Estonia and Latvia say they are pulling out of a decade-old mechanism established by China to deepen its influence in Europe, following their Baltic neighbor Lithuania, which left the group last year.
Sixteen nations joined the China and Central and Eastern European Cooperation (China-CEEC) Forum when it was established in April 2012, with an inaugural summit held in Poland. The 16+1, as it was known, appeared to be gaining influence when Greece joined in 2019.
But Lithuania quit the group in 2021 over security concerns and frustrations with growing authoritarianism in Beijing, leading lawmakers from Lithuania told VOA earlier this year. The country also said it wanted to end the practice of dealing with major powers on a subregional group basis, preferring a united European Union approach.
Lithuania’s two Baltic neighbors announced last week that they, too, would no longer participate in the grouping’s activities. China’s close ties with Russia factored in their country’s decision, a statement issued by the Latvian foreign ministry said.
Both countries said they want to continue to work toward constructive and pragmatic relations with China but would like to do so within the framework of EU-China relations, and “in line with rules-based international order and values such as human rights.”
On sidelines since early 2021
The last summit held under the China-CEEC mechanism was in February 2021, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping hosted top officials in a virtual meeting. “Since then, Estonia has not participated or kept track of the events,” Aari Lemmik, counselor for press and cultural affairs at the Estonian Embassy in Washington, told VOA.
Latvia, meanwhile, stated that in the current geopolitical setting, its continued participation in the 16+1 format is no longer in line with its strategic objectives.
“China-Russia relations are growing closer. China has repeatedly confirmed its strategic partnership with Russia even after the latter embarked upon wide-scale military aggression in Ukraine, for which China is putting the blame on the West,” read a statement provided to VOA by the Latvian Embassy in Washington.
“Since 16+1 is a format for international dialogue, and not an international organization, no formal withdrawal procedures are applicable. Latvia simply will no longer participate in the activities of this framework,” the statement said.
A Romanian-based expert who has been following China and Central and Eastern Europe described the 16+1 exercise as “an initiative that failed to turn into a 'fan club' of China partners.”
"For the time being, at least in the short and medium term, I think [China’s] expansion reached its limits,” said Horia Ciurtin, an expert at the New Strategy Center, a think tank headquartered in Bucharest, in written answers to questions from VOA. “It hit a ceiling and it will slowly ossify and withdraw. And this is not only the case of Central/Eastern Europe, but throughout the scattered map.”
Ciurtin thinks that the conflict in Ukraine and China’s ties with Russia have made it more difficult for China to market itself as a benign investor or trading partner. In addition, he sees the decisions made by Latvia and Estonia as a form of Baltic solidarity.
The war in Ukraine “presented a good opportunity for Latvia and Estonia to follow Lithuania’s path,” he said.
Lithuania has been the target of Chinese political and economic punitive measures since its decision last year to leave the China-CEEC forum and expand trade ties with democratic Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province. Beijing’s effort has been widely seen as designed to scare off other countries that may want to follow suit.
Following an online meeting between the Chinese and Estonian foreign ministers in January, Chinese state media hailed Estonia as an “example” of how European nations handle their relations with Beijing, “in sharp contrast to Lithuania.”
But following last week’s announcement, Beijing’s Global Times published an article casting Estonia's and Latvia’s decisions as “shortsighted” and the result of bowing to U.S. pressure. The newspaper added that their role within the China-CEEC forum had been “marginal,” and that the forum would continue regardless.
Global Times also said that neither the U.S. nor the EU can be counted on to deliver the kind of economic help China delivers.
Asked to respond, a State Department spokesperson said the United States “will continue to closely support [Estonia's and Latvia’s] efforts to make the Baltics a more resilient and prosperous region.
“Estonia and Latvia are valued NATO allies and key U.S. partners across a range of issues, including through our strong defense and economic ties, and on the promotion of democracy and human rights,” the spokesperson said.
“Beyond our commitment to the same values, our free, democratic countries produce prosperity that helps our economies thrive,” the spokesperson added.