09 October 2020

China starts the European offensive. The first target: the Central and East-European states

Sergiu Medar

Within the great powers competition, which is the main characteristic of the current international conflicting developments, Europe is a huge political stake. That’s why the US, China and Russia want, through different means, to attract the European public opinion for them. The US has the advantage of THE recent history, when it supported the Western Europe at world’s great conflagration. Russia has the advantage of being close to Europe, which is seen by the Russian nationalists as Eurasia’s peninsula. China, with both historical and geographical disadvantages, has slowly started a continuous process of getting close to the old continent, trying to prove its usefulness and good intentions.

Image source: Profimedia

The entire world is watching China’s expansionist policies and ascension in all fields. It is already obvious that, in the last decade, the country to have the biggest human resource in the world, had ambitiously committed in the great powers competition planning to overthrow the US from its leader position.  China assumed the divide et impera saying, although Machiavelli was not Chinese. This principle is fully applied by the Chinese diplomacy, with a main objective of taking down the US from the global hierarchy.

The Trump administration, by drifting apart the relations with Europe, has offered Beijing new opportunities to push away the US, politically speaking, and weaken the transatlantic relation. In Europe, Chinas has noticed that the development level of Central and East European states is lower comparing to the Western states and, hereof, the conclusion that the CEE states’ interests are different to those of the Western Europe. The investment needs of these countries are bigger than the Western financial availabilities.

Capitalizing the opportunity of the moment, Beijing got involved in grouping the interests of these countries in the 17+1 format. To that end, the China’s Foreign Affairs Minister formally initiated the promotion of business interests and investment relations with the CEE states. It would be naïve from us to think that the Chinese interests are purely economic. The political component of these relations is tracking the modification of the image China has in the Western world, trying to slowly attract these states in Beijing’s influence sphere. A great result for the EU would be if CEE states would consider China only as an economic option for the big projects. Through this format, it will permanently be a suspicion of China’s slowly involvement in the political problems of these European states.

The 17+1 initiative, as a trans-regional cooperation method between the CEE and China is composed of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia, whereat we add “+1+, China. This format was founded in 2021, at its first summit, which took place, not coincidentally, in Budapest, as Hungary is recognized for having a policy pretty rarely aligned to EU’ regulations. At the 17+1 summit, which took place also in Budapest, in 2017, the Chinese prime-minister Li Keqiang, has underlined that the initiative is a complex model of inter-regional cooperation. They had annual meetings between the member states of the 17+1 initiative. The political, economic and educational accomplishments are presented by the Chinese part as successes of the program, meanwhile the EU thinks that the accomplishments achieved in the 8 years since this was founded are bellow the expectations.

Politically speaking, we can mention that most of the European analysts think that the 17+1 platform is the way China tries to economically divide and dominate Europe, mentioning, however, that it lacks substance. In order to raise the initiative’s level and attract the world’s attention over program’s importance, China has proposed, in 2020, to raise the participation level from the prime-minister one to the president one.

Europe’s division is not provoked by China, but is only one of the arguments that provokes it. China, however, uses it to its interests.

China thinks that, through this program, cooperation between the EEC and China is developing following the intentions and objectives it was created for. In order to achieve them, elements such as the political, economic and societal ones, must act more efficiently, so that the discussions can materialize through achievements.

17+1 is not a forum for multilateral discussions and action, just as it is not bilateral. It could be considered a multilateral bilateralism. In the middle of such a hub, of discussions and relations, there is China. However, the EEC states do not have much willingness to discuss and act in this format, regardless of whether it is 17 or 17+1.

