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Protesters hold photos of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig outside British Columbia Supreme Court in Vancouver in 2019. A senior Lithuanian official says Beijing’s arrest of the two Canadians was a 'wake-up call' for democratic countries.

JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images

A senior foreign ministry official in Lithuania, which has drawn China’s ire in recent months for strengthening ties with Taiwan and helping Hong Kong dissidents, says Beijing’s arrest of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor was a “wake-up call” for democratic countries in their dealings with the Chinese Communist Party.

Mantas Adomenas is vice-minister of foreign affairs in the small Baltic country, and one of the lead spokesmen, together with Foreign Affairs Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis, in charting a new course for Lithuania-China relations these days from offering humanitarian visas to Hong Kong democracy activists to opening a de-facto embassy in Taiwan.

He said incidents such the jailing of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, as well as the heavy jail sentences meted out to Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, should spur democracies to work together.

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Send a message to Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig as they near 1,000 days in detention in China

“All these facts do accumulate. I very much hope that more societies receive this wake-up call. Democracies should unite and work together to preserve and defend the international [rules-based] legal order,” Mr. Adomenas said in an interview Tuesday.

The two Michaels were jailed by Beijing in late 2018 in apparent retaliation for Ottawa’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request. Canada has called China’s conduct “hostage diplomacy” and scores of Western countries, including Lithuania, have decried the arbitrary detentions.

He said it’s important for democracies to defend rules-based international order and to stand up to countries such as China, which would argue “the same standards of human rights do not apply in Toronto and Xinjiang. Or that democracy is not the universal measure of human progress and you can replace it with development.”

Lithuania in recent months has stood out among European Union countries for how it’s reshaping relations with China. Like Canada, Britain and the Netherlands, the Lithuanian parliament voted in May to declare China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority as “genocide.” It also urged a United Nations investigation of internment camps and to ask the European Commission to review relations with Beijing.

It’s also taken several steps to show support for Taiwan, the self-governing island considered a breakaway province by Beijing despite the fact that the Chinese Communist Party, which took power in 1949, has never ruled the territory. The Chinese government has been taking steps to increasingly isolate Taiwan from the international community in recent years.

In March, Vilnius announced it would open a de-facto embassy in Taiwan, an arrangement similar to other Western countries where the facility is called a trade office rather than a diplomatic mission. Taiwan later announced it would reciprocate by establishing its own representative office in Lithuania, the first new office of this kind to be set up in Europe in 18 years.

Taiwan to open representative office in China-skeptic Lithuania

The Chinese government last week warned Lithuania not to “send the wrong signals to Taiwan independence forces” by opening an office in Taipei. Only 15 countries have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, but many others have unofficial embassies which are often termed trade offices.

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In June, Lithuania joined countries including the United States and Japan in donating COVID-19 vaccines to Taiwan, which has had trouble procuring sufficient numbers for its population of 24 million and has blamed China for blocking a deal to buy Pfizer-BioNTech doses. Canada has not offered any vaccines to Taiwan despite taking mask donations from Taipei last year.

In the spring, Lithuania quit the “17+1″ co-operation partnership between China and Eastern and Central European countries, a forum that has been criticized as an effort by Beijing to “divide and conquer” the region. Mr. Adomenas said the arrangement delivered no economic benefits for this country. “It is all promises and benefits just around the corner but never really materializing.”

He said China to date has not retaliated against Lithuania for these actions.

These moves reflect the will of the governing coalition that took power in Lithuania last fall and declared its plans to support those “fighting for freedom,” such as Taiwan. As a former Lithuanian cabinet minister Gintaras Steponavicius said this March, as neighbours of Russia, Lithuanians are familiar with living under constant threat from a larger country.

Taiwan, a democracy with a population roughly the size of Australia, was the first Asian jurisdiction to legalize same-sex marriages. It has embarked on major reconciliation efforts with its significant Indigenous population. It has a transgender cabinet minister.

“It is a beacon of liberty and human rights and rule of law,” Mr. Adomenas said.

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The vice-minister said Taiwan is “also living proof that democracy and Chinese culture are compatible, something that apologists of the communist regime in China deny.”

He said Lithuania is preparing to offer humanitarian visas to Hong Kongers fleeing China’s crackdown in the former British territory – something the Canadian government has declined to do. Lithuania has issued similar visas – more than 2,300 – to Belarusian opposition members, activists and journalists and others, who are under threat of repression by the Lukashenko government in Minsk. Vilnius will also help funnel travel documents to Hong Kongers where needed, he said.

With a report from Reuters

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