A David nation puts the global Goliath in its place

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is intrinsically totalitarian, belligerent, arbitrary, expansionist and contemptuous of international law. And under Xi Jinping, the CCP has become more despotic, coercive and punitive. With its “tribute nation” approach to weak, vulnerable states, it seeks to influence their sovereign decisions.

But now a midget nation, with just 18,500 active military personnel, has set an example for bigger countries on how not to succumb to the efforts of the world’s largest, strongest and longest-surviving autocracy to impose its will through coercive pressure.

Lithuania, with a population smaller than the smallest second-tier Chinese city, has stood up to China by defying its threats and letting Taiwan open a representative office in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. This action was preceded by Lithuania’s withdrawal from the 17+1, which groups 17 countries of East and Central Europe with China to help promote Xi’s neo-imperial Belt and Road Initiative. And after its defense ministry found that Chinese mobile phones had built-in censorship capabilities, Lithuania advised consumers to ditch such devices. 

With Lithuania now set to open its own representative office in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, China has ratcheted up its punitive campaign against the Baltic nation of 2.8 million people that prides itself on its role in promoting human rights and democracy. The angry vitriol spewed by the Chinese state media has extended to mocking Lithuania’s puny size. 

Yet, it is particularly galling for the CCP leadership that even translating threats into action and persisting with high-octane denunciations have not brought that minnow to heel.

China’s diplomatic sanctions have included withdrawing its ambassador from Vilnius and expelling the Lithuanian ambassador and then creating a situation that led Lithuania to shut its embassy in Beijing. China has also slapped informal trade sanctions on Lithuania, including imposing a customs block on its exports. And in a bid to disrupt production in Lithuania, China has been denying export permits for items needed by that country’s producers. 

More importantly, the CCP’s weaponization of trade extends to banning multinational companies from using Lithuanian-produced parts and supplies or risk being shut out of the Chinese market. German companies with manufacturing facilities in Lithuania have the most to lose from this ban, with automotive supplier Continental under pressure to close operations there.

Lithuania, a member of the European Union and NATO, may have received little more than verbal support from Washington and Brussels thus far, yet it has refused to buckle under Chinese pressure. 

Lithuania’s oversize place in Chinese diplomacy extends beyond its role as a transit corridor for freight trains from China to Europe. The CCP, as part of its strategy to annex Taiwan, is working to wipe out that island democracy’s international identity by bribing countries to break off diplomatic ties with Taipei. 

China has already poached several of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies – including Burkina Faso, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Kiribati, Panama, the Solomon Islands and, most recently, Nicaragua – leaving only 13 nations and the Vatican still recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign nation. To squeeze Taiwan, Beijing has been vetoing its participation even in international forums where Taipei was earlier present, such as the World Health Organization’s decision-making World Health Assembly.

In this light, the CCP is enraged that Lithuania is moving in the other direction by allowing Taiwan to open a de facto embassy. And it worries that Lithuania could serve as a bellwether of sorts for Taiwan securing greater international cooperation. 

The CCP is right to be concerned on that score. Some East and Central European nations, from the Czech Republic and Poland to Slovakia, are already seeking to deepen economic and cultural relations with Taiwan. No wonder Lithuania has been labeled by the CCP media as the “anti-China vanguard” in Europe.

If Taiwan gains greater presence on the international stage, it will be able to shore up its status as a de facto nation, making it more difficult for China to seize the self-governing island in the way it occupied Tibet and Xinjiang soon after coming under communist rule in 1949. The then-independent Tibet, for example, should have applied for United Nations membership shortly after that international body came into existence in 1945, but it never did.

Taiwan, a technological powerhouse with the world’s 22nd-largest economy by gross domestic product, has all the attributes of a robust independent state, and most Taiwanese want it to stay that way. In addition to bolstering its defenses with weapons like anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles to deter a Chinese invasion, Taiwan needs to expand its global footprint to help safeguard its autonomous status. 

Recognizing Taiwan’s imperative to win broader international support, major democracies – from the United States to Japan – are strengthening ties with Taipei, even as China steps up its campaign to isolate Taiwan. President Biden invited two Taiwanese officials to join the virtual “summit for democracy” that he recently hosted.

Against this background, Lithuania, setting a rare European example of fealty to democratic principles over other interests, has challenged China’s effort to turn Taiwan into an international pariah by permitting a representative office bearing the name “Taiwan” rather than “Chinese Taipei” (used by many nations and the International Olympic Committee) or “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office” (as in Canada and the U.S., for example). About 14 other nations host a “Taipei Representative Office.” But the “Taiwanese Representative Office” in Lithuania is the first such named office, which, according to the Chinese foreign ministry, supplants the one-China principle with “one China, one Taiwan in the world.”

The CCP’s campaign to bully Lithuania into submission was destined to fail because Beijing lacks real leverage over that nation: Lithuania’s exports to China accounted for just 1 percent of total exports, and the Lithuanian imports of Chinese products can be sourced from elsewhere. The CCP campaign was more about sending a warning to the rest of Europe not to follow Lithuania’s lead.

However, by showcasing its hectoring behavior and heavy-handed tactics, the CCP could impel some other nations to follow the Lithuanian example, thereby helping Taiwan to carve out more international space for itself. In other words, winning the geopolitical battle in Lithuania could be a turning point for Taiwan.

More broadly, by opening too many fronts simultaneously through its aggressive actions, the CCP has already dented China’s image, alienated the country’s partners and provoked an international backlash, thus leaving Beijing with only one lever of power — brute force. Simply put, the unbridled ambition, muscular revisionism, international bullying and hubris of the Xi-led CCP is turning it into China’s own worst enemy.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).