Last Thursday, Latvia and Estonia announced they would cease participation in a cooperation group between China and Central and Eastern European countries, commonly known as “16+1.” The two Baltic countries join Lithuania, which left the group last year, following China’s continued refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and recent surge in military posturing around Taiwan. Their exit from the group underscores China’s souring diplomatic relations with Eastern Europe. Stuart Lau from Politico reported on the coordinated statements by the Latvian and Estonian governments:
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. [Source]
Estonia’s Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said on Saturday that China’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “was definitely a factor” in Estonia’s decision to pull out of the 16+1 group. The Estonian and Latvian statements both mentioned the importance of China upholding the “rules-based international order,” which Russia violated via its invasion of Ukraine, while China continues its “no limits” partnership with Russia. Security was thus a major motivation for the two Baltic states, both of which share a border with Russia. The same day as the announcement, Latvia’s parliament declared Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, and Estonia barred Russian citizens from entering its country on tourist visas. In CHOICE (China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe), Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova described the extent to which Latvia and Estonia’s exit reflected their alignment with the EU and U.S.:
[A]lthough unarguably a demonstration of the strong Transatlantic orientation of the Baltic countries, the nuances matter here. The two countries’ exit should not be simplified into expressing loyalty “so that down the road, if they’re vulnerable, that [the US and its Western allies] will remember that and make sure to reward them with a strong defense,” as noted by one expert and immediately quoted in Chinese media as well. The Baltic defense was upgraded in February as an immediate and direct result of [the] Russian attack on Ukraine, long before the decision to leave the “16+1” was made. In fact, the Baltic distaste for being part of China’s initiatives is much more personal: it runs on the fuel of China’s rhetorical support for Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine.
[…] What will come out of the coordinated Baltic exit? It is unlikely that the Estonian and Latvian decision will cause the same level of Beijing’s hostility as the Lithuanian one did a year ago. The careful wording of the statements (“Estonia will continue to work towards constructive and pragmatic relations with China,” and “Latvia will continue to strive for constructive and pragmatic relations with China”) is not calling for a full-on halt of relations with China, but rather indicating that the two countries prefer the EU-China platform, which provides more clout to the values and rules-based international order message. [Source]
The statements by Latvia and Estonia technically do not constitute a formal withdrawal from 16+1, since no binding agreements compel nations to remain in the group, but many analysts have concluded that the forum is effectively dead after years of steady deterioration. One major setback for China occurred during the February 2021 summit, which Xi Jinping decided to personally attend for the first time, while over a third of the country members downgraded their representation by not sending their heads of state. Last May, Lithuania pulled out of the group, which was called 17+1 at the time, and urged other EU countries to follow suit. This April, Huo Yuzhen, Beijing’s Special Representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for China and Central and Eastern European Countries Cooperation, traveled to eight countries in the region to try to revive the forum and mend ties despite Xi’s continued support of Putin, and was refused a meeting with Polish government officials.
The 16+1 group has created complex political dynamics in Europe, since the Central and Eastern European countries that participate include both members and non-members of the EU. As a result, China’s economic carrots for the EU members have cultivated influence that potentially undercuts consensus between Western and Eastern EU members on China policy. At the Jamestown China Brief, Bartosz Kowalski, an assistant professor at the Department of Asian Studies of the University of Łódź, Poland, and researcher of its Center for Asian Affairs, described how both China and Eastern European countries have used the politics of the 16+1 group to their advantage:
Poland has calculated that in the face of an imminent threat from Russia, close security ties with the U.S. and NATO must be prioritized. However, Poland also wants to keep other diplomatic channels open, partly for leverage in its relations with the European Union and the U.S. For its part, China perceives Poland as an important element in its regional outreach, both with the 16+1 and the EU. In fact, as was hinted by a diplomat from one of the Baltic states, Poland’s lack of interest in leaving the China-led format effectively hinders smaller CEE states which wish to exit the format (GMFUS, April 1, 2021). CEE states are wary of the political and economic price that a diplomatic row with China could bring, including China’s weaponizing of trade and supply chains.
[…] The 16+1 platform’s first decade demonstrates that from China’s perspective, the forum is primarily a tool for elite and public engagement: enhancing ties with CEE leaders through summit diplomacy and those between local populations through people-to-people diplomacy. […] China has also sought to use the format as a bargaining chip in its relations with the EU and the organization’s most powerful countries – Germany and France (Xinhua, February 25, 2021; Sinopsis, July 20, 2018; People.cn, June 1, 2018). China’s appeal to CEE countries through summit diplomacy has faded considerably in recent years, which is in part due to Beijing’s failure to deliver on its economic promises to the region. [Source]
14+1 🇨🇳: #Latvia and #Estonia joined the fellow Baltic nation of #Lithuania and announced their withdrawal from the China-CEEC Cooperation framework.
This is an important step in challenging China's divide-and-conquer approach and moving towards an all-EU 27+1 format.
— Marcin M Jerzewski | 葉皓勤 (@yehaoqin) August 11, 2022
Chinese state media went into damage control mode in response to Latvia and Estonia’s exit. The Global Times claimed their decision was “shortsighted” and made “under pressure from the U.S.,” while playing down its implications for the 16+1 group as a whole. Perhaps in an attempt to highlight more positive China-CEE relations, two articles in the People’s Daily quoted Latvian groups praising China’s recent white paper on Taiwan. On Friday, on the other hand, China imposed sanctions on Lithuanian Deputy Minister of Transport and Communications Agnė Vaiciukevičiūtė for his visit to Taiwan last week. A China Daily editorial on Sunday warned “this Baltic country” not to assume that its perceived transgressions against China would escape the latter’s notice, saying it “should never take it for granted that it is a small country with less geopolitical importance and whatever it does to challenge the one-China principle will not meet the same consequences as if it was a major country.”
On Weibo, thousands of netizens liked a post by Russia Today that criticized Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania’s withdrawal and included a picture with the English-language caption, “3 idiots.” One top Chinese-language comment read: “three Baltic fools.” While the majority of Weibo reactions were critical, a popular comment under one post appeared to support the Baltic states’ security concerns: “Countries that have experienced the Soviet Union are not easily fooled.” But Chinese state media continue to put their spin on the situation. In April, MapInfluenCE documented a confluence of Chinese and Russian state narratives in local alternative-media outlets:
Even prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a significant confluence of Russian and Chinese narratives was observable in alternative media outlets across Central Europe.
[…] The analysis has shown that the proclaimed intention of the analyzed alternative media to publish ‘alternative points of view’ also translates into publishing Chinese party-state’s views.
[…] In Slovakia, most of the content of the alternative media was sourced from the local press agencies which allowed the media to hide articles exhibiting pro-Chinese narratives, disinformation and conspiracies. In several cases, the information was directly reprinted from official Chinese or Russian sources.
[…] Chinese sources quoted by the Slovak alternative outlets included the Global Times, Xinhua, and China Daily. Russian sources which were reprinted were RT (former Russia Today), the Strategic Culture Foundation, Politikus, RBC, Iarex, and the Czech localized version of Sputnik. [Source]