It is clear that, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, which places great value on this initiative, China is primarily pursuing being more visible in the region. Increasing this visibility, through its presence in major infrastructure projects, China's medium-term goal is to become a solution first, and then the solution for the multinational cooperation of the EEC states. In order to increase its importance as a hub for the 17+1 Initiative, China is interested in major projects being negotiated and carried out with the participation of as many countries in the region as possible. This way, not only does China achieve its political goals, but the EU also becomes interested in coagulating regional goals. For example, the Chinese project for the development of the Three Seas Initiative, on the development of road communications, fits perfectly with the Chinese project to build a highway connecting Budapest with Belgrade and Thessaloniki. The European member states of the 17+1 initiative are the same as those of the Three Seas Initiative.

The European Union is therefore interested in China's economic participation in projects in the EEC countries, but is particularly suspicious of its political interests, which is to restore China's image in Europe. One without the other cannot be possible!

From a political point of view, the EU is trying to use the 17+1 Initiative in its favor by multiplying the effects, which, in line with the European Security Strategy (2003), lead to so-called effective multilateralism. Thus, the platform, which includes the EEC states, can be turned to the EU's advantage, as it could impose certain limits on cooperation with China. These limits are for some products that include advanced technologies that would compete with similar products made in Europe or 5G technologies that, for the time being, are banned in the EU.

China has failed to shape its rhetoric so that the EEC states do not consider it similar to that of the Chinese Communist Party. Instead, these states have managed to find solutions for programs with China to comply with EU regulations. However, this tacit EU agreement is not enough, as the US, which is in constant and fierce competition with China, does not agree with its partner states as part of multilateral regional organizations to which China is a member. That is why Beijing's most developed political and economic relations with EEC states are with Hungary (an illiberal state that has no close relations with either the EU or the US), Serbia and other Balkan states that do not yet have a program and conditions to access the EU. These situations are the exception to the rule rather than the rule itself.

However, the other EEC states avoid political involvement in relations with China, accusing it of frequent human rights violations, restrictions on privacy, the Taiwan issue and others. However, the EEC states have repeatedly been accused of having a less firm attitude towards China. However, these accusations have never been proven.

China uses the relationship with the EEC states as a testing ground for possible foreign policy decisions of the Chinese Communist Party, in foreign, multilateral and bilateral approaches. The efficiency of the language used in the negotiations, or the proposals that can be advanced, are just a few diplomatic approaches that can be tested in this relationship.

China's relations with the EEC states are different from country to country, for particular reasons. The most delicate separation depends on the relations of that specific country with the USA and Russia. Most of these states are strategically interested in the relationship with Washington, trying to align themselves with its interests rather than Beijing.

The relation with Russia is also delicate and difficult to approach by the Chinese experts. China has an understanding, between presidents, with Russia which means that none of them can enter in a competition in common interest issues. This is a case that can be included in this category,

Economically speaking, if we were to compare China’s economic presence at a global scale with those of the CEE states, the difference would be huge. It is another proof that China’s presence in center and east of Europe is not motivated in terms of economic profitability, but only politically.

The commercial balance of the economic exchanges with China is still favoring it, although the CEE states have increased the exports in China. The diversity of these products, reveal Beijing’s availability to extend the commercial exchanges.

Among the exported material, we can mention: car products, electronics, textiles, minerals, machine tools, minerals, agricultural products, etc.

From education’s perspective, China has greatly developed the training network of foreign students in the social sciences field as well as learning the Chinese language and culture. To this end, the Confucius Institute has been set up in the EEC.

These institutes, funded by the Chinese government, aim to build a pro-Chinese opinion among young people in these countries. The Chinese initiative has long-term effects given that these young people could become decision-makers in their countries in the future.

In the 17 countries of the Central and Eastern European region, 37 Confucius Institutes were established, 6 in Poland, 5 in Hungary, 4 in Romania, 3 in Slovakia and the rest, 1-2 institutes each, in the other countries.

Politically speaking, China’s presence in Central and Eastern Europe is a disputed solution, with contradictory opinions among the UE states.

All these differences of opinions and interests of the European states are firstly the result of the lack of a common and unitary strategy of the EU for the relation with China. The 17 CEE states should not stay out of the elaboration of such a strategy.

Translated by Andreea Soare