Lithuania Foreign Affairs Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis
PC : File Photo

Lithuania, a tiny nation of less than 2.8 million people, said on Saturday it was quitting the China-led “17+1” grouping with central and eastern European states and asked other countries to walk out of the forum set up by China in 2012 to forge ties and expand its influence.

“Lithuania no longer considers itself a 17+1 format member and does not participate in this initiative,” foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told news agency AFP on Saturday. He also described the platform as “divisive” from the European Union’s perspective, urged EU members to pursue “a much more effective 27+1 approach and communication with China and stressed that “Europe’s strength and impact is in its unity”.

The announcement had been in the works for some time. Lithuania, like some other countries in the region, has been increasingly suspicious of China for some time. It was in 2019 that the Baltic state first identified Chinese espionage as a threat to its national security.

“As Chinese economic and political ambitions grow in Lithuania and other NATO and EU countries, activities of the Chinese intelligence and security services become increasingly aggressive,” the State Security Department and the Second Investigation Department under the Defense Ministry said in their National Threat Assessment 2019 report, according to The Baltic Times.

Its latest threat assessment report released in February this year was equally scathing, accusing Beijing of trying to exploit the Covid pandemic to discredit perceived adversaries and improve its image. A few weeks before releasing its security assessment, Vilnius had already signalled her country’s disappointment when Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė deputed her transport minister to sit in front of the camera for the China-CEEC Summit held via video link. President Xi Jinping, for the first time, addressed the summit.

To be sure, Lithuania isn’t the only one within the “17+1” grouping to have tempered its expectations from the grouping that was once expected to lead to a rush of Chinese investment and infrastructure. Five other countries, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, and Slovenia, also indicated their diminished interest in the grouping and were represented by ministers at Xi Jinping’s high-profile February summit.

China watchers in Delhi say Lithuania’s moves – it has announced its decision to open a trade office in Taiwan, spoken out against human rights violations by Beijing and blocked Chinese X-ray inspection equipment at airports – is an indicator of the deteriorating relationship between China and European Union.

The EU-China investment pact, sealed in December 2020 after being negotiated for nearly seven years, was the latest casualty when European Parliament on Thursday halted ratification of the agreement which was then seen as a geopolitical win for China. It was proof of Europe’s independence from the US and Beijing’s ability to collaborate with US’ allies who adopted a moderate approach.

On Thursday, the European Parliament refused to consider the investment deal as long as its “baseless and arbitrary” penalties were in place.

According to the resolution, the parliament, which must ratify the investment deal, “demands that China lift the sanctions before Parliament can deal with the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment”.

In a vote passed with 599 votes in favour, 30 against and 58 abstentions, the lawmakers also warned that lifting the sanctions would not in itself ensure the deal’s ratification. The legislators said they will take into account the human rights situation in China when deciding to greenlight the multi-billion deal.

The decision to freeze the investment pact had been expected by some analysts after China retaliated against the US, UK and EU over sanctions related to allegations of human rights abuses in the western region of Xinjiang by announcing measures against 10 European politicians, scholars and research groups.

China has been criticised for its treatment of Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang. A panel of UN experts in 2019 said an estimated 1 million people have been sent to counter-terrorism internment facilities in the region, part of a set of policies the U.S. has said amount to genocide.

Angela Merkel’s Germany was one of the few voices that continue to speak in favour of the EU-China pact. According to AFP, German economy minister Peter Altmaier said China “is the European Union’s largest trading partner and the United States’ largest trading partner, and thus plays an important role in the global economy,” Altmaier said, adding: “We want to reach results with China that are in the interest of both sides”.

Chancellor Merkel, who has adopted a China-friendly course, is due to step down in September this year. Annalena Baerbock, the chancellor candidate for Germany’s Greens, has condemned human rights violations in China and said that, as chancellor, she would block imports of Chinese goods produced with forced labour.