After Lithuania announced its withdrawal from a cooperation group between China and eastern and central European countries, which once threatened to divide the EU in its relations with the world’s most populous nation, the fellow Baltic nations Latvia and Estonia followed in its steps on Thursday.
After Vilnius allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy on its territory last year, China retaliated by slapping trade restrictions on the country and withdrawing its ambassador and the worsened relations prompted Lithuania to leave the group.
Issuing almost identically worded statements, Latvia and Estonia said they’re abandoning the so-called 16+1 eastern European framework with China that has been around since 2012 and aimed to promote joint infrastructure and development projects.
Estonia, which hadn’t attended any of the 16+1 meetings since the summit last February didn’t provide any reasoning at all for its decision while Latvia pointed out that the decision is in line with the current priorities of Latvian foreign and trade policy.
This is a major blow to China’s diplomatic efforts in Europe amid the spike in tensions over Taiwan provoked by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit earlier this month. Lithuania was also the only EU state to publicly support Pelosi’s visit.
State Department spokesman Vedant Patel expressed Washington’s respect and support for Estonia and Latvia’s sovereign decision to quit the 16+1 initiative, adding that aligning with European partners is the Biden administration’s pillar of its approach to China.
Baltic nations, which fear that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a precursor to a wider attempt by Moscow to claw back its Soviet empire, consider anathema Beijing’s declaration of a “no-limits” friendship with Putin.
The Baltic states’ grievances toward China also include trade imbalances and Beijing’s war rhetoric against Taiwan’s democracy stronghold.
Praising the Baltic neighbors’ decision, Lithuania’s minister of foreign affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis stressed that China’s club in Eastern Europe was already redundant and divisive long before his country quit and that it should be replaced with EU27+1 now that it’s reduced to 14+1.
Several EU states are among remaining China’s club members, including Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Croatia, Greece, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia.