Li Chau, China’s Ambassador to Estonia, has written an extraordinary, signed letter to the Estonian newspaper Postimees in which he uses the opportunity to both praise China’s relations with the small Baltic State, but also takes up half the text attacking an unnamed United States over Huawei.

The letter links the two, essentially unrelated subjects together by warning the people of Estonia that “It should be noted that the world today is facing the profound changes unseen in a century. Under the circumstances of immense changes around the globe, no one country can develop solely on its own. Today, in a world of economic globalisation, trade disputes between countries are unavoidable and consultations should be made on the basis of mutual respect.”

Estonian Public Lectured by China about Huawei

This then continues by spending a considerable amount of text on defending Huawei as follows. “Attempting to use extreme pressure, wield the big stick of tariffs and even demand other parties the sacrifice of development rights in order to achieve the goal of “I am first” will ultimately be harmful not only to its own interests but also the economic development of the world as a whole. Recently, certain countries have employed state power to target private Chinese companies like Huawei on trumped-up charges. This is a typical economic bullying act.

At present, Huawei is among the world’s largest communications equipment suppliers, the second largest mobile phone manufacturer and one of the leaders of the 5G standard. It has strong innovation capacity and development advantages. In 2018, Huawei’s value of R&D investment accounted for 14% of its annual revenue (second in the world), reaching $15.3 billion (the fourth in the world).

By the end of 2018, Huawei has registered 5,405 international patents, becoming one of the enterprises which have the largest number of international patent rights. The political intention of targeting Huawei is self-evident. In the past years, Huawei has signed 5G cooperation agreements with more than 20 telecom operators in Europe. Since April, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain have launched tests of commercial 5G network.

Huawei is the main technology and equipment supplier. Huawei and Estonian operators have a very good foundation for cooperation. It is our common interests that they would further enhance their cooperation and introduce more affordable service to Estonian end-users.”

Estonia Praised by China for Developing Trade Relations

On the subject of Estonian relations, the Ambassador does come back on topic by reflecting that “Last June, the delegation of the General Administration of Customs of China visited Estonia and a memorandum on import and export food safety between Estonia and China was signed. Many Estonian good quality products have successfully got into Chinese market.

According to Eurostat data, in the first five months of this year, the export value of Estonia to China totalled nearly $116 million, a year on year increase of 14.3%, ranking the fourth by the growth grate in EU. China has a huge market and welcomes all qualified products and investment from Estonia. With the deepening of China-Estonia mutual trust and practical cooperation, the number of tourists from both sides continues to rise.

“Seeing is believing”, more visits from both sides lead to promote mutual understanding and friendship.” and ramps this up by stating “Estonia is the world leading player in digital economy and e-governance. China and Estonia have great potential for cooperation and the future is promising. In November this year, China will host the second International Import Expo in Shanghai.

11 Estonian companies, instead of 4 exhibitors last year, have already registered for the exhibition. China has full confidence in running its own affairs well, and is willing to share the opportunities of development with Estonia. Let’s work together for the future.”

There are two main issues with this text that I find problematic:

It Diminishes China-Estonia Relations by Concentrating on an Unrelated Non-Estonian Problem

Although the Ambassadors message does contain much in praise of Estonia, the essential core of the message is the whingeing about Huawei’s treatment. This is not an Estonian issue, and detracts from what should be a message of trade solidarity and development with Estonia. It also underlines how much the Chinese are pissed off with the United States over the treatment of Huawei.

Although that is a debatable point, it should not have been put in a public document released to the Estonian public. Doing so detracts from the China-Estonia bilateral relations and are more reminiscent of a jilted girlfriend complaining to all and sundry about her ex at somebody else’s wedding. We have enough of this type of quasi-dictatorial rhetoric from Washington without Beijing getting in on the act.

The Estonians are educated people and can work out themselves what is going on between China and Washington without lectures from the Chinese Ambassador to do so. It diminishes China’s relations with Estonia when half of the letter is devoted to a completely separate subject.

It Implies Estonia’s Belt & Road MoU with China means Estonia is Expected to Support China in Trade Disputes

Estonia has signed off a Belt & Road MoU with China, the document being the basis for an article I wrote last year.

