By Grzegorz Stec
In the foreseeable future — doubtful. China’s relations with many actors in the region have deteriorated significantly as a result of Beijing’s tacit support for Moscow and its revisionist agenda towards the European security framework. A case in point is provided by the China-Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) cooperation framework. Despite celebrating its 10th anniversary this April, Beijing has been unable to find a CEE country willing to host the annual summit.
How we got here
China’s engagement in the CEE was already faltering before Russia invaded Ukraine, primarily due to a sense of disenchantment with the economic performance of the 16+1 framework.
Although trade between China and the region has increased by 85 percent over the past decade according to Chinese data, the trade imbalance has grown and Chinese investments have remained low compared to those in other parts of Europe. By the end of 2021, the cumulative value of transactions in the 10 EU states still in the 16+1 totaled EUR 13.8 billion — a sum similar to the level of investment in the Netherlands alone. And of this, EUR 0.1 billion was in Lithuania, which recently left the framework. Lithuania, Czech Republic and Slovakia, in particular, have expressed their dissatisfaction by turning more to Taiwan with which they also share democratic values. The ensuing economic coercion of Lithuania over this move is another factor making business engagement with China less appealing in the region.
China’s alignment with Moscow resulted in a further, strategic dis-alignment with CEE. Security considerations have already been an important factor in many CEE states’ outlook towards China — including following a joint China-Russia naval exercise in the Baltic Sea in 2017.
But China’s support for the Russian invasion and the revision of NATO-based European security architecture has put Beijing at clear odds with the fundamental strategic interests of EU countries across the region. Consequently, their oftentimes tactical approach to China policy has now gained a strategic objective.
Designing damage control
To mitigate this, on April 18 Beijing dispatched its MFA Special Councilor for CEEC cooperation, Huo Yuzhen, to eight countries in the region. Her delegation was tasked with “eliminating misunderstandings regarding Russia-Ukraine conflict” (消除双方在俄乌冲突上产生的误解) and discussing ideas that could reignite CEE countries’ interest in “pragmatic cooperation” (务实合作) linked to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Huo’s team is accompanied by a group of Chinese entrepreneurs and think tankers, including researchers from the Institute of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, which heads the China-CEEC Think Tanks Network.
Another delegation led by former Ambassador to Finland and Czech Republic, Ma Keqing, was dispatched to Greece and Albania, before continuing diplomatic engagements outside of the CEE.