CEEasia Briefing – Special Issue


Feb 15, 2021 in CEIAS Insights

CEEasia Briefing – Special Issue

Representatives of China and 17 countries of Central and Eastern Europe have met online on February 9 for their regular shindig which has repeatedly caused controversy in the EU. CEIAS brings you key observations and takeaways.

The 17+1 online summit: A debacle for Beijing?

What’s going on? The informally dubbed 17+1 initiative is an informal platform for interaction between China and countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Initially started in 2012 under Hu – Wen leadership, the platform has become a key tool in China’s approach to CEE under Xi Jinping.

Originally consisting of China and 16 countries of CEE (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia), the platform was joined by Greece in 2019. While China presents the platform as a multilateral format, in reality, it is rather a mish-mash of 17 separate bilateral relationships.

This year’s summit was almost a year overdue, as the originally planned Beijing meeting, which was to take place in the first half of 2020, was postponed until this week.

17 + 1 > 18? The online meeting of the platform came at a crucial time for Beijing, when China’s relations with the EU and USA, as well as EU-USA relations are undergoing significant changes. An increasingly negative perception of China and growing calls on EU-USA coordination on dealing with challenges posed by China mean that China had to swiftly show the region and the world that it maintains its presence despite the pandemic. Touting the importance of the format, Xi Jinping remarked that “17 + 1 could make more than 18.” The reality is much less rosy, though.

Bad boys whatcha gonna do? Despite the incomprehensible logic of Xi Jinping’s ‘math with Chinese characteristics’, the CEE participants, especially from the EU member states, were less than enthusiastic. China’s call to elevate the format to a presidential level went largely unanswered, as only five CEE countries were represented by a president. Six countries maintained the status quo and sent their prime ministers. The remaining six countries (all EU members) have demoted their participation and sent in ministers only. Countries that demoted their participation faced last-minute pressure from Beijing to send representatives ‘at an appropriate level’ or pre-record videos from their top leadership.

Data source: Twitter/ChinaObservers

The 17+1 meeting took place on the very same day as the presidential summit of the V4 countries, which celebrated the 30th anniversary of the V4 format. Both Czech President Miloš Zeman and Polish President Andrzej Duda showed up for the meeting with Xi Jinping from the V4 summit. Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová, known to criticize China on human rights previously, did not tune in. Hungarian President János Áder was also a not-show, though in his case we would not interpret it as a snub to China. Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister and China’s steadfast ally in the EU, simply could not miss the opportunity to attend the 17+1 meeting.

Agro-dreams alive and well… In case the ambassadorial summons did not change the minds of the less-than-impressed CEE states, Beijing came with an offer of economic benefits.

Chinese promises included:

  • Trade: One of the key messages from Xi’s speech was the pledge to import over 170 million USD worth of goods from CEE.
  • Agricultural imports: China also pledged that it will double its imports of CEE agricultural products in the next 5 years.
  • Vaccines: China “stands ready for vaccine cooperation with CEE.” So far, only Serbia and Hungary showed enthusiasm for a Chinese vaccine. Most EU member states await European Medicines Agency certification despite facing vaccine shortages.
  • Infrastructure: While infrastructure has been a focal point of CEE expectations when the 17+1 format was kickstarted, over time it became apparent that Chinese infrastructure financing is not particularly lucrative, especially for the EU member states. Still, infrastructure was again one of the carrots dangled in front of the CEE leaders, though the language on the China-Europe Land-Sea Express Line is particularly vague.
    It needs to be noted that many of the past Chinese promises of economic benefits were left unfulfilled. Policymakers and analysts around the CEE have been increasingly noting this. China thus faces increasing pressure to deliver on its promises this time around.

Agriculture is particularly interesting, as it became a sort of an idol for some CEE politicians. Only a day before the summit, Slovakia and China signed a protocol on lamb and goat meat exports. While the news seems unremarkable at first sight, Slovakia’s Prime Minister’s flip-flopping on his views of 17+1 make it an interesting point for observation. Only a few days before the summit, PM Matovič claimed he won’t attend and would prefer to deal with China in the EU-wide 27+1 format. Six days and a meat export protocol later, Matovič graced the summit with his presence, later posting on social media that “despite differences, only an open mind and cooperation can move our relations further.”

Nevertheless, the official communique of the Slovak government clarifies that it sees the 17+1 format only as “supplemental” to the EU-China dialogue.

Facebook post by Slovak PM Matovič reads: “…a short while ago, at a video summit with China, I have bid farewell to the Chinese President and wished him good health … in Chinese … worried anyone would understand … but when he smiled and thanked, my worries disappeared). We are totally different countries. Not only in size. In history, traditions, values, or approaches. Despite differences, only an open mind and cooperation can move our relations further.” Source: Facebook/Igor Matovič

Future of the format in danger. Despite the promises and pressure deployed by China, the format’s future appears to be endangered. Three factors point to this:

  • low interest on part of CEE leadership (see above)
  • no Guidelines were adopted
  • the venue of the next summit is unknown

Past summits have always ended with the adoption of Guidelines, a document summing up the activities of the past year and proposing areas of cooperation for the coming period. This year, only a ‘Beijing Action Plan’ was adopted. Compared to the draft Guidelines circulated by Beijing, which CEIAS had the opportunity to examine, the Action Plan is a much-abridged version of the original draft. Numerous activities proposed by Beijing did not make the final cut. The Action Plan pays attention mostly to the non-EU states of the Western Balkans, while lowering the importance of the V4, and altogether neglecting the Baltic states.

A crucial point of the past guidelines was the announcement of the next venue for the summit. No such clause is to be found in the Action Plan.

With the growing disinterest of CEE politicians in Chinese theatrics (usual suspects like Hungarian PM Orbán, Czech President Zeman, or Serbian President Vučić are an exception), and ever-louder calls for a coordinated EU approach to China and establishment of a 27+1 dialogue, the future of the 17+1 format remains bleak. We might as well see it relegated to ministerial-level (at best) cooperation mechanisms.

Further reading:
CHOICE: Has Xi Jinping Just Presided Over the Last 17+1 Summit?
Euractiv.com: Chinas lures CEE countries with trade, vaccine promises
The Diplomat: How China’s 17+1 Became a Zombie Mechanism
People’s Daily: China-CEEC Cooperation 2021 Beijing Action Plan
Xinhua: Keynote Speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the China-CEEC Summit


Key Topics

17+1CEECEEAsia BriefingChina-CEEC CooperationXi JinpingChina


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