Estonia had initially expected the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to strengthen its bilateral or multilateral pragmatic cooperation with China. However, it later withdrew from the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) initiative in favor of increased engagement with Taiwan.
In November 2016, Estonia signed a memorandum of understanding with China on a logistics center project on the north coast of Estonia and bilateral relations progressed from that point.
In trade, China imported large volumes of dairy products from Estonia; in culture and the arts, the Beijing Foreign Studies University set up an Estonian department.
However, Estonia began to question just how much it was getting in terms of actual benefits from China through their cooperation.
As US-China tensions escalated, the Estonian government on July 31, 2020, announced that it was against allowing Chinese funding for a proposed Helsinki-Tallinn undersea tunnel. It also drafted legislation banning Chinese technologies from 5G networks. Estonia was more closely aligning itself with the US.
In September 2021, Estonian President Alar Karis urged the West to consolidate its cooperative structures to offer a competitive alternative to the BRI.
Estonia supported Lithuania when it faced economic coercion from China after Vilnius began enhancing its relationship with Taiwan.
Estonia’s change of heart came about due to concerns over China’s promises — following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — of support to Russia, central and eastern European countries’ common adversary.
Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye (盧沙野) exacerbated the distrust when he said during an interview this year with Agence France-Presse that ex-Soviet countries, including Estonia, do not have an “effective status in international law.”
It is against this backdrop that Estonia decided to get closer to Taiwan. There were other factors behind its decision as well:
First, opening a representative office in Taiwan helps promote Western democratic values.
Second, according to the statement on Lithuania’s and Estonia’s withdrawal from the CEEC, these two countries are still allowed to seek cooperation with China, but in the name of the EU and based on the pursuit of common interests, protection of human rights and the rules-based international order.
Estonia sees Taiwan as a country with shared values that has embraced democracy. In regard to China — a country that disregards human rights and the established international order — Estonia chose to reconsider whether and how it should continue cooperation.
On July 6, the EU adopted a legislation known as the Anti-Coercion Instrument (ACI) to deter and protect EU member states against any potential economic coercion by third countries.
It is possible that Lithuania could escape Chinese economic sanctions under the ACI.
Estonia, with a population of 1.3 million, is eager to cooperate with and learn from Taiwan’s technologies and semiconductor industry.
The Baltic states and the Czech Republic started to offer an olive branch to Taiwan one after the other, and the benefits of this process might extend to other countries, too.
How these countries were able to convince the EU to extend protections to them is also something Taipei should study.
Chang Meng-jen is chair of Fu Jen Catholic University’s Department of Italian Language and Culture, and coordinator of the university’s diplomacy and international affairs program.
Translated by Hsieh Yi-ching
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