China fears domino effect in Eastern Europe

August 16, 2021 09:19
Illegally occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944 until it regained its independence in 1990, people of Lithuania are fiercely anti-Communist and sensitive to issues of human rights and democracy.

When Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open an office in its capital using its own name this month, Beijing could have cut diplomatic relations with it for crossing this taboo red line. But it did not – instead, it recalled its ambassador and ordered Vilnius’ one in China to go home.

“The Taiwanese Representative Office” is the first in Europe to carry the name “Taiwan” and not “Taipei”, which it uses for offices in other capitals of the 27-country European Union. It was the first time Beijing has recalled its ambassador from a country in the EU since the union was set up in 1993.

Why did China show such restraint to one of the smallest countries in the EU, with 2.8 million people and a GDP of US$105 billion?

It fears a domino effect among other countries in Eastern and Central Europe, whose governments and peoples are angry with the lack of economic benefits from China and its human rights abuses.

China’s main platform for relations is the “Co-operation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries” or 17 & 1, founded in Warsaw in 2012, with its secretariat in Beijing and summits every year.

The platform aims to promote the Belt and Road initiative and improve co-operation in infrastructure, transport, trade and investment, culture, education and tourism.

Since 2012, China has invested in major projects, such as the Budapest-Belgrade railway and the China-Europe land-sea express line, and Chinese firms have invested billions of dollars in the region. The inflow of Chinese tourists and students has also greatly increased.

But, in February this year, the Lithuanian Parliament announced it was leaving 17 & 1, because it had brought the country “almost no benefits”.
Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that the other 11 EU countries in the platform should leave it too.

“From our perspective, it is high time for the EU to move from a dividing format to a more uniting and therefore much more efficient 27+1,” he said. “The EU is strongest when all 27 member states act together along with EU institutions."

Lithuania was, like the other two Baltic States, illegally occupied by the Soviet Union from 1944 until it regained its independence in 1990. Its people are fiercely anti-Russian and anti-Communist and sensitive to issues of human rights and democracy. Its parliament has called the treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang “genocide”.

In its National Threat Assessment 2019 report, the government said: "As Chinese economic and political ambitions grow in Lithuania and other NATO and EU countries, activities of the Chinese intelligence and security services become increasingly aggressive". Its February 2021 report accused Beijing “of trying to exploit the Covid pandemic to discredit perceived adversaries and improve its image".

Its history and strong Catholic religion make its people sympathetic to Taiwan, fighting for its identity against a giant military power. In July, its government donated 20,000 doses of Astrazeneca vaccines to Taiwan.

In October 2020, Lithuania was one of 11 members of the 17 & 1 who issued a statement with most other EU members at the United Nations to denounce China for its treatment of ethnic minorities and curtailing freedoms in Hong Kong

The risk for Beijing is that other members of 16 & 1 will follow the example of Lithuania and leave the platform, in favour of relying on their membership of the EU. Most likely to follow suit are the Czech Republic, Estonia and Latvia which have strong economies and rely less on trade and investment with China.

Beijing’s strongest partners in the Platform are Hungary and Serbia, which have benefitted from substantial Chinese investment, as well as Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia and Montenegro. Their economies are weak, and all have received substantial donations of masks and coronavirus vaccines from Beijing.

China is also paying a heavy price for its “wolf warrior” diplomacy which has alienated millions of people in the western world.

On June 30, the Pew Research Centre published the results of survey of nearly 39,000 adults in 17 democracies between February and May this year. Unfavourable view of China stood at near record highs. Confidence in Xi Jinping was between 12 and 36 per cent, at or near historic lows, except in Singapore.

The Covid pandemic is also negative for China. Few imagined that it would still be ravaging the world 20 months after it appeared in Wuhan.

Though Beijing has been the major supplier of medical equipment and a generous donor of vaccines to combat the disease, while its precise origin remains the subject for scientific research, a majority of people see it as coming from China.

What Beijing needs in Europe now is not a growling wolf but a wily fox.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.