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“A world where ruthless powers dominate is dangerous”: Vytis Jurkonis on how Lithuania took on China

The tiny Baltic nation has countered Beijing at a time when few Western nations dare to.

By Emily Tamkin

On 15 December, Lithuania quickly and unexpectedly shuttered its embassy in Beijing.

The diplomatic evacuation took place just a few weeks after Lithuania granted Taiwan, which China considers to be one of its provinces, permission to open a representative office in Vilnius. What’s more, it allowed Taiwan to call the office the Taiwan Representative Office rather than the Taipei Representative Office, which is what many other nations, fearful of backlash from China, have allowed. Beijing, which is forcefully opposed to the notion of other countries recognising Taiwan as an independent nation, was furious.

This was not the first time that Lithuania has angered Beijing. After learning earlier this year that a Chinese-made phone sold in Lithuania had a registry of search terms banned by the Chinese Communist Party, the government advised officials using the device to stop. China responded by stopping a Chinese cargo train from travelling to the small Baltic state.

In late November, Chinese publication Global Times declared Lithuania to be “just a mouse, or even a flea, under the feet of a fighting elephant”. China downgraded diplomatic relations with Lithuania, demanding that its diplomats in Beijing return their credentials. Out of fear for the diplomats, Lithuania closed its embassy’s doors and brought them home.

But how did tiny Lithuania – with its population of less than three million, and its capital several thousand kilometres from Beijing – find itself standing up to one of the world’s most powerful nations at a time when so few Western nations dare to?

According to Vytis Jurkonis, a lecturer at Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science, it’s a mix of three factors.

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“Five years ago, it would have raised an eyebrow among certain politicians,” he told me on a WhatsApp call. “‘Really? Lithuania? Active on Taiwan?’ And now it’s a reality.”

The first factor is what he described as the “general Lithuanian stance in terms of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms”, which is “one of the fundamentals of foreign affairs” in the country. That stance is reflected on the country’s positions on many issues, including “in terms of Belarus, in terms of Russia”, said Jurkonis, pointing to Lithuania’s solidarity with those protesting Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s regime and its hardline position on Russia.

There are also, he said, certain politicians who were early adopters when it came to advocating for Taiwan, and who have helped shape policy. He pointed specifically to Mantas Adomenas, Lithuania’s vice-minister of foreign affairs. Other politicians have made opposition to China’s human rights abuses a central cause: Dovile Šakaliene, a member of parliament, was blacklisted by Beijing earlier this year in retaliation for EU sanctions over China’s treatment of its minority Uyghur population.

That, Jurkonis said, points to the third factor: China’s diplomatic over-reach in recent years. For example, in 2019, a group of Lithuanians staged a protest in support of Hong Kong in Vilnius. Adomenas, who had organised the protest, said people waving Chinese flags pushed the protesters and tried to take their megaphone away. Lithuania’s foreign ministry then accused Chinese diplomats of being involved and said they had acted “in violation of public order”.

“It became an issue for the entire political spectrum,” Jurkonis said. “This is unacceptable. Trying to intimidate politicians, the general public, is simply unacceptable.”

I asked him whether there was not a fourth factor – Lithuania’s history? He conceded, “The foundations, the roots of it, obviously, is that we have some historic memory [from the period] in between the First and Second World War.” In March 1939, Nazi Germany delivered an ultimatum to Lithuania, forcing it to cede a territory with an ethnic German majority. Lithuania then signed a non-aggression pact with Germany but in August of that year, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – a secret agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union — divided Eastern Europe, including Lithuania, into spheres of influence. In 1940, the Soviet Union occupied and annexed Lithuania, which lost its independence and sovereignty for decades. “A world where ruthless, brutal powers dominate, where big countries have a final say regarding small countries,” he said, is “extremely dangerous.”

I asked if he thought other Western nations would follow Lithuania’s lead in backing Taiwan. “We certainly see moral support and admiration of some sort. ‘Wow, look at Lithuania,’” he said. “At the same time, I think that it needs to go beyond that.

“We need concerted action. We see the Summit for Democracy,” – a reference to the US president Joe Biden’s virtual convening of democracies (and some non-democratic American friends) on the 9 and 10 December – “we see an ambition to kind of reboot the international system and bring back the normative line [against authoritarian nations] in international affairs. And I think that that’s the main goal.” But it’s one thing to see an ambition and another to see that ambition realised.

While the Western world grapples with precisely how to deal with China, Lithuania has attracted global attention for its firm position. But to focus on that, Jurkonis suggested, is to miss the point. “It’s nice when the media is writing about you,” he said. “It’s nice when the leaders of the free world are shaking hands with you and are willing to meet you.” But what’s more important, he said, is to make sure international institutions – from the United Nations to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe – are functional.

“Otherwise,” he warned, “it’s going to be a very dangerous world to live in.”

[See also: “There’s 15 minutes until collapse”: Ece Temelkuran on fears that Turkey’s economic crisis could turn violent]

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