Following in Lithuania’s decisive footsteps, Estonia and Latvia have just forsaken China’s decade-old initiative for engaging with Central and Eastern European countries.
In 2012, China launched its so-called 17+1 Initiative, an attempt to expand its business and investment opportunities in 17 countries in Eastern and Central Europe. Billing the initiative as a diplomacy vehicle for “win-win cooperation and development” by all parties, China prioritized its trade and investment interaction with the region, particularly concerning infrastructure and technologies.
A decade later, the initiative has turned out to be not so much a “win-win” process as China has amassed greater, increasingly unwelcome economic and political influence in the region while the European countries have gained little.
In May last year, Lithuania became the first country to pull out of Beijing’s 17+1 initiative. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis made it crystal clear that “there is no such thing as ‘17+1’ anymore, as for practical purposes, Lithuania is out,” urging other EU countries to follow suit.
In a major blow to China’s strategic diplomatic outreach to Europe, particularly amid deepening concerns over Beijing’s ties with its arch-enemy Moscow, on Aug. 11 Estonia and Latvia joined Lithuania by walking out of the Beijing-driven initiative.
From a broader foreign policy perspective, the three Baltic nations’ sovereign decision to disown the China-backed forum is perhaps not so surprising. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have been punching above their weight in many critical geopolitical dimensions. The Baltic trio have been effective advocates of political freedom, strong supporters of NATO, and committed investors in their defense capabilities.
On the economic front, although uncertainty lingers, the Baltic economies have benefited from its high degree of resiliency built up over the past 25 years.
According to The Heritage Foundation’s annual Index of Economic Freedom, which compares the entrepreneurial frameworks of countries around the globe, the three Baltic nations’ economic freedom ratings have risen measurably over time and are now well above the regional and world averages.
Also notable is that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have unambiguously proven to be staunch American allies, particularly since they regained their independence in the early 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the three Baltic states. They’ve accomplished notable progress toward free market democracy and the rule of law by aligning themselves with the West—particularly the United States—while rejecting Russian calls to remain neutral or inside the Russian sphere of influence after the end of the Cold War. Their shared desire to integrate into Western political, economic, and security structures is reflective of the region’s culture and heritage.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are America’s like-minded, willing, and enduring partners. They stand firm with the values of freedom, good governance, and human rights. In reinforcing and amplifying the value-driven practical partnership, it’s imperative for Washington to show the strongest possible support of its Baltic allies.
In their recent joint letter to President Joe Biden, the three presidents of the Baltic nations underscored their commitment to enhancing economic cooperation between Baltic States and the U.S. by pointing out that “the Three Seas Initiative will allow for the creation of a more cohesive bloc of countries on the Eastern flank of NATO, as well as the creation of the necessary infrastructure for energy, in the field of transport and digital with Ukraine and other countries of our region, which are characterized by democratic values.”
Washington should welcome that timely reminder.
From U.S. foreign policy perspective, the Three Seas Initiative—launched in 2016 to facilitate greater development and connectivity among 12 European Union countries around and between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic seas— should be viewed as the most significant and practical economic policy initiative to emerge in Central and Eastern Europe in the past half-century.
Indeed, America’s support for the initiative is smart, strategic, and it is in the pragmatic interest of the U.S. to elevate its engagement with the Baltic nations through greater investment in the Three Seas Initiative.
The months ahead are the time for Washington and its trans-Atlantic partners like Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to stand strong and steadfast and to gear up for a new era of cooperation confronting challenges.
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