Lithuania vs. China: A Baltic Minnow Defies a Rising Superpower

VILNIUS, Lithuania — It was by no means a secret that China tightly controls what its individuals can learn and write on their cellphones. But it got here as a shock to officers in Lithuania once they found {that a} well-liked Chinese-made handset offered within the Baltic nation had a hidden although dormant characteristic: a censorship registry of 449 phrases banned by the Chinese Communist Party.

Lithuania’s authorities swiftly suggested officers utilizing the telephones to dump them, enraging China — and never for the primary time. Lithuania has additionally embraced Taiwan, a vibrant democracy that Beijing regards as a renegade province, and pulled out of a Chinese-led regional discussion board that it scorned as divisive for the European Union.

Furious, Beijing has recalled its ambassador, halted journeys by a Chinese cargo practice into the nation and made it almost not possible for a lot of Lithuanian exporters to promote their items in China. Chinese state media has assailed Lithuania, mocked its diminutive dimension and accused it of being the “anti-China vanguard” in Europe.

In the battlefield of geopolitics, Lithuania versus China is hardly a good struggle — a tiny Baltic nation with fewer than 3 million individuals towards a rising superpower with 1.4 billion. Lithuania’s navy has no tanks or fighter jets, and its financial system is 270 instances smaller than China’s.

But, surprisingly, Lithuania has proved that even tiny international locations can create complications for a superpower, particularly one like China whose diplomats appear decided to make different nations toe their line. Indeed, Lithuania, which does little commerce with China, has brought about sufficient of a stink that its fellow members within the European Union are anticipated to debate the state of affairs at a gathering subsequent week. Nothing could possibly be worse for Beijing than if different international locations adopted Lithuania’s instance.

For Lithuania, the threats and tantrums from Beijing haven’t weakened the federal government’s resolve, partially as a result of China has little leverage over it. In an interview, Gabrielius Landsbergis, the international minister, mentioned the nation had a “values-based foreign policy” of “supporting people supporting democratic movements.”

Other European international locations declaring fealty to democratic values have not often acted on them of their relations with China. Mr. Landsbergis’s social gathering, nevertheless, has made motion a part of its attraction to home voters: Its pre-election manifesto final 12 months included a promise to “maintain the value backbone” in international coverage “with countries such as China.”

Lithuania’s small dimension, the international minister lamented, “made us an easy target” for China as a result of “their calculation is that it is good to pick enemies way, way, way below your size, draw them into the fighting ring and then beat them to pulp.”

Eager to keep away from getting pummeled, Mr. Landsbergis visited Washington this month and met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who pledged “ironclad U.S. support for Lithuania in the face of attempted coercion from the People’s Republic of China.”

Despite its puny dimension, Lithuania looms surprisingly giant in Chinese calculations, mentioned Wu Qiang, a political analyst in Beijing, partly due to its function as a transit hall for trains carrying items from China to Europe.

It additionally instructions Chinese consideration due to its oversize function within the collapse of the Soviet Union, a drama that China has studied in hope of heading off related centrifugal forces at dwelling. In 1990, Lithuania was the primary Soviet republic to declare its independence from Moscow — a trigger led by the international minister’s grandfather, Vytautas Landsbergis.

“China regards Lithuania as a museum to save itself from a Soviet-like collapse,” Mr. Wu mentioned.

The rift between the 2 international locations flows from many sources, together with a drive by Taiwan to rally political help, in addition to Lithuanian elections final 12 months that dropped at energy a brand new coalition authorities dominated by Mr. Landsbergis’ pro-American conservative social gathering and liberals vociferous about defending human rights.

But it additionally displays a wider backlash towards China’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy throughout Europe and disenchantment with hovering Chinese exports that left imports from Europe trailing far behind.

In latest years, China has created resentment by hectoring habits that reminds many in Lithuania of previous bullying by Moscow. In 2019 Chinese diplomats organized a belligerent protest to counter a rally by Lithuanian residents in help of Hong Kong’s democracy motion. The Chinese intervention led to scuffles in Cathedral Square of Vilnius, the capital.

