Lithuania pulls diplomats from China as row deepens over Taiwan ties

Lithuania has pulled its remaining diplomats out of China over concerns for their safety, in a sharp escalation of bilateral tensions as Beijing retaliates against the Baltic nation’s efforts to strengthen ties with Taiwan.

Audra Ciapiene, Lithuania’s chargé d’affaires ad interim in China, the country’s most senior diplomat in Beijing after the ambassador’s recall in September, returned to Vilnius on Wednesday for consultations. The embassy will temporarily operate remotely, the foreign ministry in Vilnius told the Financial Times.

According to three people familiar with the situation, the Chinese government had demanded Lithuania’s remaining diplomats in Beijing hand in their diplomatic IDs to the foreign ministry to have their diplomatic status lowered. The move raised concern in Vilnius that the officials could lose diplomatic immunity, putting their safety be at risk if they remained in China.

The fallout threatens to raise a dilemma for the EU over how to support one of its member states without risking consequences for others in Beijing’s response. It will probably also spark international discussions over how democracies can respond to Chinese coercion.

“China is sending the message to other European countries that the punishment will be draconian if you follow Lithuania’s example, so people would like to deal with this cautiously,” said a western diplomat in Beijing. “But at the same time, we must make clear that steps against one member country are steps against the EU.”

The diplomats’ evacuation followed a string of Chinese threats and retaliation measures in response to Lithuania’s decision in July to allow Taiwan to open a representative office in Vilnius under its own name.

In August, Beijing recalled its ambassador to Vilnius. It also demanded that Lithuania “immediately rectify its wrong decision, take concrete measures to undo the damage, and not move further down the wrong path”.

After the Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius opened last month ago, Beijing imposed economic sanctions on Lithuania. This month, it blocked all Lithuanian exports to China by removing the country from the customs administration’s country list, effectively making it impossible for companies to file customs declarations.

Lithuania was restored to the country list after a few days, but national and EU officials said that the country’s exports to China remained blocked as any attempt at processing shipments returned an error and customs officials refused to assist in resolving the issue.

Moreover, Chinese companies have cancelled orders of Lithuanian products and from Lithuanian suppliers, the EU delegation in Beijing said.

The European Commission said it was seeking an explanation from Beijing, and that the actions could break World Trade Organization rules. EU trade commissioner Valdis Dombrovskis met Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis this week.

Lithuania is expected to raise the issue at a summit of EU leaders on Thursday, but the discussion is likely to be brief, EU diplomats said.

The falling-out with Lithuania comes as the EU reconsiders its relationship with China, partly as the bloc attempts to respond to Washington’s policy towards Beijing.

A planned investment agreement between the bloc and Beijing was derailed this year after China blacklisted EU lawmakers and officials in response to sanctions the bloc imposed over human rights violations.

Last week, Brussels proposed an “anti-coercion instrument” that would allow it to retaliate against economic punitive measures. Other central and eastern European nations, once wooed by Beijing through a special 17+1 grouping, have cooled on China, while public opinion in many EU member states has turned against the country.

A bus with several Lithuanian diplomats left Beijing for the airport on Wednesday morning, a person familiar with the situation said. Diplomats said on Wednesday morning that they were on a plane bound for Paris.

Lithuania’s foreign ministry said in a statement that it was in discussion with Beijing about “technical aspects” of its embassy in China and China’s in Vilnius. The ministry added: “Lithuania is ready to continue the dialogue with China and restore the functions of the embassy to their full extent once a mutually beneficial agreement has been reached.”

Phone calls to the Lithuanian embassy in Beijing on Wednesday were not answered.

The EU delegation in Beijing said it could not comment. The Chinese foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Asked about the issue, a senior US official said Washington would continue to “respect and support Lithuania’s sovereign decision to define the contours of its One China policy, free from outside coercion”.

 “Lithuania is a valued Nato ally and partner for the US and we reaffirm our support for Lithuania,” the official added. “We will continue to expand and deepen our already robust bilateral relationship with Lithuania.”

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