Estonia should leave the 16+1 Chinese and Eastern Europe cooperation format and consider strengthening economic relationships with Taiwan, the Riigikogu's Foreign Committee chairman Marko Mihkelson (Reform) has said.
"If we talk about whether Estonia should continue in the 16+1 format, then my assessment is clear - we need to find countries with the same state of mind and solve our relationship with China. 16+1 in the form it was once created has definitely not justified itself in our view and is breaking European Union unity," Mihkelson told ERR on Wednesday.
Responding to a question about whether Estonia is actively trying to leave the 16+1 format, Mihkelson answered: "I hope that our diplomats are acting on it. Forming relationships with China has been discussed for a long time so that we would have different topics to discuss on both sides and on the European level. Currently, the 16+1 format is dominated by China and the goals that were once set have not been achieved."
Mihkelson said in his opinion there is a political consensus and understanding in Estonia. "This is our diplomats' work which should lead to our relationship with China becoming clearer," he added.
Mihkelson: Economic relationships with Taiwan should be improved
Mihkelson said governmental agency Enterprise Estonia (EAS) should consider strengthening economic relations with China and opening a representative office.
"I believe that the EAS foreign division is calculating and taking into account that firstly, Taipei could have a trading and cultural office in Tallinn as they have in several European states," Mihkelson said.
Neither the Ministry of Foreign Affairs nor EAS confirmed they are considering establishing a more lasting relationship with Taiwan.
"Estonia is interested in diversifying economic relationships and strengthening relations with different regions," the foreign ministry's press representative Angelika Lebedev said. "Estonia is cooperating in the framework of the One-China policy in non-political areas like trading, investments, education and cultural cooperation."
"There are no plans for the expansion of Enterprise Estonia's foreign representations to Taiwan," said Enterprise Estonia spokesman Mattias Kaiv.
Mihkelson's comments contradict comments he gave in interviews to daily paper Postimees and Lithuania's public broadcaster LRT earlier this year. Although he expressed solidarity with Lithuania and said the 16+1 had failed to fulfill its goals, he said the country may be "opening too many diplomatic war fronts" at the same time.
"|t is, of course, a sovereign choice, but can you handle everything at the same time?" he told LRT.
Earlier this year, Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a representative office - de facto embassy - in Vilnius under the name "Taiwan" rather than "Taipei" as in other countries which has caused relations between Vilnius and Beijing to fall to a historic low.
16+1 and Estonia's relationship with China
The 16+1 is a diplomatic cooperation framework initiated by China in 2012 with the eastern and central European EU countries and non-EU Balkan states. Lithuania left the format this year.
The main goal of the framework is considered to be China's interest in gaining greater influence in the Eastern Europe infrastructure projects. EU officials believe the scheme is a way to divide the EU member states' unity.
Estonia has decreased its participation in the format, for example, at this year's meeting, Minister of Foreign Affairs Eva-Maria Liimets (Center) represented Estonia instead of the prime minister or president.
Liimets has said Estonia prefers to deal with China alongside the EU, in the so-called 27+1 format.
Taiwan also has supporters in Estonia. Members of the Estonian-Taiwan Friendship Group of the Riigikogu, Reform MPs Jüri Jaanson and Madis Milling visited the island as part of a Baltic delegation earlier this month.
Editor: Roberta Vaino, Helen Wright