“This approach does not win China any friends,” mentioned Gintaras Steponavicius, a former legislator who helped arrange a lobbying group, the Taiwan Forum. “We are not used to being told how to behave, even by a superpower.”

Tired of being pressured by Beijing, distinguished politicians joined a Taiwan friendship group in Parliament and attended a Taiwan nationwide day celebration in Vilnius final October.

Some have doubts in regards to the concept. Linas Linkevicius, a former international minister, notes that Lithuania already has daggers drawn with Russia and neighboring Belarus, whose exiled opposition chief, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, operates from Vilnius.

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

Opinion surveys by the European Council on Foreign Relations point out that the majority Europeans don’t need a new Cold War between the United States and China. But in addition they present rising wariness of China.

“There is a general shift in mood,” mentioned Frank Juris, a researcher on the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute who tracks Chinese actions in Europe. “Promises have not materialized and countries are tired of being constantly threatened with the whip.”

That whip is now being introduced down exhausting on Lithuania, a member of the European Union and in addition NATO.

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

China’s international ministry accused Lithuania of crossing a “red line,” and urged it “to immediately rectify its wrong decision,” and “not to move further down the wrong path.”

Many international locations, together with Germany and neighboring Latvia, have related Taiwanese places of work however, to keep away from angering Beijing, they formally signify Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, not Taiwan itself.

And in May, Lithuania withdrew from a diplomatic discussion board grouping China and 17 international locations in East and Central Europe that promotes Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road initiative, a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure program.

From China’s perspective, final week’s launch of a report on the Chinese-made cellphones by Lithuania’s Defense Ministry Cyber Security Center was one more provocation. The hidden registry discovered by the middle permits for the detection and censorship of phrases like “student movement,” “Taiwan independence,” and “dictatorship.”

The blacklist, which updates routinely to mirror the Communist Party’s evolving issues, lies dormant in telephones exported to Europe however, in accordance with the cyber heart, the disabled censorship software will be activated with the flick of a swap in China.

The registry “is shocking and very concerning,” mentioned Margiris Abukevicius, a deputy protection minister chargeable for cybersecurity.

The maker of the Chinese telephones in query, Xiaomi, says its units “do not censor communications.”

In addition to telling authorities places of work to dump the telephones, Mr. Abukevicius mentioned in an interview that abnormal customers ought to resolve “their own appetite for risk.”

The Global Times, a nationalist information outlet managed by the Chinese Communist Party, derided the Lithuanian report as a “new trick” by a small “pawn” in Washington’s anti-China agenda.

China has steadily ramped up strain on Lithuania, final month recalling its ambassador from Vilnius and urging Lithuania’s envoy in Beijing to go dwelling, which she did. It halted a daily cargo practice to Lithuania, although it nonetheless lets different trains transit by the Baltic nation full of Chinese items destined for Germany.

While not saying any formal sanctions, China has added pink tape to dam Lithuanian exporters from promoting items in China.

Lithuania’s financial system minister, Ausrine Armonaite, downplayed the harm, noting Lithuania’s exports to China accounted for only one % of complete exports. Losing that, she mentioned, “is not too harmful.”

A much bigger blow, in accordance with enterprise leaders, has been the disruption within the provide of Chinese-made glass, digital elements and different objects wanted by Lithuanian producers. Around a dozen firms that depend on items from China final week acquired almost an identical letters from Chinese suppliers claiming that energy cuts had made it tough to meet orders.

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

Lithuania has made “a clear geopolitical decision” to facet decisively with the United States, a longtime ally, and different democracies, mentioned Laurynas Kasciunas, the chairman of the nationwide safety and protection committee. “Everyone here agrees on this. We are all very anti-communist Chinese. It is in our DNA.”

Tomas Dapkus in Vilnius, Monika Pronczuk in Brussels, and Claire Fu contributed reporting

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