, but the disabled censorship tool has been activated with the flick of a switch in China, according to CyberCenter. can go.

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The registry is “shocking and very worrying,” said Margiris Abukavicius, a deputy defense minister responsible for cyber security.

The maker of the Chinese phone in question, Xiaomi, says its devices “do not censor communications.”

In addition to asking government offices to dump the phones, Mr Abukevicius said in an interview that ordinary users should “fix their appetite for risk”.

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

China has continued to put pressure on Lithuania, urging last month to recall its ambassador to Vilnius and the Lithuanian envoy to Beijing to go home, which it did. This stopped a regular cargo train to Lithuania, although it still allowed other trains destined for Germany to pass through the Baltic country full of Chinese goods.

China has added red tape to prevent Lithuanian exporters from selling goods in China, while not announcing any formal sanctions.

Lithuania’s Minister of Economy, Osrin Armonite, underestimated the loss, noting that Lithuania’s exports to China accounted for only 1 percent of total exports. Losing him, she said, “is not very harmful.”

According to business leaders, a major setback has been the disruption in the supply of Chinese-made glass, electronic components and other items needed by Lithuanian manufacturers. Last week about a dozen companies that depend on goods from China received almost identical letters from Chinese suppliers, claiming that power cuts made it difficult to fulfill orders.

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

National Security and Defense Committee chairman Laurinas Kasiunas said Lithuania had made “a clear geopolitical decision” to side with the United States, a longtime ally and decisively with other democracies. “Everyone here agrees. We’re all very anti-communist Chinese. It’s in our DNA.”

Tomas Dapkus in Vilnius, Monica Pronzuk in Brussels and Claire Fu contributed reporting

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