Lithuania and Estonia are not sending state leaders to this week's 17+1 summit between China and 17 Eastern and Central European countries, snubbing Beijing's invitation for closer cooperation, Politico has reported.
The virtual summit is planned on Tuesday.
“For the moment we can confirm that at [the] 17+1 meeting, Lithuania will not be represented neither at president, nor at prime minister level,” Politico quoted a press officer for Lithuania's EU representation.
Estonia will be represented by its foreign minister, according to the country's public broadcaster ERR.
Meanwhile the Latvian prime minister's office told Politico on Friday it was still finalising its plans for the event.
The so-called 17+1 summit was created in 2012 and is a key platform for Beijing to connect with countries in the region, 12 of which are members of the EU.
The format has attracted some controversy as part of China's “divide-and-conquer” tactics, according to Politico.
According to a report by EurActiv, China wants to discuss combating the coronavirus pandemic and offer Central and Eastern European countries its vaccine.
A stounch ally of the United States, Lithuania has been alert about the possibility of China spreading its influence in Eastern and Central Europe. Its telecoms recently said the country would not use Huawei technology in its 5G network, while another Chinese firm, Nuctech, was disqualified from bidding for public contracts at Lithuanian airports.
Lithuania to be represented by transport minister
Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda confirmed on Monday he was not going to attend the meeting. Instead, Lithuania will be represented by Transport Minister Marius Skuodis.
“We have received China's invitation to participate in a remote video conference of 17+1 heads of state and government on February 9,” Nausėda's spokesman Antanas Bubnelis told BNS.
“No decisions of importance to Lithuania will be made at this meeting. The president will not take part,” he said.
“Lithuania is interested in further developing mutually beneficial bilateral relations with China, based on respect for democratic values, human rights and freedoms on both sides,” the spokesman said.
“As a member of the European Union, Lithuania is also in favour of the EU-China dialogue,” he added.
Lithuania has been participating in meetings under the 17+1 (formerly 16+1) format since 2012.
China's investments in Lithuania and bilateral trade have not yet reached a very large scale, but China's rail freight shipments via Lithuania increased to a record level last year.
Lithuania's intelligence services warned in a report last year that “China expands its influence around the world by consolidating support on international arena for its global political agenda”.
“China’s pursuit of technological advantage and its penetrating investment activities increase the vulnerability of other states and pose the risk of losing control over the critical infrastructure,” they said.