Clause 3 suggests that signatories are of the same mind when it comes to political issues concerning the BRI – and by implication, suggests agreement with China on its political agenda. Interestingly, it also references and attempts to bring into the MoU, other bilateral/multilateral agreements that China itself may not be a signatory too.

For example, the MoU signed with certain EU members quote the EU, and with ASEAN members, ASEAN, and so on. This is despite the EU not having a trade agreement with China, and implies that China can count on the support of signatory MoU nations in dealings with trade or regional bodies that China itself is not a signatory to.

This clause then expands upon this theme and goes deeper to identify specific areas of cooperation in trade and commerce and commits to utilising other existing platforms to do so. This implies legitimate acceptance for the MoU by committing signatories to “hanging it” onto other, legally binding agreements. It also includes a reference to “congratulating and supporting” China, putting the signatory in the position of supplicant and China as being the acclaimed party to the MoU. This could imply subservience from the Chinese perspective.

In summary, I suggest: “The MoU appear largely benign; however, it does contain the seeds of what could, in future, be used as diplomatic tools in terms of insisting that agreements have been reached over certain areas. There is also the creeping shadow of suzerainty cropping up in clause 4. The tying of the MoU as a non-binding agreement to agreements and institutions that already exist is a manner in which the MoU could later be seen to have implied legitimacy.

Where the MoU does tend to veer towards unilateral preference, those preferences appear to benefit China and its institutions and trade, rather than those of the foreign signatory. It remains unsure how these MoUs will be used in future to influence diplomatic talks; however, the fact they refer to legitimate institutions and are signed off at government representative level does mean they could carry rather more future political influence than initially meets the eye – which is almost certainly the precise point.”

While the MoU is not legally binding, the Chinese Ambassadors approach towards Estonia as concerns Huawei appears to indicate that it has the right to place pressure on Estonia – and the Estonian people to accept its position in what remains on paper, a trade and security dispute between it and Washington.

Both myself and this website has been pro-Belt & Road Initiative. But apparently seeming to lecture the Estonian public over trade disputes elsewhere and potentially use the Belt & Road MoU as a diplomatic justification for doing so again diminishes the extent of Chinese-Estonian relations and upgrades already existing fears over how such MoU can be used. This is extremely unwise and adds additional negatively towards the ambiguity of these documents.

China needs to be careful when issuing such signed letters to the general public of a sovereign state. In this case, the Ambassador has done his office a disservice and overstepped the mark in devoting half his missive to non-Estonian issues. Instead of what should be a motivating, fact based letter explaining China’s pleasure at improved Estonian trade relations, he has turned it into a whining, pro-Huawei diatribe against the Trump administration and to some extent damaged the carefully built up relations between Beijing and Tallinn.

Such Ambassadorial roles should not be used to lecture the Estonian or any other countries citizens about China’s woes elsewhere in global trade and whose side they should be on. It is instead, an impertinent, sulky, and deconstructive way to try and develop goodwill. China’s Foreign Ministry should take note, as this letter was way below that deserving of the higher calibre and integrity of an Ambassadorial office. Such offices should be above the public declaration of complaints about other countries or how specific companies are treated, and in this, the Chinese Ambassador to Estonia has done himself and his office a disservice and diminished his standing in the Estonian and European community. This venting of spleen should not have taken place in public.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of Estonians simply won’t care about Huawei’s US problems, while developing instead an opinion of Chinese off-topic whining. Those who are involved in the China-Estonia trade and diplomatic space are now faced with an Ambassador who apparently sees fit to lecture them over Huawei, encouraging them to take sides in a non-Estonian dispute, and will now question the true purpose and meaning of the Belt & Road MoU their Government signed has off.

If it means listening to China’s gripes and being expected to support them in trade disputes, then the Ambassador has seriously overestimated the extent of relations. No-one likes listening to a whinging diplomat, and in that, an Estonian trade, diplomatic and Belt & Road cooperation line has been crossed.

Editor’s note: The article reflects the author’s opinion only, and not necessarily the views of editorial opinion of Belt & Road News.