Down to 14 + 1: Estonia and Latvia quit China’s club in Eastern Europe

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In a major blow to China’s diplomatic efforts in Europe, Estonia and Latvia on Thursday quit China’s exclusive club for engaging with Central and Eastern European countries, amid deepening concerns over Beijing’s ties with their arch-enemy Moscow.

China’s declaration of a “no-limits” friendship with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is anathema to Baltic nations, which fear that his invasion of Ukraine is a precursor to a wider attempt by Russia to claw back its Soviet empire.

Lithuania was the first to walk out last year, when the group was styled as the 17 + 1, a diplomatic forum in which 17 countries sought to find common ground with Beijing. Thursday’s move by Tallinn and Riga slashes the framework back to 14 + 1.

In Lithuania’s case, the government in Vilnius also chose to pursue a policy of deeper diplomatic engagement with democratic Taiwan, which precipitated an EU trade showdown, when China started to block Lithuania goods at customs.

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Beijing has not yet commented on being spurned by Tallinn and Riga. The entire +1 diplomatic format has been coming under increasing pressure, however, with China being criticized for playing divide-and-rule games within the EU, and Eastern European countries questioning the economic dividends.

In a statement on Thursday, the government in Tallinn said: “Estonia decided it would no longer participate in the cooperation platform between Central and Eastern European countries and China. Estonia will continue to work towards constructive and pragmatic relations with China, which includes advancing EU-China relations in line with the rules-based international order and values such as human rights.”

It added that Estonia had “not attended any of the meetings of the format after the summit last February.”

The Latvian foreign ministry also made the same withdrawal on Thursday. “In view of the current priorities of Latvian foreign and trade policy, Latvia has decided to cease its participation in the cooperation framework of Central and Eastern European Countries and China.”

“Latvia will continue to strive for constructive and pragmatic relations with China both bilaterally, as well as through EU-China cooperation based on mutual benefit, respect for international law, human rights and the international rules-based order,” it added.

Asked if Tallinn was prepared for an angry response from Beijing, an Estonian diplomat said: “We don’t see any reason for retaliation.”

Separately, Beijing hit out at the Lithuanian government for a delegation to visit Taiwan led by the deputy minister for transport and communication, Agnė Vaiciukevičiūtė. “This is a naked betrayal” of Lithuania’s pledge of one China policy, according to Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Wang Wenbin.

Estonia and Latvia had sought to take a less confrontational line than Lithuania, but have decided to take the step after Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu came back to power | Gints Ivuskans/AFP via Getty Images

In private, Estonian and Latvian officials have warned about this looming move for months. Even though they had sought to take a less confrontational line than Lithuania, they have decided to take the step after Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu came back to power less than a month ago.

Nine of the 27 EU countries remain in the club, which Beijing started in 2012: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Five non-EU countries are also in: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

The EU is also an observer in the meetings.

Beijing was already sensing an increasingly lukewarm reaction from these countries earlier this year. In April, China dispatched seasoned diplomat Huo Yuzhen, who’s the special envoy for Central and Eastern European countries to tour the region to try to mend the ties.

China has not announced plans for President Xi Jinping or Prime Minister Li Keqiang to chair another supposedly annual summit with the leaders from the region.

Last year, Estonia snubbed Xi’s invitation for Prime Minister Kaja Kallas to attend the virtual summit. Her foreign minister attended in her stead.