The China-CEEC Summit which took place virtually early this month, the so-called 17+1 Initiative is a cross-regional cooperation mechanism launched nine years ago, when China was looking to invest in Europe and rolling out the New Silk Road.
At the same time, countries in Central and Eastern Europe, both Members & Non-Members of the European Union were looking to grasp opportunities. In 2019, the group witnessed its first enlargement when Greece became a full member of the then 16+1 Initiative.
The aura of the Prespes Agreement, which had solved the year-long dispute with North Macedonia, functioned as a springboard for this enlargement.
The China-CEEC Summit represents a very distinct pattern of collaboration, to the extent that it has sometimes received mixed reactions in Europe. China supports the process of European integration as a matter of principle, but at the same time, it is employing a multifaceted policy in its approach to Europe.
In this context, the 17+1 Initiative is an ambitious scheme which complements the China-EU Summit and bilateral relations with European states themselves. Deeper dialogue can only help temper some misunderstandings.
The Beijing action plan for China-CEEC cooperation in 2021 includes visits of journalists to China, as well as a high-level think tank and education policy dialogue.
Additionally, ever since its outset, the group of 17 European countries that joined the China-CEEC Summit has not been very homogenous. Different priorities, histories, sizes and cultures are not ignored.
That being said, differences do not automatically lead to discord. They will not, a priori, prevent a synthesis , especially if general interests can intersect among the European countries and China.
During the recent virtual summit, China outline principles that were accepted by all the participants: making decisions via consultation, delivering benefits to all partners, pursuing common development through openness and inclusiveness, and connecting innovation and growth.
China also identified issues where the shaping of a common mindset is possible, such as vaccine distribution, green development, economic recovery and organization of the Beijing 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. China’s participation sends a clear political signal of the significance it attributes to the 17+1 Initiative.
Some European countries appear skeptical about what they perceive as limited Chinese investments. Of course, for Chinese companies to invest, opportunities need to be proposed and conditions have to be favorable. The example of COSCO Shipping’s engagement in the Greek port of Piraeus is edifying.
It could never expect from a Chinese investor to act as “deus ex machina” and solve the economic problems of another country. Symmetry improvements are necessary, but EU member-states of the China-CEEC Summit also need to align their policy with the guidelines of the European Commission. The business environment does not therefore always look particularly friendly for Chinese enterprises.
Beyond investments, the numbers speak for themselves. Last year, the trade volume for the 17+1 group grew by more than 8% and exceeded $100 billion. More importantly, China intends to import $170 billion of goods from countries in Central and Eastern Europe in the coming years, with special emphasis to be given to agri-food products.
Furthermore, cooperation will concentrate on the fight against COVID-19 including potential coordination in facilitating the resumption of travel and the safety of economic activities. In this regard, China proposed the establishment of a China-CEEC customs information center and a focal point for customs clearance.
This year’s virtual summit revitalizes the relationship between China and Central and Eastern European countries. The 2020 Beijing physical event was canceled due to the outbreak of the pandemic that is currently a key theme bringing participants closer. The 17+1 Initiative will flourish for countries wishing to achieve the maximum from their ties with China.