China lashed Lithuania for sounding an alarm about Beijing’s use of economic influence for espionage purposes, a Baltic rebuke that previews a broader diplomatic clash over the Pacific power’s ambitions in Europe. The Chinese Embassy said Friday;

“It is absurd and ridiculous for the Lithuanian intelligence and security services to rely on conjecture and imagination to make unfounded distortions”

The retort came just a few days after Lithuanian intelligence agencies accused China of launching “increasingly aggressive” espionage campaigns, organised around human spy recruits and the use of tech companies as surveillance assets. China’s ambassador to Lithuania, Shen Zhifei, issued a separate condemnation of such warnings to local media.

“Chinese investment should not be demonised,” Shen wrote in a Friday column. “All cooperation is transparent commercial transactions instead of political deals. Chinese investment should not be smeared. It is wise and sensible to avoid protectionist tendencies and not to look at Chinese investment through the lens of ‘cold war.’”

Lithuanian intelligence agencies added China to a public list of threats earlier this week. “As Chinese economic and political ambitions grow in Lithuania and other NATO and EU countries, activities of the Chinese intelligence and security services become increasingly aggressive,” the State Security Department and the Second Investigation Department said, per the Baltic News Network.

“Primarily, China’s domestic policy issues drive Chinese intelligence activities in Lithuania. For example, it seeks that Lithuania would not support independence of Tibet and Taiwan and would not address these issues at the international level.”

The contretemps could be a dress rehearsal for a debate over China’s encroachment in Europe set to take place next week.

“I do see Central and Eastern Europe as being a prime target for China and being perhaps more vulnerable than some other parts of Europe to the success of that agenda,” a senior administration official told reporters Friday.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will launch a public campaign against excessive Chinese influence in Europe next week, warning European nations that Beijing plans to use its “Belt and Road Initiative” lavish support for infrastructure projects in poorer countries to influence corruption prone European officials.

“I should be clear that, of course, we see this as being problematic across the board, but I think what sets Central and Eastern Europe apart is you have a large number of mostly small and midsize states that, many of whom have a higher propensity to corruption,” the senior administration official said.

“So they see relatively small countries with a recent history of communism with significant pathways of corruption that lend themselves more readily to state penetration in key sectors, and then they have a springboard to operate within EU fora.”