A little over a year ago, China’s cooperation with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) was brandished as a real feather in China’s foreign policy cap. Better known as the “17+1,” its evolution informed the decision of the EU to designate China as a “systemic rival.” Ensuring that the point was not lost on anyone, the then EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Johannes Hahn, went as far as decrying the participating CEE states as “Trojan horses” undermining European unity. China was equally forthcoming in flaunting the symbolic significance of its cooperation with CEE countries. In January 2020, Beijing made the unexpected announcement that President Xi Jinping will be replacing the Premier Li Keqiang as the host for all future “17+1” summits.
Yet, no future summits appear to be forthcoming. The 2020 summit of the China-CEE cooperation was scheduled to take place at some point in the Spring of 2020; however, the pandemic has led to its postponement – initially, until the autumn of 2020 and, now, it appears to be deferred indefinitely. This has led many to question whether the China-CEE cooperation has become a victim of the Covid-19 pandemic? To be perfectly, frank – no, not at all. There are multiple contingent factors that have led to the current freeze, if not necessarily breakdown, of the “17+1”. In this respect, the pandemic has only accelerated trends that were in the offing well-before the first cases of novel coronavirus appeared in Wuhan in December 2019.
To begin with, both the EU’s and China’s assertion of the significance of the “17+1” has tended to be both exaggerated and misleading. The CEE states were never and did not intend to be exclusive in their relationship with China. Also, China was not particularly committed to the CEE region as its much more substantive economic and diplomatic relations with the Western part of the continent confirm. In fact, the EU, the US/NATO, and Russia still maintain their dominant position on the foreign policy horizon of most CEE states. China appears to have provided an appealing opening for foreign policy entrepreneurship by breaking the usual triangulation between Brussels, Washington, and Moscow. Thus, while the novelty factor alongside the lavish promises of Chinese investments might have whetted the initial appetite of the CEE region for closer relations with Beijing, the allure appears to have waned rather quickly asChinese investments failed to materialize.
Such expectations-capabilities gap seems to have been reinforced by the exasperation of many CEE participants in the various China-CEE summits who realized that rather than seeking to develop meaningful initiatives in the region, the Chinese participants were using these events merely to advance their careers back in Beijing. For instance, the Czech Prime Minister Babiš did not shy away from sharing his frustration about hosting “masses of [Chinese] delegations over and over again” without any tangible results. Likewise, the Czech President Milos Zeman, probably one of the most pro-Chinese CEE politicians, pointed to this lack of concrete investments as the reason for shunning future “17+1” summits.
At the same time, security considerations have also begun to impact the perceptions of China in many CEE states. Some of the security concerns have been fuelled by the so-called “technological Cold War” between Washington and Beijing. In this respect, Poland, Czechia, Romania, Slovakia, and Estonia have indicated that they will be suspending Chinese telecommunications companies such as Huawei from the construction of their 5G networks. For others, such as the Baltic states, it is the perception of a “dragonbear” alliance between Moscow and Beijing that has informed the labelling of China as a threat to their national security.
Such concerns also reflect how divisive China’s presence has become in the CEE region. It has been drawn into domestic political debates about what each of the CEE states stand for and what should be their role on the world stage. On the one hand, countries such as Hungary and Serbia have used China to criticize the inadequacies of the EU and liberal democracy more broadly. On the other hand, in countries such as Czechia, Slovakia, and Estonia “China bashing” has become a way of asserting the democratic credentials of some political formations. The inference is that bonhomie with China has become synonymous with graft and a tilt towards illiberal politics. For instance, the well-publicized cases of both the decision of the Prague city council to sever sister-city agreement with Beijing and the recent Taiwanese trip of the Czech Senate president have probably more to do with domestic electoral politics rather than specific actions by China. In this respect, attitudes to China reflect not so much what Beijing does, but how it has been “used” in the political debates of the individual CEE countries.
Factors such as these have urged many CEE countries to mull downgrading their participation in the “17+1” well before the pandemic. So what will the future hold for the China-CEE cooperation? It seems that the next summit of the “17+1” format – if and when it takes place – will be the real litmus test for the future of the China-CEE cooperation. However, some of the proverbial writing appears to be already on the wall. The June 2020 high-level Belt and Road International Cooperation videoconference, offers a veritable glimpse into the future. Apart from Serbia, Hungary, and Greece, no other CEE country agreed to participate. Thus, the future might see the China-CEE cooperation downsizing significantly. Alternative, China might have to find other countries to substitute the less eager members of the “17+1.”
At the same time the experience of the “17+1” is indicative of the coming age of decoupling. While connectivity used to be touted as a force for good, it is now associated with vulnerability and threat. Especially, connectivity with China is increasingly presented as an over-dependence on (if not, hostage to) trade with Beijing. Such trends do not bode well for the future of the BRI. It is likely to become a much leaner project targeting strategic acquisitions (such as infrastructure hubs, energy and technology) and rewarding countries that have proven to be true all-weather friends. The BRI’s “community of shared destiny” will be open only to those that side with China and, judging by the current state of the “17+1”, not many of the CEE countries appear keen on the “mutual benefit” (互利 hùlì) that the BRI might bring.