Two weeks ago (February 5, 2019), the Lithuanian intelligence community released its annual “National Threat Assessment” (Kam.lt, February 5). As in the past, this report asserts that the greatest intelligence threats to Vilnius come from Russia and Belarus. But for the first time, it adds China to the list. That inclusion seems to reflect the heightened sensitivity throughout the West to Chinese intelligence operations against members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other Western countries. Indeed, well-documented cases have been multiplying of Beijing using its expanded economic presence in these countries to collect intelligence and promote the spread of Chinese “soft power.”
According to Gediminas Grina, the former head of the Lithuanian State Security Department, Vilnius has long been watching Beijing but has become increasingly concerned because of mounting Chinese efforts to invest in key strategic projects in Lithuania. “There is nothing much new in this year’s intelligence report on national threats,” he says, “besides the fact that China is mentioned.” Naturally, that has attracted widespread attention in Lithuania and Europe and sparked denials by Chinese officials that Beijing is doing anything of the kind (Lithuaniannews.net, February 11; The Straits Times, February 9).
The unclassified version of the report provides few details; but Lithuanian officials have suggested that the classified edition offers a great deal of evidence to support the conclusion of the State Security Department and the Ministry of Defense’s Second Investigation Department that Chinese intelligence is, in fact, becoming a threat to Lithuania. That conclusion is suggested by Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis’ comment to Ziniu Radiias that, for him, “it is difficult to comment on the details because I have access both to the public report and to non-public information.” The prime minister added, however, that he and his government are carefully reviewing all applications by Chinese firms to ensure that these do not become covers for intelligence operations against Lithuania (The Baltic Times, February 7).
Nonetheless, the report and the coverage it has received in the Baltic countries do allow for certain more specific judgments about the increasing activities of Chinese intelligence in Lithuania (Vsd.lt, The Baltic Times, February 5). The report’s key findings about China are:
– Two Chinese intelligence services now operate in Lithuania: the Ministry of State Security and the Military Intelligence Directorate.
– “Primarily, China’s domestic policy issues drive Chinese intelligence activities in Lithuania. For example, it seeks that Lithuania will not support the independence of Tibet and Taiwan and will not address these issues when they are raised at the international level.”
– Beijing has other interests in Lithuania, connected with the Baltic country’s membership in NATO and the European Union as well as China’s investment programs there, about which Lithuanians may have knowledge. To that end, Chinese intelligence “may seek to obtain sensitive or classified national or NATO or EU information.”
– “Chinese intelligence [also] looks for suitable targets—decision-makers, other individuals sympathizing with China and able to exert political leverage. They seek to influence such individuals by giving gifts, paying for trips to China, covering expenses of training and courses organized there.”
– China currently uses “intelligence-funded trips to China […] to recruit Lithuanian citizens.”
– And the report concludes that China’s intelligence services will continue to expand their efforts in Lithuania, forcing Vilnius and its allies to step up their counter-intelligence programs.
Through its embassy in Vilnius and its foreign ministry in Beijing, China has responded by denouncing such accusations as “ridiculous”—exactly what one would expect officials in that country to do (The Straits Times, February 9). More interesting have been the reactions to the Lithuanian report in Moscow and Minsk. Commentators there have almost entirely ignored the inclusion of China on a list of threats that includes Russia and Belarus, dismissing the entire episode as the product of Western-driven spy mania. Vilnius, they say, is simply following the lead of Brussels and Washington (Sputnik News, February 12, 14). And supposedly, they add, Lithuania needs new enemies to justify discrimination against its national minorities, including ethnic Russians and ethnic Belarusians (Lenta.ru, Versiya.info, February 17; Ruskline.ru, February 5; Baltnews.lt, January 14, February 4).
One would expect Moscow and Minsk to focus on the charges against their own intelligence services, but the deference or even loyalty these two capitals are showing to Beijing by not taking up what the Lithuanian report says about Chinese activities is striking. Indeed, it may well be the most important “news” coming out of all of this. Ever since Lithuania regained its de facto independence in 1991, China has had an interest in it and the two other Baltic republics. Beijing built large embassies there, promised economic assistance and investment, and used various “soft power” measures in the Baltic States to ensure that the three countries that broke away from an empire show no sympathy for either Taiwan or Tibet—something Baltic activists showed early on (Tlu.ee, October 12–13, 2018).
That Beijing is now committing more intelligence resources there is natural rather than unexpected. But Vilnius’ decision to go public and Moscow and Minsk’s resolve not to comment about this fact show that Beijing’s advance in Lithuania is part of a far larger and more significant political game.