Why Lithuania wants to risk the wrath of China – The Irish Times.

2.8 million population, Lithuania is often the first and most decisive country in the European Union to take positions that irritate authoritarian regimes, whether Russia, China, or Belarus.

This week it was all about Taiwan. Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis praised the visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to the self-governing democracy, which Beijing considers its territory, and hinted that Vilnius could follow this example.

Pelosi “opened the door to Taiwan much wider”, wrote G. Landsbergis in a tweet, which was gratefully forwarded by the Taiwanese foreign office in Lithuania. “I’m sure other defenders of freedom and democracy will pass by very quickly.”

It comes as China prepares to hold major military exercises around the island in apparent retaliation for the visit, and is the latest display of the Lithuanian government’s lack of concern for the wrath of Beijing or other authoritarian powers.

What is behind it? “Two hundred years of democratic movements for freedom and independence are as if written in our blood,” said the Lithuanian official, speaking of the country’s history of resistance to Russian rule.

“The world is changing – in the last five, 10 years, authoritarian governments around the world are getting stronger, they are more aggressive, as we can see. It is now evolving in real time,” he added.

“Thriving democracies around the world, we must stick together,” he said.

Support for democratic movements elsewhere was an election promise and became part of the government program of the ruling centre-right Patriotic Union, the conservative-liberal Liberal Movement and the centre/centre-left Freedom Party when it came to power in 2020.

Since then, the government has been deepening ties with Taiwan. She announced her withdrawal from China’s “17+1” initiative to deepen cooperation with Eastern and Central European countries and approved the opening of Taiwan’s representative office – a de facto embassy – in Lithuania.

The use of “Taiwanese” in the office’s name sparked anger in China, where it was seen as a step too close to recognizing statehood for the place, which Beijing considers a breakaway province.

Ambassadors were recalled; Lithuania was suddenly removed from China’s customs system, effectively blocking all exports and imports between the two countries. This was followed by unofficial secondary sanctions, discouraging companies from using Lithuanian suppliers or parts, fearing that there might be difficulties in exporting to China.

Limited trade relations with China meant that the economic impact on Lithuania was modest, offset by slightly increased trade with Taiwan, the main exporter of semiconductors, a crucial component of electrical devices that is in short supply around the world.

There was grumbling in Brussels that allies were not consulted beforehand, but the European Commission ultimately backed Vilnius by referring China to the World Trade Organization “over its discriminatory trade practices against Lithuania”.

This is not just about China. Lithuania warned early about Russia’s plans for Ukraine and is considered a loyal and irreplaceable ally in Kiev. It has also acted as a base for the beleaguered opposition in Belarus, with which it shares a 680km border, acting as a constant thorn in the side of dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Vilnius is just a three-hour drive from Minsk. This means that Lithuania has many years of experience face-to-face with authoritarianism and its security threats, which is even more evident now that Belarus has been used by Russian forces as a staging post for the invasion of Ukraine.

Lithuania’s position is “partly based on our history”, says Linas Kojala, director of the Vilnius Center for Eastern European Studies. He points out that the current Minister of Foreign Affairs Landsbergis is the grandson of the leader of the Lithuanian independence movement.

“Lithuania was the first country to leave the Soviet Union and declare independence. So there is a strong sense of a young democracy that needed support for our independence movement 30 years ago, and now we are supporting others fighting for the same values,” he says.

At the same time, it is a strategic calculation. Like all small countries, Lithuania relies on adherence to the principles of the rule of law to protect itself from its larger neighbors. Speaking is also a way to “present Lithuania to a larger audience,” he says. “We’re a small country, so we’re not always visible.”

It’s a risky strategy, and there’s internal debate about what the costs might be, including economic ones.

“We’ll probably have to see in the future whether the cost-benefit analysis fully considers the benefits.” But, of course, the benefits are believed to outweigh the costs.

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