China’s influence in Europe takes a Baltic hit

In March 2021, Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania’s Foreign Minister, openly declared that the cooperation programme between Beijing and Eastern and Central Europe has brought ‘almost no benefits’ to his country. His comments came after the decision by Lithuania and Estonia to not send highest-level representatives to the virtual ‘17+1’ summit on 9th February, perceived as an insult in Beijing. The two Baltic countries not only question the value of the ‘17+1’ format and their involvement in it, but, in case of Lithuania, also actively seek official trade relations with Taiwan. 

The ‘16+1’ format was launched in 2012 by Beijing with a promise to bring investments and to strengthen the bilateral trade between the Eastern and Central Europe and China. However, during nine years of influence building and the format transformation from ‘16+1’ to ‘17+1’ (Greece joined in 2019), authoritarian China has found it difficult to charm the Baltic states. 

Lithuania’s stance should come as no surprise. The country has always been one of the strongest voices supporting democratic transformation and values in the neighbouring countries, such as Georgia, Ukraine and, most recently, Belarus. It has also been a keen advocate of the transatlantic relationship and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) unity. Lithuania’s preference for democracy, freedom and a principled foreign policy is heavily influenced by painful memories of nineteenth and twentieth century history when the Baltic country suffered occupation by Tsarist Russia, then Nazi Germany, followed by the Soviet Union. With these memories in mind, the current Lithuanian government has opted to reject the aims of Beijing, which is to expand its zone of influence, to break down the free and open international order, and to replace it with an authoritarian one centred on China. 

Although not yet officially having confirmed its withdrawal from ‘17+1’, the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry highlighted that it would prioritise participation in multilateral forums with China where all European Union (EU) countries take part. A similar idea was also expressed by a spokeswoman for the Estonian Prime Minister. The key reason for that is the willingness to contribute to strengthening a common EU/European China policy, which would also clearly emphasise a principled stance on Beijing’s grievous human rights violations in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and continuous threats to the security and free governance of Taiwan. In the face of such challenges, unity between EU countries is much needed, and any regional cooperation formats between Eastern and Central Europe and Beijing do not help to achieve that objective.

Lithuania is also determined to strengthen its relationship with Taiwan. The country is planning to open a trade office in Taipei by the end of this year with an aim to spread and strengthen its economic diplomacy policy in Asia. Although the announcement has already triggered a statement from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, who expressed dissatisfaction by claiming that Beijing is ‘firmly against the mutual establishment of official agencies and official exchanges in all forms between the Taiwan region and countries having diplomatic relations with China, including Lithuania’, the country shows no sign of being intimidated and is determined to support the democratically governed island nation of Taiwan.

Lithuania’s recent policy shift towards China might be considered too bold and even irrational by those  still reminiscing about the former ‘win-win’ relationship with China. The reason for such actions is simple: Lithuania, a nation in a geostrategically significant location on NATO’s Eastern flank knows all too well about the importance of standing up to large authoritarian powers, particularly those which aim to expand their influence, to undermine the free and open international order, and to threaten other countries’ wellbeing and security.

As the United Kingdom (UK) adopts a more realistic approach towards China, the Baltic nations of Lithuania and Estonia should make for ideal partners. It is no surprise that the countries stressed a common alignment during the British Foreign Secretary’s visit to the region in early March. In Lithuania and Estonia, the UK has increasingly like-minded allies for dealing with Beijing’s ambitions in the Euro-Atlantic region.

Viktorija Starych-Samuolienė is Co-founder and Director of Strategy at the Council on Geostrategy.

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