VILNIUS – EU foreign ministers are trying to agree on a common policy toward China as Lithuania is facing pressure from Beijing over its deepening ties with Taiwan.
The bloc's top diplomats are expected to discuss EU-China relations at their informal meeting in the French city of Brest on Friday.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis underlined ahead of the meeting that the row with China is no longer just a bilateral issue between Vilnius and Beijing.
"It's already a European issue," he told reporters. "When European companies are targeted to create a pressure point to target Lithuania [to force it] to change its policy, we think it is a European problem. It requires a European solution as well."
Amid deepening ties between Vilnius and Taipei, Taiwan last autumn opened a representative office in the Lithuanian capital under its own name, sparking an angry reaction from Beijing, which considers the island part of its territory.
As the tensions heightened between Vilnius and Beijing, Lithuanian businesses said they were facing various trade restrictions from China. Vilnius officials described the measures as Beijing's "undeclared sanctions".
Landsbergis has told The Washington Post in an interview that China's actions have already cost Lithuanian companies "tens of millions" of euros.
"What we're doing is trying to help the companies get their cargo out [of China]. It's a lot of strain on the government as well. The biggest problem is that China has escalated, targeting European companies, targeting German companies. This is why we believe that it’s no longer just a bilateral issue. It’s a European one. And there has to be a European solution," the minister said.
"There is a possibility that Europe, that European companies, the big multinational companies, will pressure Lithuania," Landsbergis said.
"It’s now a question of whether the European Union can withstand the pressure because obviously it’s not that hard to put a lot of pressure on Lithuania and expect it to break. Because there’s only so much pressure we can take," he added.
The German-Baltic Chamber of Commerce warned the Lithuanian government last year that companies cooperating with Lithuania and also doing business with China were experiencing problems.
The chamber then said that German investors might be forced to close their productions facilities in Lithuania due to Beijing's restrictions unless "a constructive solution to restore Lithuanian-Chinese economic relations" is found.
IN SEARCH FOR UNITY
A number of Western countries, including France and the US, have expressed support to Lithuania in its diplomatic row with China.
Ahead of the informal meeting in Brest, Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde also voiced her support, calling China's actions "unacceptable".
"We are in complete solidarity with Lithuania," she said.
However, finding a European consensus may be difficult as the bloc's major powers try to balance geopolitical solidarity with their national business interests.
"As for China's annoyance, it is very important that we, as the European Union, have a united strategy towards China," German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said. "We, as the new federal government, have a coalition agreement which clearly underlines that we are in favor of a European strategy toward China."
"It says clearly that on major global issues such as the climate change crisis, the pandemic, we have to work together, we are partners, we cooperate, although on some issues, such as the economic market, we are competitors," she added.
Baerbock and Landsbergis met separately on the sidelines of EU foreign ministers' informal meeting in Brest.
The Lithuanian Foreign Ministry said that Baerbock expressed solidarity with Lithuania in the face of pressure from China.
This "confirms once again that Germany is a key partner of Lithuania", Landsbergis said in the press release.