China-CEEC cooperation forges ahead amid noises
Major expo boosts trade while US sows discord between China, Europe
Published: Jun 08, 2021 11:13 PM
Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, on Tuesday, speaks at the opening ceremony of the second China-CEECs (Central and Eastern European Countries) Expo and International Consumer Goods Fair in Ningbo, East China's Zhejiang Province. Photo: Courtesy of Ningbo city government

Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, on Tuesday, speaks at the opening ceremony of the second China-CEECs (Central and Eastern European Countries) Expo and International Consumer Goods Fair in Ningbo, East China's Zhejiang Province. Photo: Courtesy of Ningbo city government

 China on Tuesday kicked off a major trade expo aimed at boosting trade with Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) with widespread participation by heads of state and businesses from the region, shrugging off recent disruptions and noise instigated by the US in Europe that has cast some uncertainty over massive China-Europe economic and trade ties.

Underscoring China's commitment to advancing win-win cooperation with European nations, Chinese President Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory letter to the opening of the second China-CEECs Expo and International Consumer Goods Fair in Ningbo, East China's Zhejiang Province, expressing hope that all parties can take this opportunity to tap the potential of cooperation and broaden space for cooperation.

At the opening, where major business deals in a wide range of areas including agriculture and e-commerce are expected, leaders from the CEECs, including President Milos Zeman of the Czech Republic and President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, struck a cooperative tone in their remarks, in stark contrast to recently rising anti-China voices on the continent as Washington seeks to drive an ideological and geopolitical wedge between China and Europe at the G7 meetings and US-EU meetings.

The US, under President Joe Biden, may further step up its political maneuvers to pit Europe against China, but given the enormous shared economic and trade interests between China and European countries, short-term distractions and disruptions will unlikely derail long-standing pragmatic cooperation between China and Europe, according to Chinese and European leaders, businesses and analysts.

Unabated cooperation

The opposite diplomatic approaches adopted by the US, which is sowing political discord in Europe in a series of recent and upcoming meetings, and China, which increasingly opens its market to European businesses, was on display at the expo on Tuesday. 

Inside Ningbo's 200,000-square-meter exhibition hall, 425 exporters from CEECs are displaying their products--from wines and food to machinery equipment such as yacht and light planes--to 7,000 professional buyers and looking for closing deals. 

"This is the first in-person expo after the pandemic, and we knew that the buyers would come," said Leon Meredyk, manager of business development of Polish trading firm Vici Group, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Vici Group shipped 2,200 containers of milk products to China in 2020, and this year, "we aim at 3,200 containers. Our previous experience with the expo has been very fruitful and I think this time the result will also be good," Meredyk said.

In the letter, Xi said that the expo is conducive for enhancing the Chinese market's knowledge of products from the CEECs and expanding CEECs' exports to China, noting that China plans to import $170 billion in products from the CEECs over the next five years and double China's imports of agricultural products from the CEECs.

Trade between China and the CEECs is increasing rapidly despite disruptions from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the first four months of 2021, trade grew 47.9 percent to $40.71 billion. 

To further boost trade between China and the CEECs, new agreements over agricultural trade were signed and new freight trains between Zhejiang and Budapest were launched on Monday on the sidelines of the expo. Also as part of the event, over 200 business meetings were scheduled between 68 firms from CEECs and 200 Chinese firms.

Chinese companies are also eyeing investment opportunities in the CEECs, as the latter provides an accommodative environment in the region. 

"In terms of the company's global footprints, we are careful in investing in countries that we consider high risk. In Europe, in particular CEECs, we found the political environment could accommodate us," Du Lingfeng, chief financial officer of Ningbo-based Minth Group, told a press briefing at a trade and investment symposium on Monday. "Working with others will still triumph beating others in the next stage of globalization despite an increasingly complex world."

Minth announced deals in earlier June to invest in new-energy car accessories manufacturing plants in Serbia and the Czech Republic.

However, China-Europe ties have entered a complex and uncertain period, as the Biden administration ramps up efforts to rally its allies against China over ideological and human rights issues. 

Ahead of the G7 summit and leaders meetings with the EU, US officials are stepping up pressure on European leaders in joining its attempt to antagonize China in core national interests issues regarding the island of Taiwan and the Xinjiang region. 

Amid US pressure, the EU has halted ratification of the China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI). Lithuania also recently pulled itself from the China-CEECs cooperation mechanism, to the delight of some anti-China Western officials and media outlets. The country was absent from the expo in Ningbo.

However, that seems to have little, if any, impact on the cooperation. At the expo, at least eight heads of state and senior officials from the CEECs, including Poland, Hungary and Greece, attended the opening ceremony via video conference. In addition to companies from the CEECs, firms from other European countries such as Germany were also in attendance.

Addressing the opening of the expo via video link on Tuesday, leaders from the CEECs offered best wishes to the event and warned that a new Cold War is dangerous and a big mistake, in apparent reference to efforts by anti-China forces to stir tensions with China.

Pragmatism wins

Officials, business leaders and experts from the CEECs also spoke highly of cooperation with China and underscored the need for all sides to cool political tensions to focus on win-win cooperation.

"I believe the reasons that made Greece and the other European states join the initiative are very much pertinent today. Multilateralism, mutual economic gains and shared prosperity are among the most important among them," George Katrougalos, former Foreign Minister of Greece, told the Global Times in an interview when asked about the recent move by Lithuania.

Katrougalos said that participating in cooperation initiatives with China does not conflict with participation in the EU "to the extent that this participation is not against any European rule, legal or political."

Still, with the Biden administration constantly stepping up its meddling in China-Europe relations, more uncertainty and disruptions could arise, according to Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, adding that US pressure might force European countries to be reluctant in pursuing cooperation with China. 

"However, given the massive interests between China and Europe, no country or  leader can derail the long-standing pragmatic economic and trade cooperation between China and Europe," Cui told the Global Times on Tuesday, adding that despite short-term uncertainty and disruption, trade and investment deals will move forward eventually.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said in media interview ahead of meetings with Biden that despite the debate over the CAI within the EU, "I'm convinced personally that what's on the table is a huge step in the right direction."

At the expo, European businesses have also expressed hope for the CAI to be moved forward to facilitate bilateral investment.  

"I think this was a very generous offer from China, and I think Europe should benefit from it. So I'm quite curious about the further development," Jan Zapletal, director of China and Southeast Asia Operations with CzechInvest, the investment agency of the Czech Republic, told the Global Times, noting that he was happy to see that on a table and that his country is open to Chinese companies.