What is the future for Central and Eastern Europe and China?
The 16+1 cooperation framework is part of China's Belt and Road Initiative and serves the plan of "China-EU 2020 Strategic Agenda for cooperation". Since it was first initiated in Warsaw in 2012, the depth and scope of China–CEEC (Central and Eastern European Countries) cooperation has been steadily growing with some real tangible results.
CONNECTING 17 UNIQUE COUNTRIES
China fully understands the challenges in articulating common policies toward the Central and Eastern European (CEE) regions. CEEC are different in their economic and political development trajectories, as well as their engagement with EU, as one of the most influential regional entity, US and Russia, which are key stakeholders in this region. Not to mention some of these countries even have problematic bilateral relationships with each other due to existing or historical disputes.
As a result, China adopts a pragmatic attitude and leads the development of the "16+1 framework" to connect CEEC in a way that is flexible and can work on a number of different levels.
So far, summits of heads of governments from China and the CEEC at the Prime Minister level have been held on an annual basis all pledging ways to further cooperation. Besides the summits, an Economic and Trade Forum is also held yearly.
Other cooperation arrangements take various forms but mostly come under three broad catagories of federations, association and networks. For instance, for cooperation concerning infrastructure construction and production capacity, there is a Center for Dialogue and Cooperation on Energy Projects set in Romania, a Federation of Transport and Infrastructure Cooperation in Serbia, a Federation of Heads of Local Governments in Czech Republic and the 16+1 Think Tank Network in China.
With various levels of cooperation and coordination arrangements, the 16+1 framework is gradually accelerating its pace to facilitate the development of China-CEEC relations.
The relationship between China and CEEC has been drawing closer for a number of reasons.
For China, CEEC are viewed as important players in the European continents instead of only being viewed through the prism of Eurasian countries or former communist bloc states. This is especially the case after several rounds of the enlargement of the European Union towards the east. CEEC have previously been seen as coming under the influence of the EU, being absent in much of China's foreign policies geared towards Europe in the past few years. Now the time for developing bilateral and multilateral relationships with CEEC has arrived.
CEEC are bridges to the European market for Chinese products and services. For example, plenty of Chinese manufacturers and producers of materials for infrastructure construction are going abroad to promote their products and services as well as to invest through contracts or merges and acquisitions. Most countries in the CEE regions are in need of upgrading their infrastructure so as to increase their capacity and volume of the commodity transportation. If such cooperation could be implemented in a wider and larger scale, CEEC would not only be closer connected with each other but also with other outside markets.
Improved connectivity is a mutual benefit to both China and the CEEC as it allows them to share more commodities and markets.
Under the backdrop of the Eurozone debt crisis, Brexit and refugee crisis, CEEC have gained fresh impetus to their negotiations with China.
EU, US and Russia have long been key stakeholders in the CEE regions. The CEEC are heavily dependent on Russia for energy supply and revenues generated from cross-border energy transmission, which gives them the feeling of insecurity relying on the vagaries of their powerful neighbor, therefore finding alternatives has always been in CEEC's interests, which can be achieved through cooperation with China.
In fact, the cooperation on energy and production capacity is exactly what the two sides are working on. For instance, China is now investing in infrastructure construction in many of the CEEC, as well as the oil production industry in Albania, thermal power stations, hydropower stations, wind power stations and nuclear power plant construction in Poland, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as other countries.
EXPECTATION FOR THE FUTURE
Currently, China and the CEEC are facing one of the best opportunities to strengthen their relationship.
As the 16+1 framework develops, the CEEC saw with their own eyes the sincerity of the Chinese government to conduct mutually beneficial cooperation, therefore both heads of governments and business leaders of the CEEC have demonstrated a willingness to further implement their cooperation with China.
Tracing back to the very beginning, strategic differences and unsymmetrical expectations existed on both sides when the 16+1 framework was first initiated. After five years of multilateral cooperation and coordination, the differences and misunderstanding have been eliminated and the train of China-CEEC cooperation is pragmatically heading at full speed, opening the gate to the European market along the Belt and Road Initiative, contributing to a better connected Europe through production capacity which will benefit the whole world.
Author: Ji Yi is the consultant of 16+1 Think Tank Network, Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences