Lithuania’s move to leave China’s 17+1 format and build cooperation with Taiwan has angered Beijing. However, resentment towards China’s overtures in the region has been growing for some time.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Communist Party officials are familiar with the the Soviet history of the Baltic states. Leaked party documents, published by the New York Times in 2019 and detailing Uighur repressions, contained telling details.
In his teaching on how to maintain unity in a large and ethnically diverse country, Xi Jinping refered to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, saying that economic growth alone was not enough – after all, the Baltic states were the first to declare independence, despite being relatively prosperous republics.
On February 9, the Baltics appeared on China’s radar again. The 17+1 summit, presided by Xi Jinping himself, was snubbed by Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and several other countries that sent ministers instead of heads of state.
“There will be no important decisions for Lithuania at this meeting. The president will not take part in it,” Antanas Bubnelis, the then spokesman of Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, said before the summit.
The 17+1 format was launched in 2012 for China to engage with Central and Eastern European nations, of which 12 are European Union members. Although Beijing claims the forum aims at facilitating cooperation, critics have pointed to political costs.
Chinese leadership were hoping to receive the presidents and prime ministers in Beijing, but due to the pandemic the meeting took place in front of computer screens. The gesture by the Baltic states did not pass without notice in China.
On the night before the summit, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned the Lithuanian and Estonian ambassadors to explain their leaders' decision, according to Edward Lucas from the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington.
Yet, the Baltics did not waver.
“From the Chinese perspective, this is very serious,” said Konstantinas Andrijauskas, an expert on China at Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science (TSPMI).
“At least some officials in Xi Jinping's environment, say, the [Chinese] Foreign Ministry, may treat this as an insult. Xi Jinping is not used to such behaviour – if he invites someone, everyone must be present,” said Andrijauskas.
In February, Lithuania’s parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs agreed that the country should leave the 17+1 format altogether, with Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis later saying that it has brought “almost no benefits” and is used to “divide Europe”.
According to the committee's chairman, Žygimantas Pavilionis, Lithuania should focus on working with democratic countries in the region.
“China has aims to take over strategic infrastructure in various countries, [...] why should we embroil ourselves in these risks?” said Pavilionis.
Estonia, Latvia and several other countries in the region are also considering similar moves, he said, adding that Lithuania was planning to strengthen relations with Taiwan. This year, Vilnius plans to open an economic representation office in Taipei.
Besides the Baltic states, the 17+1 format launched in 2012 includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
In previous 17+1 summits, Beijing pledged to invest in local infrastructure, including ports, roads and industries that have failed to attract Western capital, boost railway cargo volumes, develop communications technologies, and open its market to Eastern European imports, thus making the region China’s gateway to Europe.
“The recent 17+1 summit was disappointing for China. [...] The investment that China promised has largely failed to materialise,” said Chris Miller, director of the Eurasia Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).
The Slovak prime minister agreed to attend the meeting at the last minute, leading to Bratisalva signing an agricultural trade agreement with China.
During the summit, Xi Jinping made new promises to turn Central and Eastern Europe into the “number one region” in the world where China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) would be implemented.
However, few concrete promises were made, while even the proposed projects have raised doubts about the movement of goods through EU and non-EU countries, where different rules apply.
“The reality is that China has invested much less than promised,” said Miller.
According to MP Pavilionis, “we do not get any economic returns”.
“Instead, we get economic threats or even threats to our national security. And then we desperately try to counter them. Why should we get involved in this?” he added.
Last September, a leak from a Chinese company, Zhenhua Data Information Technology, which is linked to the Chinese government and armed forces, showed that it was collecting data on some 2.4 million people around the world – all of them related to the 17+1 format, including over 500 people from Lithuania.
“The expectations that political and economic leaders in Central Europe and the Baltics may have had, have been frustrated,” said Andrijauskas.
“There are no indications that Beijing will return its focus to the region or showers us with mountains of gold and rivers of honey and milk. [...] It’s important to answer whether there are still any benefits from participating in the format that raises concerns for our partners and allies,” he added.
The 17+1 forum can turn into yet another “diplomatic zombie” for China – Beijing's mode of politics does not allow admitting mistakes or abandon failed projects, according to Andreea Brînză, vice president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP).
China will not turn away from the region. “The fact that China already imagines itself as a superpower means that Beijing is interested in all regions and countries of the world,” said Andrijauskas.
“When we acknowledge this fact, it will be easier to understand China's actions,” he told LRT.lt.
In January, the Lithuanian government decided to bar China's state-owned firm Nuctech from supplying X-ray scanning equipment to local airports over national security concerns.
Criticised by the Chinese embassy in Vilnius, the decision caught the attention of Global Times, the daily of the Chinese Communist Party. In the article, a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said that "by playing hardball with China, its primary purpose is to give in to the US".
Intelliengence agencies in the Baltic states have previously reported about the growing scale of Chinese espionage in the region, which the Global Times said was an attempt to “reinforce ‘The China Threat’”.
Most Central and Eastern European countries have already signed memoranda of understanding with the US on 5G communications security, effectively banning Chinese equipment from their network infrastructure.
Romania and the Czech Republic have canceled contracts for nuclear power and infrastructure projects with Chinese companies, partly because companies which lost the tenders are suing the governments.
Washington is “lining up its minions to blackmail, attack and oppress Chinese companies,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said last summer.
For Central and Eastern European countries, there is no “choice” between the West and China – all NATO countries in the region understand that their security depends on the United States.
“The US is continuing to press allies in Europe not to ‘free ride’ on the alliance by counting on the US to stand up to China politically, while trying to extract economic benefits from Beijing. The Biden administration is likely to continue the policy,” said Miller.
Criticism towards China is getting stronger in EU capitals too, according to Lithuanian MP Pavilionis, with Germany and France criticising Eastern and Central Europe for participating in Beijing’s influence drive.
“When you talk to the Germans or the French, with whom you have to work on various issues related to Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine, or Russia, their response is: alright, but what are you doing in the format directly related to communist China?” said MP Pavilionis.
According to Andrijauskas, however, Western European countries themselves are quite pragmatic about relations with China – while criticising other countries looking for new markets, they are willing to trade with China themselves.
The EU's common policy towards China remains based on “pragmatic interests”, he added.
“[The EU] sees the need to criticise or send a signal, but not too strong or aggressive. It's about showing the gesture, but not changing the status quo,” said Andrijauskas.
According to Pavilionis, Lithuania, as well as other Western countries, will have to make a choice. “As we don’t want to become the Trojan horse of that autocratic regime, [...] we have to know where we stand,” says the chair of the parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee.