Beijing recalls Lithuania ambassador in another shock to EU-China relations

Foreign Affairs

In response to Lithuania establishing a “Taiwanese representative office,” China said it would withdraw its envoy to Vilnius, and demanded the Baltic nation recall its ambassador in Beijing. It was not the first time this year that the small EU member state had upset Beijing.

Shēn Zhīfēi 申知非, the ambassador whom China will recall from Lithuania
Shēn Zhīfēi 申知非, the ambassador whom China will recall from Lithuania. Photo via Nordic Chinese Times (in Chinese).

Lithuania, the largest of the three Baltic states in northeastern Europe but a relatively small member of the European Union, has established itself as the EU’s most prominent China critic.

  • On May 20, Lithuania became the fourth country to pass a nonbinding motion in parliament declaring China’s treatment of Uyghurs as “genocide,” following Canada, the Netherlands, and Britain.
  • A day later, the country’s foreign minister announced that Lithuania had dropped out of the “17+1” diplomatic initiative that China had set up with Central and Eastern European countries. China had failed to deliver on promises of better market access, the country later said.
  • The Lithuanian parliament also banned Huawei from its 5G telecommunications networks.

Then on July 20, Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry announced, “a Taiwanese representative office will be opened in Lithuania,” which Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文 Cài Yīngwén) hailed as a “diplomatic breakthrough.”

  • Normally, Taiwan’s representative offices in countries that do not have formal relations with it go by the name “Taipei,” to avoid upsetting Beijing.
  • Beijing retaliated today to Lithuania’s stepped-up Taiwan ties, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declaring (in English, Chinese):

    [Allowing] the Taiwan authorities to open a “representative office” under the name of “Taiwan”…brazenly violates the spirit of the communiqué on the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Lithuania…China has decided to recall its Ambassador to Lithuania and demanded the Lithuanian Government recall its Ambassador to China.

Notably, the Foreign Ministry statement only says that Lithuania violated the spirit of diplomatic relations as Beijing sees them. If Lithuania took the further step of establishing official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, Beijing would take additional steps to retaliate.

  • Or perhaps additional measures to punish Lithuania are already in the works, regardless of the next moves of the Baltic country. In a Global Times opinion piece today, the nationalistic tabloid’s editor, Hú Xījìn 胡锡进, calls Lithuania a “crazy, tiny country full of geopolitical fears,” and concludes that he believes it “will eventually pay the price for its evil deed of breaking international rules.”
  • A separate Global Times report (also in Chinese) cites Liú Zuòkuí 刘作奎, the director of the Department of Central and Eastern European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as saying, “The possibility of a ‘diplomatic relation cut-off’ between China and Lithuania cannot be ruled out if the Lithuanian government fails to correct its mistakes.”

The fracturing of Lithuania-China relations also reflects growing EU-China tensions this year, after the European Union joined the U.S., Britain, Canada, and others in condemning China’s human rights abuses against Uyghurs. China responded by issuing sanctions on EU individuals and institutions, a move that was viewed in Europe as a major escalation, leading to the freezing of an EU-China investment deal.

Later this year, Angela Merkel will decline to seek a fifth term as leader of Germany, and who succeeds her in the September federal election will have significant sway on the future direction of EU-China relations. See more in the SCMP: After Merkel, who? China and EU ties on a knife-edge as German chancellor says long goodbye.