China-Europe relations: Xi ready to work with Montenegro after Lithuania quits ‘17+1’ group

·3-min read

President Xi Jinping called for China and Montenegro to work together to support the “17+1” cooperation group during a phone call after Lithuania’s withdrawal from the group comprising China and Central and Eastern European countries.

Last week Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis announced his country was effectively quitting the 17+1 mechanism calling it “divisive” from an EU perspective. He urged other EU members to withdraw.

China’s foreign ministry responded on Monday that the 17+1 was mutually beneficial and would not be affected by “isolated incidents”.

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In a phone conversation with Montenegro President Milo Djukanovic on Tuesday, Xi said: “China supports Montenegro to play an active role as the lead country of the environmental protection cooperation mechanism between China and Central and Eastern European countries.

“China stands ready to work with Montenegro to implement the consensus and achievements of the 17+1 summit, and further consolidate and develop cooperation between China and Central and Eastern Europe,” Xi said, according to a readout by China’s foreign ministry.

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The 17+1 grouping was established in 2012 and now it consists of 12 EU members and five non-EU members. Montenegro is not an EU member but the Balkan state has engaged in membership talks with the bloc since 2012 and accession to the EU is likely by 2025.

Xi said both countries should continue close coordination on multilateral issues. He said China was ready to consolidate political mutual trust and deepen cooperation in infrastructure construction with the Balkan nation.

He added that China would continue to offer support to Montenegro to contain Covid-19. Dukanovic said the country stood ready “to actively participate and firmly promote” the development of 17+1 cooperation, according to the readout.

The 17+1 grouping has raised the alarm in Brussels as officials and diplomats accused Beijing of engaging in divide-and-rule strategy to endanger the unity of the EU bloc.

The grouping, part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, has been viewed as a springboard for China to reach prosperous EU countries. However, some members have complained about the slow progress of investment.

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The Xi-Djukanovic phone call comes at a time when China’s relations with the EU have deteriorated over human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The European Parliament voted last week to freeze discussion on a landmark bilateral investment deal.

Xi also called Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Wednesday during which Xi said China and the EU should properly manage conflicts and he hoped Spain would play a constructive role to promote stable relations.

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