Quo Vadis? The 17+1 and China’s Inroads into Central and Eastern Europe

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By Lukas Fiala. Project Coordinator of China Foresight at LSE IDEAS

Photo: Wikimedia.org

The 17+1 (formerly 16+1), a cooperation mechanism between China and Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, has provoked considerable debate in academic and policy making circles. Inaugurated in 2012 and expanded in 2019, 17+1 has often been interpreted as a reflection of China’s broader goals in the sub-region. While some regional state leaders initially welcomed the economic opportunities associated with promises of improved trade and an influx of Chinese investment, a host of observers have eyed Beijing’s foray into CEE with an air of scepticism. The latter reading has identified 17+1 as a mechanism to ‘divide and conquer’ European integration and is premised on the assumption that China’s leaders may effectively leverage economic carrots in exchange for political favours from member states. This has led some commentators to view the 17+1 initiative as a modern-day Trojan horse in the heart of Europe. However, issues of human rights, and international law in the South China Sea, has cultivated a climate of intense geopolitical competition between the US, the EU and China. This rhetoric, however, omits much of the complexity that characterises China’s presence in CEE, but also other regions.

To begin with, 17+1 should be analysed with a broader understanding of Beijing’s foreign policy priorities, including the shift towards a more assertive diplomacy under General Secretary Xi Jinping, which has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Spearheaded by Xi, the top leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) aims to position the country as a leading great power, wielding the corresponding economic, cultural and military influence. While summit diplomacy has not traditionally been pioneered by Beijing, the CPC has come to see these events as an opportunity to promote Chinese interests, norms and influence. The first ministerial meeting of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), for instance, took place in 2000 and Beijing has since then attempted to set up similar institutions in Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAC) and the Middle East (CASCF), among others. While Beijing understands the value of engaging with its counterparts on a regional level, to set the agenda and position China as an important player, Chinese diplomats have the best bargaining position when negotiating bilaterally behind closed doors. Due to China’s economic might and attractive consumer market, here is where they have the most leverage. In CEE the strategic imperative is evident: regional countries represent a gateway to the EU’s single market, while consolidating China’s status as a partner of choice in a region that is connected to the Silk Road Economic Belt, which aims to integrate the Eurasian landmass through economic and infrastructure development.

Against this backdrop, Beijing’s regional diplomacy over the last year certainly attests that Beijing is ready to take diplomatic opportunities when they present themselves. As COVID-19 traversed the globe, China emerged as a source of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), turning public health into political capital utilised to frame China as a purveyor of global public goods. It is hard to forget the scene of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić kissing a Chinese flag upon the arrival of a Chinese medical team and PPE in March 2020. Fast-forward one year, and China has also become a provider of COVID-19 vaccines. Although none of China’s vaccine producers have sought formal authorisation from the European Medicines Agency (EMA), Serbia and Hungary have reportedly started administering this with other 17+1 countries, such as Montenegro, expected to follow suit. Notably, at the last virtual 17+1 summit in February 2021, Xi Jinping did not announce a regional quota to coordinate vaccine distribution to members, but rather encouraged CEE governments to make individual inquiries, suggesting that ‘vaccine diplomacy’ is part of an attempt to consolidate China’s standing as a ‘partner of choice’ for CEE countries.

Beyond COVID-19, there are also signs that Beijing wants to broaden its bilateral relationships with selected countries. Last year, Serbia procured six CH-92A Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicles (UCAV) from China, with coverage suggesting that Beijing will transfer technology to help enable the domestic production of UCAVs in Serbia. When China’s defence minister Wei Fenghe visited Hungary, Serbia, Greece and North Macedonia in March 2021, Serbian President Vučić commented that there will be a strengthening of the ‘strategic partnership’ between the two countries. While political rhetoric does not always translate into commensurate outcomes, the above examples nonetheless show how Beijing’s diplomatic overtures in the region have, in some cases, fallen on fertile ground. China has managed to step in and respond to demand when required, without openly confronting other established players in the region, including Russia and the EU.

However, these bilateral diplomatic feats should not be confused with a comprehensive and region-wide consolidation of China’s influence that is grounded in the 17+1 mechanism. Indeed, China’s presence in different regions around the globe is often oversimplified to fit the narrative of China as an authoritarian state that dominates its regional ‘partners’. Such arguments, however, fail to recognise both the diversity of respective regions and their agency in dealing with Beijing. An important point that also applies to the 17+1 initiative. For instance, in line with Brussel’s hardening stance on China, EU member states and close partners of the US have practiced inertia over activism in the forum. Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania and the Baltic states are leading this strategic reorientation, distancing themselves from Beijing’s closer partners in Belgrade and Budapest. Correspondingly, the Czech Republic, the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Slovenia (all EU-member states) also signed the US 5G security memorandum targeting Huawei. Romania reportedly banned Huawei from its national 5G roll-out and Poland put in place stringent screening mechanisms for 5G infrastructure, prompting Huawei to challenge the legality of such provisions in a letter to the European Commission.

Furthermore, EU-member states participating in 17+1 have started to reflect more critically on the often-proclaimed economic dependency towards China. Prague, for example, annulled its sister-city agreement with Beijing in 2019 and the Czech Senate led a delegation to Taiwan in September 2020. Indeed, with a total of 8.6 billion EUR of Chinese investment between 2010-2019, the 12 EU member states that are part of 17+1 score low in comparison to, for instance, Finland (12 billion EUR) or the Netherlands (10.2 billion EUR) in the same time period. Even though Xi Jinping himself chaired the last 17+1 summit in February, six countries (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania, Slovenia and Bulgaria) sent only lower-level officials, reflecting their disillusionment with the 17+1 forum. In February 2021, the Lithuanian parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs even called for Lithuania to leave 17+1 and the country’s Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis argued in March that the forum had brought the country almost no benefits’.

These examples of push-back against Beijing’s interests by CEE countries demonstrates that the supposed ‘17+1 bloc’ can hardly be treated as uniform in their relationships with China. The forum is far from a coherent multiplier of Chinese influence across the region. Going forward, it is likely that 17+1 will see further factionalisation in line with member states’ underlying interests, ties with the EU and the increasingly competitive relationship between the US and China. Given that CEE countries are divided into EU and non-EU members, post-COVID economic recovery will likely be heterogeneous. Nonetheless, in the context of a regional infrastructure gap, it is more important than ever to tie post-COVID recovery to an EU-level strategy which provides countries with a viable alternative to Chinese finance and vaccine diplomacy. After all, an incoherent and uncoordinated approach to China on the EU-level will only strengthen Beijing’s hand, while leaving Europe in the lurch.

Join us on Friday 28th May (18:00 to 19:30 EET / 16:00 to 17:30 GMT) for 17+1: China’s Foreign Policy in Central Europe, an online talk co-hosted with LSE IDEAS. More details are available here.

Lukas Fiala is the Project Coordinator of China Foresight at LSE IDEAS, the LSE’s foreign policy think tank. He is also a Yenching Academy Scholar at Peking University. He has authored reports and commentaries on Chinese military strategy and China’s defence industry, and has worked in policy research, advocacy and public affairs in Addis Ababa, Brussels, London and Vienna. Lukas holds a BSc in Politics and International Relations with History from New College of the Humanities in London, and an MSc in International Relations from LSE.