How Lithuania Is Shaping Great Power Competition With China

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How Lithuania Is Shaping Great Power Competition With China

Lithuania defies the conventional wisdom that small states have little ability to influence larger powers.

How Lithuania Is Shaping Great Power Competition With China
Credit: Pixabay

Small states have commonly been seen as pawns on the table of international relations, with little agency on their own or ability to influence larger powers. Lithuania has cut against this conventional wisdom. In the early 1990s, it disregarded the advice to not “rock the boat” and was the first to leave the Soviet Union. At one of the meetings, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, pounding the table with his fist, had insisted that independence was not attainable and warned that he would make the Lithuanian government “dance.” Vilnius, however, marched to its own tune and officially reappeared on the world map in 1991. Instead, it was the Soviet Union that unraveled. 

Two decades later, Lithuania is staring down another Communist regime, this time in China. To the surprise of many, Vilnius has proactively inserted itself into great power rivalry and become one of Europe’s loudest critics of China’s Communist Party. 

Fiercely Atlanticist in its strategic orientation, Lithuania’s adopted policies have largely been informed by Washington’s stance toward China. With the United States increasingly preoccupied with the Indo‐Pacific, small states like Lithuania have sought innovative ways to remain an attractive ally for Washington. “We depend on the U.S. for our security on this continent. It’s understandable that we have to calculate global security interests into our security interests. We need to show the U.S. can depend on us,” the Lithuanian foreign minister said, defending his country’s adopted policies. 

Recently, Lithuania rolled out its official strategic vision for the Indo-Pacific. This led to affirmative nods from U.S. officials. Indeed, ever since adopting a hardline policy line against China, Vilnius has reveled in Washington’s attention

In his scholarly examination of small state’s strategies for shaping global politics, Tom Long observed that in order to gain influence, small-state actors must identify their own capacities for action and employ them creatively. Vilnius’ positioning as a European forerunner for calling out China’s malign behavior certainly comes across as an inventive, albeit somewhat risky, move. 

Clearly, the Baltic nation has paid some price for its pluckiness. Trade links with Beijing were badly burned after Lithuania’s decision to open a Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius. Furthermore, some prominent voices in Lithuania have insisted that its geopolitical horizons should not stretch that far. “You need to conserve your ammunition. We are not large and strong enough to fight on all fronts of the world,” a former senior Lithuanian official was quoted as saying. A poll taken in 2022 equally showed that the Lithuanian populace had not exactly bought into the notion that the country should be stepping on the toes of a regional hegemon in Asia. Despite that, however, the Lithuanian government did not bow to the heavy-handed economic pressure from China. 

After the initial fallout, Vilnius has now seen a considerable uptick in diplomatic engagement as well as economic activity with countries like Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. According to Lithuanian government data, already in 2022 exports to other Indo-Pacific nations had managed to offset the drop in trade with China. 

As a country experiencing the wrath of the Chinese Communist party, Lithuania suddenly found itself being pushed closer to other geographically very distant but like-minded countries. On an official visit to Canberra, the Lithuanian foreign minister joked that alongside Australia his country had now joined an “exclusive club” of nations that have been exposed to drastic coercive measures by China. 

Lithuania’s outspokenness has visibly rattled Beijing. Chinese official media have regularly tried to carry the message that this Baltic nation of a mere 3 million people does not really matter. “The country’s population is not even as large as that of Chaoyang district in Beijing. It is just a mouse, or even a flea, under the feet of a fighting elephant,” an editorial from the state-owned Global Times declared. “Lithuania is a crazy, tiny country full of geopolitical fears,” another op-ed asserted. Yet for a country that supposedly deserves no attention, Chinese state-run propaganda, paradoxically, devotes substantial time and effort to trying to berate and discredit Lithuania

Whether one views Lithuania’s adopted policy stance against China as a small state needlessly overplaying its hand, or as a deft and rewarding geopolitical move, Vilnius has managed to revise the conventional wisdom about small state behavior. It starkly illustrates that such countries are not doomed to be bystanders in the great power rivalry. They too can actively formulate strategies vis-à-vis regions that are far removed from their own immediate neighborhood, be outspoken, and shape great power competition.