The building at the heart of the row is a rather inconspicuous office block in the Lithuanian capital. Behind its shiny glass facade you can find law firms, consultancies and other companies. But, at the end of November, new tenants moved into 16b J. Jasinskio Street in Vilnius — and that was when the trouble really started.
It's the Taiwanese Representative Office in Lithuania — and that has unleashed a furious response more than 6,500 kilometers further east in Beijing.
China regards Taiwan as a breakaway province and views any diplomatic relationship with Taiwan as an attack on its One China policy. That's why, of late, it has been putting more and more pressure on countries to break off their ties with Taiwan.
There are few countries left in the world that represent Taiwan under its official name. And those that dare to do so tend to be small and of little economic significance: the Marshall Islands, for example, Guatemala, St. Lucia and Eswatini, the African state formerly known as Swaziland.
But tiny Lithuania is an EU member state. It has permitted Taiwan to open its first de facto embassy on European soil in 18 years.
Repeated tensions with China
This is not the first time that Lithuania has shown China the cold shoulder.
In September, the Lithuanian defense ministry officially advised consumers not to buy Chinese smartphones — and suggested that people who had already bought these cellphones should throw them away. The national cybersecurity body had found that the phones contained a censorship feature that could be activated at any time.
Lithuania also plans to expand its 5G telecommunications network without the participation of any Chinese companies — for "safety reasons." And at the beginning of 2020 it became the only country, so far, to leave the so-called 17+1 economic cooperation forum between China and many central and eastern European countries.
"We believe that the economic relations established with democratic states are more sustainable and long-lasting, they are more based on the principle of the rule of law, therefore they are more in line with Lithuania's interests," Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told reporters in mid-November.
Beijing is increasingly incensed by the approach being taken in Vilnius. At the end of November, the Global Times — the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese communist party — expressed its fury at the audacity of a country with a "population [that] is not even as large as that of Chaoyang district in Beijing." It added that Lithuania was "just a mouse, or even a flea, under the feet of a fighting elephant."
The elephant strikes back
And the elephant swiftly retaliated. At the end of November, China downgraded diplomatic relations with the tiny Baltic state, permanently recalling its own ambassador from Vilnius and declaring his Lithuanian counterpart persona non grata.
"The tone in Chinese state media was very sharp," according to Kai-Olaf Lang, specialist for Baltic affairs at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). "Lithuania perceived that accordingly." But, he says, it left the government feeling that it had taken the right course regarding Taiwan. "The line is: We cannot give in now," according to Lang.
The expert believes that Vilnius can afford to act like this because only 1.1% of Lithuania's exports in 2020 went to China. And even though the proportion of Chinese imports over the same period was slightly higher, Lang says that this is "nothing that would plunge the country into more major problems."
Ethics-driven foreign policy
Unlike many other states, Lithuania does not have to worry about its economic interests in its foreign policy towards China. In addition, Lithuanians are particularly skeptical when it comes to communist regimes because of their own history.
In 1990, Lithuania was the first country to actively declare its independence from the Soviet Union, successfully opposing the much mightier Moscow. The SWP expert says that freedom, democracy and human rights have been values that politicians in Lithuania have been strongly advocating ever since.
According to Kai-Olaf Lang, that trend has become more pronounced since autumn 2020 when there was a change of government in Vilnius. This came at the height of pro-democratic protests against Alexander Lukashenko in neighboring Belarus.
"Many Lithuanians were reminded of their own fight for freedom," says Lang. The new center-right government also agreed in their coalition treaty that they would "actively oppose every violation of human rights and democratic liberties and defend all those who are fighting for freedom in the world — from Belarus to Taiwan."
Backing from Washington
Lithuania's relations with Beijing, Minsk and Moscow are traditionally tense. The country's insurance policy in terms of national security is its alliance with the United States via its NATO membership, for instance.
While Washington has its problems with the foreign policy adopted towards China or Russia by other European countries, the Baltics expert says that Lithuania has shown itself to be "a loyal partner of the United States by trying to push back against Russia, while, at the same time, signaling to Washington: "We are going in the same direction when it comes to containing China," says Lang.
Knowing the US has its back, Lithuania is pushing for a stricter, common European policy towards China. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said earlier this year that it was time to drop the 17+1 format in favor of the "much more efficient 27+1," calling for unity among the 27 EU member states when it came to relations with China. "The EU is strongest when all 27 member states act together along with EU institutions," he said.
The escalation of tensions between Vilnius and Beijing does seem to be stirring some movement within the European Union with respect to this one point at least. "The EU is ready to stand up against all types of political pressure and coercive measures applied against any member state," said the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on December 8, in a warning to Beijing.
Brussels is signaling its resolve to Beijing. It looks as if the tenants in 16b J. Jasinskio Street in Vilnius are set to stay.
This article was originally written in German