Estonia has not decided on its future participation in China's 17+1 format, Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets (Center) said on Sunday. Lithuania has quit the forum and several Estonian politicians have urged Estonia to do the same.
Commenting to ERR, Liimets said: "Estonia has not made a decision on further participation in the 17 + 1 format."
She reiterated that Estonia is guided by its security interests and values in its relations with China.
"We are cooperating with China in various fields, but we have really reduced our participation in the 17+1 format. For example, at the meeting in February, Estonia was represented by the foreign minister instead of the prime minister," Liimets said.
She said Estonia prefers to cooperate with China bilaterally or with the European Union on common issues instead of in the 17+1 format which is exclusively between China and 17 eastern, central and southern European countries.
"In our communication, we have always drawn China's attention to issues of concern to us, such as human rights violations. This is the case in bilateral communication, the 17 + 1 format meetings as well as in international organizations," Liimets said.
Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Riigikogu Marko Mihkelson (Reform) told ERR that Lithuania's decision is a step in the right direction and Estonia should do the same.
Mihkelson wrote on social media on Saturday night after news outlet Politico Europe published that Lithuania would quit the 17+1 format that "unity matters. Estonia will follow soon".
"The more fragmented the European Union is in dealing with China's growing influence, the worse the position of each member state, especially a small country. Estonia's relations with China should be considered at three levels: bilateral relations, EU-China relations and international organizations," Mihkelson told ERR.
He said the format is outdated and, instead, Estonia could work with like-minded countries to develop a common policy stance between the US and EU in relation to China.
Former minister of foreign affairs and current member of the opposition Urmas Reinsalu (Isamaa) took the same view.
"We have already talked to the countries of our region about a possible step to do it together. It is sensible for the countries of the European Union to do things with China in the 27+1 format. Estonia could have made a decision together with Lithuania, but it is now sensible to make a similar decision after Lithuania," he said.
On Saturday, Lithuania said it was quitting China's 17+1 cooperation forum calling it "divisive", Lithuania's national broadcaster LRT reported.
Lithuania urged fellow EU members to also leave amid deteriorating ties between the 27-member bloc and China. "Lithuania no longer considers itself a 17+1 format member and does not participate in this initiative," foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said.
He called the cooperation platform "divisive" from the EU's perspective and urged EU members to pursue "a much more effective 27+1 approach and communication with China."
"Europe's strength and impact is in its unity," Landsbergis said.
What is the 17+1 initiative?
The 17+1 initiative is between China, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia.
It was started by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2012 and seeks to promote business and investment relations. However, it is seen by the EU as an attempt to divide the 27 member states.
Both Lithuania and Estonia have been wary of the format and sent lower-ranking ministers to the most recent summit in February, while many other countries sent prime ministers or presidents.
Statement from the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 17+1
In a statement sent to ERR News on Monday morning, a ministry spokesperson reiterated Estonia's position: "Estonia and China are cooperating in various fields. Estonia has reduced its participation in the 17 + 1 format to a minimum. There is currently no active cooperation in this framework. In its relations with China, Estonia prefers bilateral co-operation and a unified approach of the EU, based on the common values and interests of the EU.
"Estonia has not made a final decision on Estonia's further participation in the 17 + 1 format."
Editor: Helen Wright