Lithuania is leaving the 17 + 1 format. How has China reacted to this?

On March 22, 2021, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told Agence France-Presse: “Lithuania no longer considers itself a member of the 17 + 1 format and does not participate in this initiative.” He thus confirmed the earlier rumors on this topic. It was a blow to China, which met with a harsh reaction in the Chinese pro-government media.

Meetings of the 17 + 1 format were started in 2012, first as 16 + 1 and as of 2019 as 17 + 1, after Greece joined the initiative. The format was created to facilitate political, economic and interpersonal cooperation between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The meeting of the members of the initiative on February 9, 2020 did not bring a breakthrough and more and more countries began to wonder about the sense of further participation.

Vilnius teases Beijing

Lithuania has also taken several steps in recent months that have angered Beijing. Among them was the blockade of Chinese investments and the announcement of the opening of a trade office in Taiwan, which China considers a rebellious province that will one day return to the mainland. The Lithuanian parliament also adopted a resolution condemning China’s treatment of the Muslim Uighur minority, calling it “a crime against humanity” and “genocide”. the Chinese foreign ministry condemned the move, calling it a blatant interference in China’s internal affairs.

Several articles about Lithuania’s exit from the 17 + 1 initiative appeared on the “hawk” portal Global Times. The editors showed various weaknesses of the Lithuanian state. It was pointed out that it was a small country, one of the least populated countries in Europe, with weak relations with its neighbors (Belarus and Poland were mentioned here), high escalation of tensions with Russia, and not very important economically for Beijing. Lithuania’s decision was called “shameful villainy.” Lithuania was warned that when such a small state is aggressive and becomes an instrument of rivalry between great powers, it must bring them trouble.

Chinese government media: Lithuania’s decision influenced by the US

The United States was also accused. According to Chinese journalists, Lithuania made the decision due to pressure from Washington. Vilnius wanted to impress some Western powers, especially the US, Chinese experts add. They also argued that Lithuania’s loyalty to NATO and the US was much greater than that of average Western European members, and they would do everything in their power to prove their loyalty to the United States. Such and similar actions have become their specific, everyday diplomatic practice in Vilnius, they add.

Chinese commentators believe that Lithuania will face great disappointment if they believe that the decision to withdraw from the 17 + 1 format of the Baltic state as one of the EU countries may increase the pressure on the PRC. “China will not be intimidated,” Chinese experts sum up.

Chinese editors are optimistic that other European countries are unlikely to follow the Baltic country’s footsteps, and the country’s withdrawal from the mechanism will not have a significant impact on China’s cooperation with CEE. It was emphasized that in 2020 China’s trade with 17 countries in this part of Europe increased by a total of 8.4 percentage points, reaching $100 billion for the first time. Trying to present the cooperation under 17 + 1 in the best light, it was written that the CEE countries can gain more development opportunities thanks to cooperation with China, which allows them to reduce the distance to other EU Member States. Lithuania closed its own development opportunities, and the cooperation between CEE and China will become more pragmatic without them, Chinese experts conclude. 

Typical operation of Chinese media

A harsh media reaction is typical when another country acts against the intentions and plans of the Chinese Communist Party’s authorities. Usually in such cases, in addition to a given country, the target of attack is also the USA, which China blames for most of its failures on the international stage. This was also the case here.

The fact that Lithuania has left the 17 + 1 format is a result of the lack of dynamics and real profits that would be achieved by countries under this initiative. During the 17 +1 meeting in February 2021, summit participants failed to agree on standard “guidelines” (纲要). Instead, they issued a simple “roadmap” (活动 计划) for the coming year. The date of the next meeting has not been set either. The future of the format looks dark if the CEE countries and China do not find joint projects and openness to wider cooperation. Therefore, further marginalization of the multilateral format can be expected in Beijing’s contacts with the CEE countries and focusing on developing bilateral relations.

The author is the president of the board of the Institute of New Europe. He specializes in international relations, with particular emphasis on geopolitics and Sino-American rivalry.

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