China has halted beef imports from Lithuania, escalating a trade spat with the Baltic country and its Western allies over Taiwan.
The General Administration of Customs provided no explanation for the ban, which went into force on Wednesday.
When exporting countries report outbreaks of disease in livestock, the agency typically suspends meat imports. Lithuania has lately failed to disclose any animal diseases to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE).
The action comes after the UK said on Monday that it would join the US and Australia in supporting an EU complaint against China at the World Trade Organization over alleged trade penalties imposed by Beijing on Lithuania.
China has already employed trade sanctions against other countries perceived to have acted against its interests. After Canberra requested for an impartial international study into the origins of the COVID-19 epidemic, Beijing imposed tariffs on billions of dollars in Australian exports, including cattle, barely, and wine, in 2020.
According to Nathan Attrill, a specialist in Chinese foreign policy at the Australian National University, Beijing sees economic influence as its “most important tool in international statecraft.”
“How successful they will be will largely depend on two factors: how exposed a country’s exports are to the Chinese market, and how quickly a country can find an alternative market,” Attrill said.
According to the European Commission, Lithuanian exports to China decreased 91% in December compared to the same month in 2020.
Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy in its capital Vilnius last year, angering Beijing. China considers the self-governed island as part of its territory, which should be restored with the mainland by force if necessary.
On Thursday, Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, urged Lithuania to “face facts, correct its own mistakes, and return to the right track of adhering to the one China principle, rather than confusing right with wrong.”
The restriction of beef imports was denounced by Taiwan’s foreign ministry as “bullying” and the latest example of Beijing attempting to influence Lithuania’s foreign policy.
“We firmly stand with Lithuania,” Joanne Ou, a ministry official, told reporters.
China is the world’s top importer of beef but receives few shipments from Lithuania. According to Chinese customs records, China imported only 775 tonnes of beef from Lithuania in 2021, out of a total of 2.36 million tonnes that year.
To assist mitigate the impact of Chinese tariffs, Taiwan has increased its food imports from Lithuania, most notably placing a significant order for rum. The initial batch of 1,200 bottles went on sale earlier this month and sold out in less than an hour.