While China wants to tie economic cooperation to political conditions, democratic countries should not knuckle under this influence and should hold on to their values and freedoms, finds Frank Jüris from the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute.
"The problem with China relations is when countries give up their core values in exchange for economic gain. This should not be done. We should uphold and defend human rights and freedoms," junior research fellow Jüris told ERR's "Otse uudistemajast" webcast.
He explained that China has traditionally maintained a system of tribute – in order to trade and talk to China, one must acknowledge their political discourse. "This is a danger sign for all of us – can we talk about what is happening in Xinjiang or Hong Kong, meet with the Dalai Lama? If we bow to this pressure, we will see our political discourse move closer to the Chinese narrative, give up," Jüris said. "We cannot change China, but we should also not allow them to change us," he emphasized, adding that this will be easier to achieve on the EU level.
Jüris said Estonia is at a disadvantage when treating with the world's second largest economy which fact Beijing has made use of. He gave the example of a ban on Estonian dairy imports after the Dalai Lama visited Estonia in 2011, as well as how China stopped importing Norwegian salmon when the Noble committee gave the peace prize to a Chinese dissident.
Commenting on the Chinese embassy's criticism of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service's annual report, Jüris said the embassy has overreacted to the issue and it should not be paid so much attention. China's Deputy Foreign Minister Qin Gang who visited Estonia earlier in the week did not mention the incident.
"Minister of Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu said very accurately that we're dealing with a threat assessment here not an evaluation of mutual relations," Jüris said. If China wants countries to honor the principle of not meddling in the affairs of others, it should take its own advice, the expert emphasized. "In that case, China should not meddle in the affairs of Estonian journalists and state agencies. The foreign intelligence service's report was aimed domestically and should not merit foreign reactions. Such reactions look controversial," Jüris said.
Commenting on host Mirko Ojakivi's observation that Lennart Meri once said Estonia should not seek conflicts with permanent member of the UN Security Council China, Jüris said the context was different back then.
"Lennart Meri is well-known for his far-reaching political analysis. However, we should not rip it out of its historical context. It was said in the 1990s when the West believed treating with China would result in political reforms and freedoms there. That has clearly not come to pass, and we can rather see China looking to high-tech to have even more effective control," Jüris said. "Thinking of Lennart Meri as a supporter of minority rights, I'm sure he would be quite troubled by what is being done to the Uighurs in Xinjiang today."
Jüris highlighted Sweden that is in fourth place in Europe when it comes to Chinese investments but still dares raise human rights concerns when talking to China.
Estonia has managed to establish good and close cultural relations with China, Jüris added. China lies outside the top ten of Estonia's trade partners, meaning that its ability to influence the Estonian economy is still relatively modest.
Asked to evaluate the chances of China participating in major infrastructure projects, Jüris said that while China presents such agreements as win-win situations, it often ends up gaining more as its banks provide the necessary loans and its companies offer services. Major infrastructure projects could also come with clauses that allow China to influence another country's domestic policy.
Commenting on many Western countries' desire not to allow Chinese telecommunications equipment giant Huawei to build their 5G network infrastructure, Jüris was rather in favor of such caution. He said that countries should look to making sure their states and cultures endure, instead of only considering the price of hardware. "As far as I know, a lot depends on software rather than hardware when it comes to 5G, and Huawei's offer to control every software update in Europe seems expensive and even dangerous. It would mean a lot of extra workload for private companies," he said.
Jüris also criticized the Chinese authorities' handling of the novel coronavirus epidemic, attempts to deny and hide it instead of immediately helping people.
As concerns the economic impact of the virus, Frank Jüris said growth could remain below 5 percent for China for the first time since the 1990s this year that would be a serious blow for the country. Slowdown of production caused by plant closures in China could definitely affect global supply chains, he found.
Editor: Marcus Turovski