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Katy Balls

‘China is all-out against us’: an interview with Lithuania’s foreign minister

‘China is all-out against us’: an interview with Lithuania’s foreign minister
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On the 16th floor of a tower block in Vilnius, Lithuania, is an office with a nameplate so incendiary that it has started a trade war. The ‘Taiwanese Representative Office’ violates a rule that China imposes upon its trade partners: never allow Taiwan to open official offices. Call it ‘Taipei’, or anything, just not ‘Taiwan’. Lithuania recently decided that an important principle is at stake: should small countries be bullied by big ones? It thought not – and has allowed Taiwan to use its own name at what is regarded as a de facto embassy. This was Vilnius going out on a limb, saying it was time to defend democracies and support freedom, and it is now looking to build an alliance of like-minded countries. This has made Beijing very angry.

‘That gave China reason to go all-out against us,’ says Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s foreign minister. ‘Our trade with China has been cut to basically 0.3 per cent of what we had.’ Beijing withdrew its ambassador and blocked imports from Lithuania, deleting it from its customs system. The European Union launched a World Trade Organisation case against China – but concerns about Lithuania’s actions were raised in some quarters, including by the German business lobby.

Landsbergis – a suave, sandy-haired politician who speaks with confidence when we meet at Lithuania’s embassy in Pimlico – is in London to meet with Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, who has spoken about building a ‘network of liberty’ across East and West. It’s a concept that Landsbergis supports. ‘It starts from the question: will the global security order remain the same as it was before 24 February [when Russia invaded Ukraine]? And people in Lithuania, in the Baltics or in the broader eastern flank of Nato would agree that it cannot.’

The UK, he says, is reshaping a new international order: it was the first to arm Ukraine and to offer a defence pact to Sweden and Finland. ‘Britain has proven, throughout the last three months, that it’s ready to take on leadership in a changing geopolitical situation,’ he says. ‘It’s no secret that, after Brexit, there were a lot of questions: can Britain find its path again? What would it be?’

These questions are now being answered: this week Landsbergis signed a joint defence and security agreement with Truss, whom he calls a ‘true friend’. He seems less impressed with French president Emmanuel Macron, who said last month that there should be no ‘humiliation’ of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.

‘We’re hearing advice from certain leaders – western leaders! – that there has to be a ceasefire. That we need to save Putin’s face, and all that. This is a worrying message to many of us,’ he says. ‘If we allow or force Ukraine to cede territory in order to save an aggressor’s face, that spells trouble for the rest of us. What if somebody asks Taiwan to save one of the Chinese leaders’ faces? Or asks a Nato country like Lithuania to save the face of whoever would be an aggressor and let them seize territory? We will be defending the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity of whichever country is attacked and it has a right to defend it and we will help the country to defend it.’

With Taiwan, he says, ‘the principles are absolutely the same. We are defended not necessarily by huge army rockets and tanks, but by the principle that the country has a right to exist within its internationally recognised borders.’ This, he says, is what the Ukraine war is about now. ‘The future of Taiwan and Lithuania – the future of the global security order – is being defined in Ukraine. The battle for the small countries that depend on a rules-based order is being fought.’

Whatever the outcome of the Ukraine war, he believes there is no going back when it comes to working with Russia – let alone Putin: ‘We don’t see any possibility of getting back to any business as usual, any normality with Putin’s Russia or Putinist Russia, because it could be run by another person and still remain Putinist. That means this country will be considered dangerous by our people. We have to limit our ties to absolutely necessities that are just unavoidable.’

Landsbergis’s grandfather was president of Lithuania’s first post-Soviet parliament at a time when the world was divided into Russia vs ‘the West’. As the first republic to declare its independence from the Soviet Union in 1990, the country has had some experience of dealing with surly neighbours: Russia borders the country through the Kaliningrad Oblast exclave.

‘We’re very wary about dependence on non-democratic countries,’ Landsbergis says. ‘We’ve seen what happens when you’re dependent on Russian gas and oil. We set out to reduce our dependency in 2008: now we’re totally free.’

It is this attitude which perhaps explains why, at the age of just 40, Landsbergis is not only foreign minister but chairman of Lithuania’s largest party, the anti-communist Homeland Union, which forms part of the coalition government.

Lithuania, he said, learnt some time ago that Russian energy always comes with strings attached. ‘They would increase their gas prices for the decisions that they didn’t like in Lithuania. So if the wrong sort of party wins in the election, they might increase the gas prices for the next winter. Why? Because they can. So seeing that, we said: OK, this spells trouble, we need to find ways to reduce dependency.’

The same, he says, applies to China – which is why the democratic world needs to reduce economic dependence on autocracies. ‘I’m not saying that we don’t need China as a trade partner, but I would say that we need it as one of the partners in the Pacific region or the broader Asian area – so to say, where there are more countries, more trade partners that we could build relationships with.’

Landsbergis believes the term ‘West’ does not really apply to today’s dividing lines. ‘We’ve always defended what’s “western”, but now it’s no longer applicable,’ he says. ‘We have to talk about the global environment. A global alliance for the rules-based order. Japan has a very significant role in that. We’re following President Biden’s visit in Tokyo, where basically so many things that are close to us and to our region are being discussed. We have to take into account Australia, South Korea and also the future of Taiwan.’

And who coordinates all of this if not the United Nations? Russia and China are two of the five veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, making it an unlikely conduit for a new democratic alliance. Landsbergis suggests that the G7 may be the answer. ‘If the Security Council is currently paralysed, can we say that the G7 is a “democratic security council” where certain decisions can be born and offered?’ he asks. ‘If decisions in the G7 could be formulated on how to unblock the [Black Sea] ports, then Ukrainians would be able to provide the food that is needed by the rest of the world.’ The Royal Navy is understood to be sending minesweepers to do just that. The future for defence, he says, is in these global alliances rather than European strategic autonomy. ‘Russia’s invasion into Ukraine showed that the transatlantic alliance is not something that you can go around and create a parallel structure. We are in this together. EU, UK. US, Canada. There is absolute reason, vital reason for the alliance to exist in the European continent.’

He admits that all this is, for him, personal. ‘For us it’s real. It’s not just news. It’s something that we recognise as happened to us or in similar fashion – not to the extent that it’s happening obviously in Ukraine – but we remember that and we don’t want that to repeat.

‘When I saw Russian troops in Ukraine in the first weeks of war, I remembered the same troops – looking exactly the same – driving the streets of my capital,’ he says. ‘There would be parades throughout the main street in Vilnius. The same looking people, same looking vehicles. They did not have “Z” then, they had the Red Star. But it happened here: where I live, where my children live. We somehow managed to throw them out, and now they might be back. They are so close. We have to do everything in order to not allow that to happen.’

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