Expert: Estonia right in distancing itself from 17+1 format
Estonia behaved sensibly when it sent a lower-ranking representative than Beijing wished to attend the 17+1 summit between China and Eastern and Central European countries, Frank Jüris, research fellow at the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute and China expert says.
"It is [Estonia's] realistic assessment of the usefulness of the 17+1 format," Jüris found. "The cooperation format has been around for a decade, while it has been very little use and more harm in that time as China is using it to undermine EU unity," he emphasized.
Despite China's wish for countries to be represented on the level of presidents and prime ministers, Estonia sent Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets to the summit on Tuesday.
The summit was chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping, while six European countries dispatched lower-ranking ministers. Representation on a lower level serves as an example for other countries and a step in the right direction, Jüris remarked.
Represented on the presidential level were Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Czech Republic, North Macedonia, Poland and Serbia. Prime ministers represented Albania, Croatia, Greece, Hungary and Slovakia, while Bulgaria and Slovenia sent deputy prime ministers. Estonia sent its foreign minister, while Lithuania and Romania sent other ministers.
The analyst finds that there is no cause to fear Chinese sanctions as a result of dialing back participation in the format as following a decade of empty promises, Estonian exports to China make up just 1.2 percent of the total volume. "Perhaps there are a few companies for which the Chinese market matters, while there is no such sector, not to mention the national level," Jüris concluded.
The expert said that Beijing is trying to manufacture uncertainty and fear in European countries in that refusing China's offers or demanding it observe human rights would have terrible consequences. China has achieved a great deal in politics and psychological warfare with very little cost as the world's rhetoric is increasingly harmonizing with its own. People in China are told that as long as they steer clear of the topics of human rights and the hegemony of the Communist Party, they can enjoy economic prosperity, and the same messages is taking root in the West, Jüris found.
The 17+1 initiative is a diplomatic cooperation format covering former Soviet socialist states, including the Baltics and Visegrad, Bulgaria, Romania and the Balkans. Greece recently joined the format. The main aim of the format has been interpreted as China's interest in gaining increased influence in the region and undermining EU unity by investing in Eastern European infrastructure projects.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs communicated that the 17+1 summit held virtually on Tuesday fixed a list of events for the year participation in which is voluntary. The participants dubbed 2021 the Year of Green Development and Environmental Protection during which cooperation in the name of said goals would be prioritized.
The ministry's communications head said that Foreign Minister Eva-Maria Liimets mentioned human rights on four occasions – both in the context of COVID-19 restrictions and more broadly. "Minister Liimets emphasized that respecting human rights and compliance must be a common goal. It can lay the foundation for more successful cooperation," a press representative said.
Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told ERR that while previous governments have attended past 17+1 summits on the level of prime minister, Estonia sent its foreign minister this time. "In its relations with China, Estonia prefers bilateral cooperation and operating in the EU 27+1 format that enables the development of relations on the basis of EU unity, based on the EU's common values and interests. This also applies to the protection of human rights, including in China," Kallas said.
"The government has just taken office and we are reviewing our policies. An Asia strategy is being finalized, which takes a more systematic and meaningful approach to cooperation with Asia and Asian countries. This also applies to different formats and participation," Kallas said in a comment.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski