Mihkelson: A small country cannot afford to open fronts it cannot win

Meinhard Pulk
, ajakirjanik
Photo: Remo Tõnismäe

Lithuania has become the dominant Baltic country in terms of foreign policy at least as far as the media picture is concerned. Chairman of the Riigikogu Foreign Affairs Committee Marko Mihkelson (Reform) tells Postimees in an interview that a small country needs to be wise enough not to take on several permanent members of the UN Security Council at the same time.

According to Mihkelson, the southernmost Baltic country has chosen to open a front against China, which it cannot possibly win. The politician also says that domestic policy currents should not manifest in its foreign counterpart as they do in Lithuania.

It seems that Estonia is increasingly overshadowed by its Baltic neighbors when it comes to foreign policy visibility. Looking, for example, at Lithuania, their diplomatic activity is constantly in the spotlight. What do you think is the reason?

We could ask the same question looking at the Nordics and Baltics. In terms of Estonia’s foreign policy visibility compared to Finland, Sweden or Denmark. It’s all relative. I do not really agree we have been overshadowed. The Lithuanian government’s decision to welcome Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya as the leader of the Belarusian people and supporting her since last year was very much the right thing to do.

Lithuania has been active in demanding sanctions against the Lukashenko regime, while they have not been the only ones. Estonia has also been active. Estonia has been outspoken in the UN Security Council, and there will be a new Arria-formula meeting on Belarus in October. These issues have been raised by Estonia. A lot of things Estonia seemingly hasn’t done have in fact been done but in a way that is not reflected in newspaper headlines. I am also talking about development cooperation projects and constant diplomatic efforts among allies. Perhaps Lithuanian politicians are louder when highlighting their foreign policy activities. There was a two-hour discussion on where we are with Belarus, steps being taken, development cooperation projects and what kind of support to make available in the Foreign Affairs Committee [last week].

Is there a lesson for Estonia in the fact that Lithuania’s active role has backfired, thinking about hybrid attacks?

The Belarusian regime’s attack on Lithuania, but also Latvia and Poland, is an attempt to influence us all to change our policy toward Minks. It will not succeed, while it has caused a very serious security crisis on our southern neighbors’ borders. Estonia was the first to support Lithuania. This fact has been valued highly in Vilnius.

However, looking at the bigger picture, I have always maintained that a small country, such as Estonia, needs to calibrate its foreign policy activity very accurately. Both in terms of the steps it takes and initiative, taking care not to paint itself into a corner or open diplomatic fronts than cannot be won and where one might find oneself without allies. Rather, we should work in the context of smart diplomacy.

Yes, we are protecting our national interests, allies and values. It is very important, and we cannot afford to compromise in terms of values, for example, when it comes to Hungary and Poland. At the heart of it is that foreign policy needs to be more than high-sounding press releases, instead working toward a main goal – to protect Estonian independence while respecting international law and agreements in a way to make sure we will never again stand alone in the face of danger.

Foreign policy absolutely must not – and this is especially dangerous in the context of small countries – be tied to specific parties’ political programs. This includes a hint for our good colleagues in Lithuania – domestic policy overlapping too much with foreign policy activities. The key to the success of our foreign policy has always been its independence from election cycles. I do not agree that every election has consequences also in terms of foreign policy decisions. In details, yes, but not on the fundamental level.

Was Belarus the front Lithuania could not possibly win?

I believe it is China.

Where does it manifest?

It is clearest when it comes to Taiwan. The decision to open a Taiwanese economic and cultural representation in Lithuania instead of opening a Taipei representation, as has been customary since 1979, is knowingly crossing what is a red line for Beijing. The most sensitive issue for the People’s Republic of China as a modern empire is its territorial integrity, and every attempt to question it will merit a sharp reaction. China considers Taiwan an inalienable part of its territory, and countries that have diplomatically recognized China have followed the so-called one-China policy.

Every country, including Lithuania, has the sovereign right to make its own foreign policy choices and decisions. As Lithuania’s ally, we can only demonstrate solidarity in what is currently a very serious economic blockade against the country and a situation where China has asked the Lithuanian ambassador to leave. It has been suggested via propaganda mediums that Russia and China should work together to teach Lithuania a lesson. This also concerns our security.

I have asked my Lithuanian colleague about their long-term plan, while I have not received a proper answer. I would recall Lennart Meri’s observation from the 1990s according to which we need wisdom – Estonia and other countries in what is a geostrategically sensitive region – not to go up against several permanent members of the UN Security Council at the same time. In other words, it would be very challenging to be at diplomatic odds with Russia and China, as an aspirant leading superpower, simultaneously.

In what could Estonia’s China policy differ from that of Lithuania?

Several European countries have trade centers in Taipei in the context of enterprise development. If we see room for growth in trade with Taiwan that currently comes to roughly €60 million, we should consider opening an Enterprise Estonia or Taipei representation.

But we need to perceive the world through developments that surround us and the ambitions of the aspirant leading world superpower. China’s ambitions and aggression in international policy have been growing not in years, but months. Not a day went by after Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) gave an interview to Politico before a Chinese propaganda channel resorted to a direct threat against Estonia, asking whether Estonia really wants to lose over €200 million worth of trade with China after a growth of 27 percent this year. I do not mean to say that we should keep quiet when we see clear violations of international law or human rights. We need to work with our European and North American allies on how to balance China’s clearly aggressive foreign policy and economic influence. Being a thousand times smaller than China, there is no way for us to change its course by ourselves, no matter how resonant our statements.

Estonia could proceed from three levels in its China relations. Firstly, valuing bilateral relations. Estonia recently marked 30 years of diplomatic relations with China. We have not seen the results we were initially promised over the last decade when relations have mostly worked through the 16+1 format. I believe that the format has exhausted itself for Estonia. Besides, Beijing has always emphasized that it does not care whether countries are big or small and that it values cooperation with everyone. Therefore, we could politely withdraw from the format and value bilateral relations instead. Secondly, we should work toward creating a more united vision of China relations, which is something Germany tried to bring about as the presidency a year ago. It would allow us to balance China’s growing ambitions in its relations with individual member states more effectively. Thirdly, we should, of course, work with China in international organizations, as we currently do in the UN Security Council.

Kadri Liik has said that Estonia and its Baltic neighbors spend too much time explaining why Russia is bad, while offering few solutions of how states should conduct themselves in this context. Do you agree?

I do not agree that we only complain about Russia being a threat. We need realistic assessments in order for EU and NATO perception of Russia to be built on common understanding and knowledge of what Russia represents. This perception has become very similar to what we have since the 2014 aggression against Ukraine.

I remember being asked my opinion in a small circle in London immediately before the war in Georgia and after Dmitri Medvedev became president in 2008. And I said that I believe Medvedev’s term will in no way be better than Putin’s and that the latter will be back sooner rather than later. I was given compassionate looks as if to say, “we understand your difficult history and that it has left you somewhat paranoid.” You hear nothing of the sort these days.

Estonia is not opposed to dialogue. It has been suggested many times that perhaps we have not used kind words, good will enough to lessen tensions with Russia. Less tension between Russia and the West is firmly in Estonia’s interests. I found Liimets’ phone call to Lavrov entirely appropriate. I believe that the foreign ministers of neighboring countries should talk even if no agreement can be made. Estonia has demonstrated willingness for constructive communication over the years, while Russia, unfortunately, has not. We saw Borell go to Russia wielding good will – let’s talk, we need to create trust to be able to discuss mutual problems, such as climate. Russia demonstrated its good will by Foreign Minister Lavrov humiliating Borell at the press conference.

Western unity is key when it comes to Russia that, through credible deterrence of Russia’s aggressive foreign policy, creates the premise for any serious debate. We need to talk about things as they are and not be afraid to admit that normalization of relations with an increasingly authoritarian Russia must not be expected before the geopolitical confrontation regarding the future of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia ends. That is why one of the goals of our foreign policy is to support efforts by Ukraine and others in strengthening democratic society.

Which do you regard more explosive, Eastern Europe or the China-Taiwan issue?

The matter of Taiwan is the foremost security threat today. The war in Ukraine is in its eighth year, while we can see what is happening on the borders of Lithuania, Latvia and Poland. Belarus’ hybrid campaign is showing no signs of blowing over. Tensions are kept high and new flights planned, with planes from Syria and Jordan said to have landed recently. [National airline] Belavia is looking for new links as it cannot fly in Europe.

Why do I believe the Taiwan issue to be more crucial? Because tensions have been mounting in recent weeks, including Chinese propaganda’s reaction and descriptions of the situation, signals being sent regarding a potential Taiwan conflict. The reason for peaking tensions is Afghanistan. Whether the United States, as the number one guarantor of Taiwanese sovereignty and democracy, is prepared for another military intervention immediately after Afghanistan? The question is how will this signal be interpreted in Beijing or Moscow? Several analysts have suggested that it is quite likely something that might lead to a military conflict could happen during this period. I’m not saying that it is a matter of weeks, it could be a matter of the next few years.

The same propaganda outlet that suggested joining forces with Russia to teach Lithuania a lesson – Global Times – is now saying that China should fly over Taiwan. China has violated the Taiwanese air defense identification zone over 400 times in the past eight months. It has now been suggested that because international pressure for action against China has grown, especially by USA, it is time for China to reaffirm its sovereignty by flying over Taiwan. “Let them try and shoot it down. And if they do, we will destroy the Taiwanese defense force,” the publication writes. There was no such rhetoric in China 5-10 years ago. We have entered a very dangerous period.