Baltic states claim trade imbalance reason for the withdrawal but Estonian FM Reinsalu says otherwise.
Written by Ahmed Adel, Cairo-based geopolitics and political economy researcher
Latvia and Estonia announced their withdrawal from the “17 + 1” format, which was created 10 years ago to promote economic relations between China and Eastern European countries. In justifying the unfriendly act towards China, the three Baltic Republics, which includes Lithuania, claimed that they placed great hope in economic benefits with China, but this did not materialise as there was very little investment from the Asian country. They also claimed that trade was damaged by the imbalance, which is in Beijing’s favour.
Interestingly, other members of “17 + 1” do not complain about the results of cooperation with Beijing, thus bringing to question why the three Baltic countries do. The Baltic countries decision was instigated by China’s unrelenting commitment to its relationship with Russia despite pressure from the West, and not because of some supposed disappointment in the volume of cooperation with China. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu admitted as much on ERR radio, saying that the decision to withdraw from “17 + 1” was because of “China’s failure to condemn Russia’s aggression in Ukraine”.
The Baltic states have long held an anti-Moscow stance, perhaps the harshest in the EU. Although the Baltic states claim their anti-Russia stance is partly due to the historical legacy of the Soviet Union and Russian Empire, this is only a cheapening of history and also ignores numerous Lithuanian attempts over the centuries to capture Moscow. Rather, the behaviour of the ruling elites of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia is because of their obedience to the United States and NATO countries in the hope of receiving concessions and advantages, and not because of past grievances.
Asked about the developments, US State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said “we respect and support Estonia and Latvia’s sovereign decision to no longer participate.”
“Estonia and Latvia are important and valued NATO allies and key US partners across a number of issues, including through our strong defense ties, our strong economic ties, as well as the promotion of democracy and human rights,” he added.
During this same period, the Seimas (Parliament) of Latvia listed Russia as a “State sponsor of terrorism”. Even before that, in May this year, the Lithuanian Parliament announced the same. These moves can be considered as the culmination of anti-Russian sentiment and a submissive attitude in relations with the US. These actions perhaps could be a precursor as Washington still contemplates on whether to list Russia as a “state sponsor of terrorism”.
None-the-less, the Baltic states have a rather scandalous position in Europe. Their government violated human rights by blatantly restricting the rights of Russian-speaking citizens in these countries, whilst also whitewashing, restoring and glorifying Nazi collaborators and demolishing monuments commemorating Soviet soldiers.
It can be assumed that Washington will support the decision of the Baltic States to withdraw from the “17 + 1” format. The current trend in Washington is that any provocation against Beijing is welcomed. It is for this reason that the Baltic states are emerging as the biggest cheerleaders in any aggression against China. Bizarrely, the Foreign Minister of Lithuania officially welcomed the visit of the US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. In fact, the foreign minister was the only person in the EU to support the provocative trip by the high-ranking American official.
As Vilnius considers the Chinese Communist Party to be authoritarian and Taiwan a democracy, last year, the Lithuanian Government authorised the opening of a fully functional “Taiwan Representative Office” in its capital, something that Beijing vehemently objected. This resulted in the Asian Giant imposing sanctions against Lithuania by lowering the level of diplomatic relations and putting restrictions on trade.
It is currently difficult to say whether Beijing will take measures against Latvia and Estonia or how seriously it will take their withdrawal from the “17 + 1” format since they are minor states of the EU which yield very little influence. Beijing’s trade deals with the Baltic states are also insignificant – Latvia exported €162 million worth of goods to China and Estonia €195 million. If trade stopped altogether, no one in China would even notice.
Beijing cooperates with 14 other Eastern European countries, and in these countries, no one wants to give up economic ties with China. For example, Hungary has just proposed holding a “memorial ministerial meeting” in Budapest this year to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the “17 + 1” format. Although the overwhelmingly consensus in the “17 + 1” format is that relations with Beijing must continue to foster and thrive, the US has found its own figureheads in the Baltics, no matter how minor these countries are in the grand scheme of things, to oppose China from within the EU.
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