For China, Central and Eastern Europe, is 16+1 really greater than 17?

By Jeremy Garlick Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-13 19:18:02

The slogan for the recent summit in Suzhou of leaders from 16 Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs) and China was "16+1>17." Some leaders were pictured by a Chinese high-speed train with this slogan on the side, suggesting that the increasing attempts at cooperation between the 16 CEECs and China will lead to rapid improvements in relations.

Indeed, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said as much in a speech at the summit: "The trip mirrors China-CEE cooperation - high speed, but comfortable and reassuring."

The Suzhou summit was the fourth such meeting between leaders from the 16 nations, and the first in China.

The 16+1 meetings were initiated at China's request in 2012, suggesting that Beijing is very serious about promoting cooperation, even if some in the Central and Eastern European region may have their doubts.

Indeed, a number of European commentators have cast doubt on the likelihood of real progress in China-CEE relations. They claim that the 16+1 concept is too vague and nebulous, with a lack of specific goals.

They also suggest that there is a lack of unity among CEECs which will impede genuine steps toward making CEECs a block of nations with which China can work as a whole on promoting closer trade and economic ties.

In fact, this second point represents a valid criticism of the initiative. CEECs were only historically united as a coherent grouping during the period of the Warsaw Pact forced upon them by the Soviets. Hence it appears quite likely that they will compete for China's favor rather than working together to boost the fortunes of all at the same time and to the same extent.

But the first criticism, that China has not been clear or precise enough about the goals of the 16+1 initiative, seems to be unjustified.

China's strategy in CEE is tied closely to its "One Belt, One Road" (OBOR) project to link East Asia with Europe and Africa by both land and sea. Achieving this ambitious goal requires close cooperation with CEECs, because they will form a crucial endpoint of both the overland and maritime routes, and thus a bridge into developed Western Europe. One endpoint is the port of Piraeus in Greece.

How do these projects impact CEECs? Well, Chinese goods that arrive in Piraeus still have to be transported to markets in Central and Western Europe.

China has therefore signed an agreement with Serbia and Hungary to build a high-speed rail connection between Belgrade and Budapest. Work is scheduled to begin in late 2015, and will reduce journey times from eight hours to three.

China also has interest from Macedonia and Greece to extend the railway from Belgrade down to Athens in order that containers can be transported from Piraeus to Central Europe much faster and more efficiently than previously.

Chinese involvement in CEECs is therefore reaching a stage that is far from "vague and nebulous." Specific projects are already in progress and heading quite speedily toward realization. A Chinese firm, for instance, has already built a bridge over the Danube in Belgrade, completed in December 2014.

On the other hand, it is true that not all has gone well for China in Central Europe in the past five years. A highway construction project by the China Overseas Engineering Group went pear-shaped in 2011 because of misunderstandings concerning business practices on both sides.

However, such setbacks are only to be expected in a newly emerging relationship between actors with such different cultures and expectations.

China's successful development of Piraeus and growing investment in Serbia, the Czech Republic and other CEECs indicate that it has quickly and successfully gone through a steep learning curve and is ready to apply the lessons learnt.

At the same time, Beijing still has to overcome the innate resistance of local CEE factions which may be suspicious of Chinese activity on their territory if it wants its 16+1 initiative to develop into the infrastructural and investment endpoint of OBOR. There is thus still a great deal of work to be done in terms of building trust between the interested parties.

If the groundwork can be established for a solid partnership it will bode well for a future in which bumps in the road can be smoothed out as they emerge, instead of turning into blockages.

Only then will there be a chance of ensuring that 16+1 is indeed greater than 17.

The author is a lecturer in international relations, Jan Masaryk Centre for International Studies, University of Economics in Prague.

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