The 17+1 platform between China and Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has always been mostly show with little substance. The February 2021 summit continues with this tradition. The novelty is, however, that the CEE countries are now visibly losing interest in the show, too. That puts a question mark on the future of the platform.
Chinese promises and…
In its almost ten years existence, countless photo ops of Chinese and CEE leaders have gone accompanied by even greater numbers of events organized on everything from blockchain conferences to dance camps or political parties’ dialogues. No one can accuse China of shying away from the spotlight. Quite the opposite – political, economic, cultural or other exchanges have been showcased as the evidence of the vibrant ‘cooperation’ between China and the CEE countries.
Yet the driving force of the dynamic China-CEE relationship were the economic promises and perceived potential of China to provide what the CEE countries hoped for in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. In 2012, then Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced in Warsaw his ’twelve points initiative’, considered as the birth of today’s 17+1 platform. Wen said that by 2015, China-CEE trade would reach 100 billion USD. He also talked about a Chinese ‘credit line’ of 10 billion USD for projects in the CEE region.
Fast forward to 2021 and you find a strikingly similar situation. Chinese president Xi Jinping (who played the host for the first time, instead of premier) announces that China would import more than 170 billion USD of imports from the CEE countries over the next five years, while increasing agriculture trade by 50 per cent over the same period.
In the meantime, Chinese media reports of alleged results which have been accomplished among China and the CEE countries since 2012 as an evidence that China can deliver. Increases in trade, China-Europe cargo train connection, and a few investments projects are presented as examples.
… questionable results
The problem is that most CEE countries have a very different perspective. In fact, most of them have become convinced not to expect any considerable economic benefits coming from China. Truth, tourism has experienced significant increases (till the Covid-19 hit, that is) and there have been some investments projects which can be considered as successful, such as Piraeus port (although it was realized before Greece joined the platform in 2019) or Smederevo Steel Plant in Serbia. Non-EU countries in the Western Balkans have seen also a number of infrastructure projects built following the similar model as China uses in the developing world. These projects have attracted criticism for not following EU rules on transparency and environment standards (among others), yet they did move forward nonetheless.
The touted increases in trade are not impressive, however. The original Wen Jiabao’s deadline of 2015 for the 100 billion USD was only achieved last year – instead of three years it took eight. Moreover, vast majority of the additional trade took place on the side of Chinese exports, further worsening massive and expanding trade deficit of the CEE countries.
This should not be seen as an accusation of China – it is simply an expression of the China’s and CEE region’s roles in the European and global value chains. Statements of the leaders and dense networks of diplomatic and other exchanges do little to change the entrenched economic reality.
Agriculture exports are good case to emphasize how insignificant some of the quoted ‘achievements’ of the diplomatic process are. For years, they have been touted as a possible CEE export articles to China. The reality, again, is very different: the economy of the CEE countries is certainly not focused on exports of agriculture exports. This does not prevent leaders on both sides to invest effort into concluding agreements and permits of trade of various articles.
To give an example of how inconsequential (in economic terms) that is, consider this example. Only a day before the summit, news came of an agreement that Slovak sheep and goat meat would be allowed to China. Apparently, this was a last-minute China’s attempt to secure Slovak Prime Minister to participate in the summit – which he eventually did, contrary to earlier remarks that he would skip.
However, Slovakia is no lamb-exporting powerhouse. According to data from Comtrade, annual exports are worth 3.4 million EUR, out of which 3 million goes to Italy alone.
Future of 17+1 platform?
While Chinese media stuck to the official line painting rosy picture of China’s relations with the CEE countries, the observers elsewhere cannot differ more as they talk of “crisis”, “embarrassment” or “disaster”.
Although China has attempted to elevate this year the 17+1 summit from the Prime Minister level to the President – with Xi Jinping chairing for the first time – only five CEE countries reciprocated (Poland, Czech Republic, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina). What is even more important is that six countries (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovenia) were actually represented at the lower than the Prime Minister level, which is the longest absentee list since the platform first convened. The online nature of the summit makes it even more telling that this was no coincidence and time issue, rather than a deliberate foreign policy position.
For the first time, too, the summit did not finish with a mutually agreed document (Guidelines) – instead, China has only issued the “Beijing list of activities” in an attempt to preserve the image. Yet still, the document does not mention when would the next summit of the platform take place and who would host it – a customary step in previous China-CEE summits.
To be fair, there are voices in China recognizing the losing interest of the CEE countries in engaging in the extensive and intensive exchanges with China. However, most often the blame is put on the U.S. for allegedly pressing the CEE countries to abandon their cooperation with China.
It is accurate to bring in the growing tensions between China and the West (not just the U.S.), yet China might be committing a similar mistake as many Western observers when criticizing 17+1 platform. Most of the CEE countries are small by any measure, but they still make own decisions in foreign policy. After 2008 crisis this decision was to try to build contacts with China with the hope that it would pay back economically. As explained, this has by now proven to be futile, and there is little prospect that it would change any time soon. In the context of growing tensions between China and the West – as well as observing Chinese government’s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere – most of the CEE countries are now reversing their decision from 2012.
The 17+1 platform has always been mainly about the show. The CEE leaders were for a long time willing to play along: even if it did not bring the material benefits, at least they would catch the international attention by meeting China’s leaders. Right now, however, it seems many CEE leaders have lost interest in that as well.