VILNIUS- Chinese interference in this year's elections in EU and NATO member Lithuania "definitely cannot be ruled out" due to Lithuanian support for Taiwan, the chief of Lithuania’s counter-intelligence said on Thursday.

China downgraded ties with Lithuania and pressured multinationals to sever links with the Baltic nation of 2.8 million after it allowed Taiwan to open a de-facto embassy there in late 2021.

China views democratically governed Taiwan as its territory with no right to the trappings of a state and has stepped up pressure on countries to downgrade or sever their relations with the island, even non-official ones.

Lithuania, like most of the world, acknowledges that China takes the position there is “one China” and Taiwan is part of it. It does not have full relations with Taiwan, which has just 12 diplomatic allies.

The European Union launched a challenge at the World Trade Organization in January 2022, accusing China of discriminatory trade practices against Lithuania. The challenge was suspended in January 2024.

"I would say that the scenario of attempting to influence elections definitely cannot be ruled out... I am mostly referring to China," Darius Jauniskis, head of the Lithuanian State Security Department, told reporters.

The Lithuanian parliament government coalition pledged to support "those fighting for freedom in Taiwan" before taking office in 2020, and its Taiwanese policy was broadly supported by the country's semi-executive President Gitanas Nauseda.

Nauseda is facing an election in May and the parliamentary elections will he held in October.

"We detect a high interest in the elections, both presidential and parliamentary, because they are highly important to China due to our Taiwanese policy," said Jauniskis.

The Chinese diplomatic representation in Lithuania did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

China increased its spying efforts in Lithuania in 2023, Lithuania's intelligence agencies said on Thursday in an annual assessment of threats.

Cyber actors "affiliated with China" have been found regularly probing Lithuanian government institutions for vulnerabilities "with the aim of penetrating their networks, they said.

(Reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Editing by Nick Macfie)