Making friends, making inroads: The CCP’s influence activities in Estonia

The Party-State’s influence bureaucracies seek contacts high and low.

The People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) interests in NATO’s northeast frontier are being challenged by Estonia, a country increasingly aware of the risks these interests pose to national and European security. In recent years, Estonia has rejected the PRC’s involvement in port infrastructure, blocked PRC companies’ plans to build an underwater tunnel to Finland and publicly abandoned Beijing’s “16 + 1” bloc of Central and Eastern European countries.

In public reports published since 2018, Estonian security services have repeatedly named China as a threat to both national security and the international rules-based order. As one of a handful of states to openly reject China’s attempts to build a pliable new Eastern Bloc, Estonia is a crucial arena for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political influence operations.

This report presents the first-ever overview of CCP influence agencies’ efforts to cultivate Estonia’s policymakers over the last two decades. Away from public attention, actors linked to the CCP’s foreign affairs, propaganda and united front systems have used outwardly unofficial exchanges to try to co-opt Estonian politicians, national and local government officials, academics and business leaders into supporting CCP goals that often conflict with Estonia’s long-term strategic interests. For instance, three former ministers have been employed by a lobbying company representing Huawei, a PRC-owned telecommunications company, in its bid to build Estonia’s 5G network.

While punishing the Estonian government when it crosses Beijing’s so-called red lines — such as hosting the Dalai Lama — the PRC has built ties to Estonian cities and municipalities, seeking to undermine national policies from within.

One significant success in this regard involves a group of municipalities in northern Estonia that wanted to proceed with a Tallinn-Helsinki tunnel project — potentially financed and built by Chinese companies — despite the central government’s concerns. Another example involves a former minister of culture and current member of parliament who has advocated for the lifting of China’s non-market status — a position that is at odds with Estonian and EU interests.

If the CCP’s influence operations in Estonia continue to be ignored by local authorities, the PRC will build on its limited successes to undo the principled stance against totalitarianism that has defined independent Estonia’s history. The “no-limits” partnership between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping has much to gain if Estonian decision makers are quietly cajoled into alignment with the PRC party-state’s geopolitics.

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