Even without any previous context, anyone looking at the world map would agree that Lithuania is a small country. With a population of just below 3 million people and about the same size as the US state of West Virginia by land, this small European country tucked along the Baltic Sea has recently pushed some disproportionately sensitive pressure points on China.
With China being widely recognized as one of the largest countries in the world by various metrics including 1.4 billion people and an economy 270 times the size of Lithuania, Vilnius caused a major uproar with Beijing by calling out the name of Taiwan in its official naming of their representative office in Lithuania. Like Lithuania, Taiwan has itself been a small country that has been a thorn in the side of China for the last seven decades just by the fact that it insists on calling itself an independent country at all.
Small countries facing down superpowers is an interesting theme indeed. In the post-Second World War global order, conflicts have taken on this asymmetric quality whereby superpowers and strong, more developed countries have moved away from violent hostilities with one another directly and have instead become involved with smaller and less powerful countries that could be immediately crushed if its challenger decided to use the terrifying power of modern military technologies.
Like the lasting headache that the small island nation of Cuba has posed for the U.S. quest for dominance through so many decades, Lithuania is a recent example of this strange David vs Goliath-esque phenomenon. Of course, Lithuania is no spring chicken when it comes to resisting a global superpower. The country has experience from the 20th century when partisans resisted the rule of the Soviet Union into the 1950s and then was the first Soviet Republic to proclaim independence in 1990.
Flirting with Recognition
In the summer of 2021, Lithuania announced that it would authorize the opening of an office in the country called the ‘Taiwan Representative Office,’ normally the term ‘Taipei’ is used for representative offices in foreign countries as the People’s Republic of China rejects the legitimacy of the Republic of China government in Taipei and insists that the island is a part of its sovereign territory. In response, China moved to recall its ambassador to Lithuania and also requested Lithuania to take the same measure from their end.
Lithuania has insisted that this is not a contradiction to the widely held, but practically ambiguous ‘One China policy,’ Beijing has no patience for even a whisper of recognition for Taiwan as a separate country. Freight train services associated with Lithuania as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative were suspended as were new licenses applied for by Lithuanian food exporters. There were previously hopeful expectations that Lithuania could become an important destination for Chinese fintech investors in the EU, but that has been put on the indefinite backburner over this.
The United States has taken the side of Lithuania on this topic with Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated ‘ironclad U.S. support’ for Lithuania in the face of attempted coercion from the People’s Republic of China in his meeting in Washington with the foreign minister from Vilnius Gabrielius Landsbergis. This comes around the same time that Lithuanian Defense Ministry called consumers to not use phones manufactured by the Chinese Xiaomi mobile company over concerns of censorship.
The U.S. has had its own row with China over the idea of replacing the name of the ‘Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington to ‘Taiwan Representative Office.’ The U.S. stance on Taiwan has always been a point of contention with the Mainland as it has practiced its strategic ambiguity over backing the island. In recent years, the U.S. has considered clarifying this ambiguity.
The EU’s stance on Taiwan is perhaps more important in the eyes of China here. At a virtual meeting between China and the EU, representatives asserted that “the EU and its member states have an interest to develop cooperation with Taiwan, a like-minded and important economic partner in the region, without any recognition of statehood.”
Small State Geopolitics
Though it may seem like a trivial matter for such a small country to press one of China’s most sensitive issues, the West’s stance toward the Taiwan matter in the current zeitgeist is one of putting increasing pressure on China. The naming of representative offices sits at the most innocuous of matters. The increasing push for caution with China in an economic sense from both the EU and the US signals a sharp departure from the pre-COVID era plans of more friendly cooperation in trade.
In matters of security, the West has increasingly militarized the Indo-Pacific region at large. The U.S. has been selling arms to Taiwan for decades and it has recently been reported that about two dozen U.S. troops, including a Special Operations unit and a contingent of Marines, have been stationed in Taiwan to train military forces for more than a year. Additionally, an anti-China pact between Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. (AUKUS) has formed which has also increased tensions in the region.
The Lithuanian controversy is thus a small peek into the high stakes, high tension game being played between the West at large and China that is one misstep away from a real, full-blown peril.