Latvia and Estonia have followed in the footsteps of fellow Baltic nation Lithuania and announced their withdrawal from a cooperation group between China and countries in eastern and central Europe.
Known as the 16+1 format, it has been around since 2012 and promised to promote joint infrastructure and development projects between Beijing and a number of European states.
Lithuania left the group last year as its relations with China worsened after Vilnius allowed Taiwan to open a de facto embassy on its territory. Beijing, which views the self-governed island as part of China, retaliated by withdrawing its ambassador from Lithuania and slapping trade restrictions on the country.
Now, Latvia and Estonia have announced that they are also ending cooperation with Beijing by issuing almost identically-worded statements.
Riga said the decision was made “in view of the current priorities of Latvian foreign and trade policy.” Tallinn didn’t provide any reasoning at all, but stressed that Estonia hadn’t attended any of the meetings of the format since a summit last February.
The withdrawal comes amid a spike in tensions over Taiwan provoked by the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier this month.
Both countries have promised to “continue to work towards constructive and pragmatic relations with China, which includes advancing EU-China relations in line with the rules-based international order and values such as human rights.”
“We respect and support Estonia and Latvia’s sovereign decision to no longer participate in the 16+1 initiative,” US Department of State spokesman Vedant Patel said, adding that the move was a result of deep concern about China’s strategic alignment with Russia.
According to Patel, strengthening ties with partners in Europe was a “pillar of this [US] administration’s approach” to Beijing.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis also welcomed the decision by his country’s neighbors, insisting that the group had been “already redundant and divisive long before Lithuania quit.” Landsbergis suggested a new format for cooperation with Beijing, which, according to him, should be “EU27+1”.
Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia are among the countries that still remain in the original framework, which has now been reduced to 14+1.