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Amid Taiwan spat, Lithuania closes embassy in China after diplomats leave

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Lithuania's Embassy in Beijing has cleared all of its diplomats. The tiny Baltic nation has evacuated them from China. Their departure is the latest escalation in a diplomatic standoff between the two countries. Joining us now from Beijing to help explain what's going on is NPR's Emily Feng. Emily, was this expected at all, or is it something that happened suddenly without warning?

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: No, it was not an expected departure. They left suddenly yesterday on one of the few flights to Europe. And their departure was so sudden, actually, that some diplomats had to leave their small pets behind. The embassy building is now locked. It's empty. And Lithuania's Foreign Ministry said in a statement to NPR that they're going to operate it remotely from now on.

MARTINEZ: Wow. OK, now, why did they leave exactly?

FENG: In essence, Lithuania was scared. Their diplomats in China might not be treated as diplomats anymore. Diplomats normally get legal protections in foreign countries they're posted in, which is called diplomatic immunity, but China had demanded the Lithuanian diplomats give back their credentials which bestow them with this protection. Lithuania did not do this. Instead, they evacuated everyone. China's Foreign Ministry said today that these fears about the safety of Lithuanian diplomats are, quote, "groundless." But what China has done to the Lithuanian Embassy here is pretty unprecedented. It's really alarmed the other embassies here because diplomatic immunity is a cornerstone for all countries to maintain embassies abroad, and China has effectively tried to unilaterally retract that legal safeguard.

MARTINEZ: We mentioned how there's this diplomatic standoff between Lithuania and China. What are they at odds with?

FENG: In a word, Taiwan. Earlier this fall, Lithuania let Taiwan open a representative office, essentially a de facto embassy, in Vilnius, Lithuania's capital. And this really set China off because China considers Taiwan its own province, and Beijing will go to extreme lengths to squash any sign that Taiwan is being treated like an independent country, such as, for example, letting Taiwan open a de facto embassy. So China's retaliated. It's blocked all Lithuanian exports. It recalled its ambassador to Lithuania, and then it downgraded its diplomatic relationship with Lithuania.

MARTINEZ: Now, Lithuania is not a big country, roughly 3 million people. But it is part of a much bigger bloc of countries, the European Union. So what will this mean, you think, for China's relationship with Europe going forward?

FENG: It does not bode well. A few months ago, other European countries were actually surprised, if not a little annoyed, at how enthusiastically Lithuania was supporting Taiwan. For example, it let Taiwan call its de facto embassy the Taiwan Representative Office, which was a little bit too blunt for Beijing's taste. But China's ensuing tactics - this informal blockade of Lithuanian goods, for example, today's departure of Lithuanian's diplomats - that's really shocked Europe into solidarity with Lithuania. So, for example, just last week, the EU proposed a new legal tool that would counter economic coercion. And that proposal has not passed. It also does not mention China directly by name. But it is designed to push back exactly against what China has done to Lithuania over the last few months.

This entire episode also signals a change in China's approach to Europe because for years, China had courted countries like Lithuania, but now China has shown it feels it doesn't really need the support of such states anymore, and instead it's increasingly willing to freeze out entire countries to make a political example out of them.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Emily, thanks.

FENG: Thanks, A.

(SOUNDBITE OF KIASMOS' "LIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.