BEIJING — Latvia and Estonia say they have left a China-backed forum aimed at boosting relations with Eastern European countries, in what appears to be another setback for China’s increasingly assertive diplomacy .

The move follows China’s strengthening of ties with Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine is seen as a possible first step in a series of moves against countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. China has refused to criticize Russia and has condemned the punitive economic sanctions imposed on Moscow by the West.

Weeks before the invasion, President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin to Beijing and said their bilateral relationship had “no limits” in a joint statement.

The move also comes after Beijing launched economic and diplomatic retaliation against another Baltic state, Lithuania, in retaliation for its expanded ties with Taiwan’s self-governing island democracy, which China claims as its own territory and threatens to annex. by force. China’s growing assertiveness and recent threatening military exercises near Taiwan have prompted a strong reaction from the US, EU, Japan, Australia and others.

“In view of the current priorities of Latvian foreign and trade policy, Latvia has decided to cease its participation in the cooperation framework of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and China,” the Latvian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday. a statement.

The country “will continue to strive for constructive and pragmatic relations with China, both bilaterally and through EU-China cooperation based on mutual benefits, respect for international law, human rights rights and the rules-based international order,” the statement said.

Estonia issued a similar statement, saying it would “continue to work for constructive and pragmatic relations with China, which includes promoting EU-China relations in accordance with the rules-based international order and values ​​such as human rights”.

“Estonia participated in the CEE-China cooperation format from 2012. Estonia did not participate in any of the meetings of the format after the summit last February,” the statement said. .

China set up the forum to strengthen relations with EU members as well as Serbia and others, in part to advance Xi’s Belt and Road campaign to build bridges , railways, power plants and other infrastructure across the Eurasian continent.

China originally designed the forum as a “17 plus one” arrangement, but the number of European partners has now fallen to 14. Critics say the forum was an attempt to exploit the differences between these states in the part of a broader campaign to join Russia in undermining the current rules-based international order dominated by the United States and its allies.

Along with its stance on Ukraine, China has come under heavy criticism for firing missiles and sending warships and warplanes off Taiwan in response to a visit there by the president of the United States House, Nancy Pelosi. China firmly opposes all government-to-government contact between Taiwan and countries that, like the United States, only have informal ties with the island out of respect for Beijing.

China released no immediate comment on the decision by Latvia and Estonia, but Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin again defended the threatening military drills on Friday.

“To defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity…China has every right to take resolute countermeasures in response to US provocations, and such measures are absolutely necessary under these circumstances,” Wang said. during a daily press briefing.

Britain has summoned the Chinese ambassador to record its “increasingly aggressive behavior and rhetoric from Beijing in recent months, which threatens peace and stability in the region”, said Foreign Secretary Liz Truss . “The UK urges China to resolve any disputes by peaceful means, without the threat or use of force or coercion.”

Beijing’s threats against Taiwan are a major contributing factor to the deterioration of US-China relations to their lowest level in decades. China has also been embroiled in a long-running feud with Australia and its missile strikes last week were condemned by Japan, whose exclusive economic zone includes the waters where the projectiles landed.

In another dismissal, South Korea said on Wednesday it would make its own decisions about bolstering its defenses against North Korean threats amid Chinese calls for it to continue the policies of the previous Seoul government that s refrained from adding more US anti-missile batteries, which are strongly opposed. by Beijing.

Asked about developments, US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said “we respect and support the sovereign decision of Estonia and Latvia to no longer participate.”

“Estonia and Latvia are important and valued NATO allies and key partners of the United States on a number of issues, including through our strong defense ties, strong economic ties, as well as than promoting democracy and human rights,” Patel told reporters.

“Over the past year, we have seen countries around the world express deep concern about the PRC’s strategic alignment with Russia as well as Beijing’s support for Moscow’s war against Ukraine,” he said. Patel said. “There is growing convergence on the need to approach relations with Beijing with more realism,” he said, citing earlier comments from Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Concluding a five-day visit to Taipei on Thursday, Lithuanian Deputy Transport and Communications Minister Agne Vaiciukeviciute stressed the importance of economic ties with Taiwan and endorsed a statement issued by the Group of Seven industrialized nations criticizing the drills. Chinese military around Taiwan. The European Union issued a similar statement, urging China to summon the group’s ambassadors to register a protest.

“Lithuania is a democracy. Taiwan is our very close friend, and Taiwan is a booming economy,” Vaiciukeviciute said.

“Lithuania chooses to cooperate with countries that are willing to cooperate with us. So Taiwan is one of those countries and they are reliable partners,” she said.