In March 1990, Lithuania became the first republic to break away from the Soviet Union by declaring itself an independent state, a decision the White House applauded.
Thirty-three years later, this Baltic country of around 2.7 million people is making bold moves to counter China, the century’s rising global power, and finding support from Washington as the Biden administration seeks to leverage transatlantic partnerships amid Western fears that Beijing is considering supplying Russia with weapons in its war on Ukraine.
High-level, bilateral consultations were held Tuesday in Washington between Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis and U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell. A statement said they discussed a “shared commitment to democratic values, human rights and support for the international rules-based order” and “the importance of supply chain resiliency,” diplomatic speak for policies aimed to counter China’s influence.
“We have long supported Lithuania in withstanding coercion by the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and trying to turn that coercion into economic opportunity,” John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told reporters.
“We're going to continue to work together to strengthen Lithuania’s robust economic partnership with Taiwan, toward Taiwan's meaningful participation in international fora as well as developing and deepening those people-to-people ties,” Kirby said, using language from a joint statement by Landsbergis and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Tensions have been brewing in recent years as Lithuania expands diplomatic and trade ties with Taiwan, a self-governing island that Beijing considers its breakaway province.
Days after the establishment in 2021 of the "Taiwanese Representative office in Lithuania," Taiwan’s de facto embassy, Beijing downgraded diplomatic relations and blocked most trade with Vilnius over what it calls a violation of the One China policy. The action prompted the European Union to sue China at the World Trade Organization over “discriminatory trade practices” against Lithuania that it said threatened the integrity of the EU single market. Beijing denies instructing Chinese companies to stop doing business with Lithuanian partners.
Lithuania had minimal trade with China, so Beijing's punitive trade actions had limited effect. Still, in November 2021 the U.S. provided $600 million in an export credit agreement to help the country withstand pressure from China and joined the WTO lawsuit in support of Vilnius.
Fears of China arming Russia
The consultation with Vilnius is happening amid a flurry of diplomatic activities in Washington. In recent and upcoming days, European NATO allies will decide whether to join Washington in imposing sanctions on China, should it decide to supply arms to Moscow.
President Joe Biden, who met with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the White House last week, spoke with French President Emmanuel Macron Tuesday and will meet with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen later this week to discuss the matter.
So far, there is no indication that China is providing more than rhetorical support as it continues to purchase cheap Russian oil.
Observers say Beijing’s interests are to ensure Western focus remains on pouring resources into Ukraine, distracting it from the Indo-Pacific region.
However, tensions are ramping up. In remarks during the annual session of parliament on Monday, Chinese leader Xi Jinping made a rare, explicit comment accusing the United States of leading an international coalition to contain China.
“Western countries led by the U.S. have implemented comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression against us, bringing unprecedented severe challenges to our country's development,” Xi said.
Xi’s comments were followed by harsh criticisms from new Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who blamed the U.S. for deteriorating bilateral relations and for undermining peace efforts in Ukraine to extend the conflict for Washington’s benefit.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden’s approach to China has not changed.
“We've been very clear; we do not seek conflict and we do not want conflict. What we're seeking is competition, and we've been very clear about that these past two years,” she said in a press briefing Tuesday.
Vilnius has emerged as one of Taipei’s most unlikely yet outspoken allies in Europe, particularly after Lithuania’s December 2020 election, in which the ruling coalition set out to pursue a “values-based foreign policy” to defend “those fighting for freedom around the world, from Belarus to Taiwan.”
The new foreign policy translated into steps that angered Beijing, including criticizing China for its handling of a World Health Organization study into the origins of COVID-19, accusing Chinese smartphone manufacturers of building censorship capabilities into their products and withdrawing from the “17+1” initiative established by Beijing to strengthen ties with Central and Eastern European countries.
Lithuania’s history as a small country in a geopolitically volatile environment that is subject to foreign communist imperialist power is partly what drives its support for Taipei, said Konstantinas Andrijauskas, associate professor of Asian Studies and International Politics at Vilnius University.
“It is only natural that there is a certain amount of skepticism within the Lithuanian society and among decision-makers towards all the communist, authoritarian and totalitarian regimes,” Andrijauskas told VOA. “At the same time, there is quite the support to the people who suffer from those respective regimes.”
But there is also a realpolitik rational for the Baltic country to be vocal against Beijing, particularly as it gears up to host the NATO summit in Vilnius in July.
Lithuania is a member of the Bucharest Nine, a grouping of NATO’s newest members on the bloc’s easternmost flank. The group is wary that if Russian President Vladimir Putin succeeds in Ukraine, he would target these countries next.
“The way that China has positioned itself in the war in Ukraine has definitely cemented feelings in Europe, that Russia and China are an axis,” Viking Bohman, associate analyst at the Swedish National China Centre, told VOA. “Lithuania is gaining some visibility from this, of being this principled.”
Despite 10,000 kilometers of land and ocean between Vilnius and the Indo-Pacific, Lithuania is developing its strategy for the region, which was a key focus of high-level bilateral consultations with Vilnius in Washington Tuesday.