China suspends Lithuanian beef imports amid escalating Taiwan row

Suspension comes after the UK announces it will join the US and Australia in backing WTO case against China.

Taiwanese and Lithuanian flags
Chinese customs have suspended beef imports from Lithuania amid an escalating spat over Taiwan [File: Janis Laizans/Reuters]

China has suspended imports of beef from Lithuania, amid a growing trade spat with the Baltic nation and its Western allies over Taiwan.

The General Administration of Customs did not give a reason for the suspension, which took effect on Wednesday.

The agency typically halts imports of meat if exporting nations report outbreaks of disease in livestock. Lithuania has not reported any animal disease to the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) recently.

The move comes after the UK on Monday announced it would join the United States and Australia in supporting a EU case against China at the World Trade Organization over Beijing’s alleged trade sanctions against Lithuania.

China has used trade restrictions against other countries deemed to have acted against its interests in the past. In 2020, Beijing placed curbs on billions of dollars of Australian exports, including beef, barely and wine, after Canberra called for an independent international inquiry into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nathan Attrill, a lecturer in Chinese foreign policy at the Australian National University, told Al Jazeera that Beijing viewed its economic leverage as its “most important tool in its international statecraft.”

“The degree to which they will be successful will largely come down to two factors: how exposed are a country’s exports to the Chinese market, and how quickly could a country find an alternative market,” Attrill said.

“Australia has been relatively successful in re-routing some of its exports China has targeted. China has also continued to import iron ore, seeing itself having no other alternative market to buy from.”

“Countries facing down possible sanction and boycott by China are now increasingly looking to each other for advice on how to handle economic coercion,” Attrill added.

Lithuanian exports to China fell 91 percent in December compared with the same month in 2020, according to the European Commission.

Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy in its capital Vilnius last year, angering Beijing. China regards the self-governed island as part of its territory, which should be reunited with the mainland by force if necessary.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on Thursday called on Lithuania to “face up to facts, redress its own mistakes, and come back to the right track of adhering to the one China principle, instead of confusing right with wrong.”

Taiwan’s foreign ministry condemned the suspension of beef imports as “bullying” and the latest example of Beijing seeking to change Lithuania’s foreign policy.

“We firmly stand together with Lithuania,” ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou told reporters.

China is the world’s top importer of beef but receives few shipments from Lithuania. China imported just 775 tonnes of beef from Lithuania in 2021, out of a total 2.36 million tonnes that year, according to Chinese customs data.

Taiwan has stepped up its food imports from Lithuania to help ease the impact of Chinese curbs, most recently by placing a large order for rum. The first batch of 1,200 bottles sold out in less than an hour after going on sale this month.

Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Sydney-based Lowy Institute, told Al Jazeera that it was not clear that Beijing’s pressure tactics worked.

“Over time, as Chinese power grows, that may change,” McGregor said. “But for the moment, Chinese actions are producing counter reactions, in Europe and Australia and between Europe and Australia, and encouraged by the US.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies