China’s “march West” reached Europe this week as Premier Li Keqiang visited Romania and attended the China-Central and Eastern Europe (CCEE) leader’s meeting. During the meeting, Li announced that China will seek to double its trade with central and eastern European countries by 2018. Trade between China and Central and Eastern Europe reached $52 billion through the first ten months of 2013. If Li’s goal is attained, China’s trade with the region should increase to over $120 billion in the next five years.
To achieve that goal, China plans to follow a familiar blueprint, namely providing investment backing to fund large-scale infrastructure projects. During the meeting, China agreed to construct a railway between Hungary and Serbia. That will be only the beginning of an ambitious plan to eventually link China and central Europe by rail. Other industries earmarked for expanded cooperation included manufacturing, hydro power and nuclear energy, according to China Daily.
There’s nothing extraordinary about the points raised in the meeting. In fact, Li’s specific requests for expanded cooperation with Romania mesh exactly with China’s core national interests. China wants to “expand [its] energy cooperation” (thus increasing China’s energy security), “expand cooperation in the construction of railway and other infrastructure” (opening markets for Chinese construction companies) and receive “more Romanian exports of agricultural and animal products to China” (helping ensure China’s food security).
What is interesting about Li’s trip is the timing. Li’s arrival in Romania made him the first Chinese Premier to visit that country in 19 years. Even more intriguing, the CCEE meeting came a week after Li attended a summit with the European Union, and will be followed by a prime ministers’ meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes China’s Central Asian neighbors. The timing helps clarify the strategic purpose behind the outreach to central and eastern Europe: China’s march West is not going to end in Central Asia.
Li made a point of defining China’s cooperation with the central and eastern European countries as something distinct from China’s relationship with the EU as a whole. In part this is by necessity — of the 16 European countries represented at the CCEE meeting, five (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia) are not currently members of the EU. Instead, China plans to frame its cooperation as “1+16”: China plus the 16 Central and Eastern European countries. Li emphasized that China intends for its “1+16” engagement to “supplement” the EU framework, not tear it down. Accordingly, both he and the European ministers were quick to note that all economic deals will follow applicable EU regulations.
Still, it’s hard not to think that some of these European nations might welcome China’s involvement as an alternative to joining the EU. A similar trend is unfolding in Turkey, which is mulling joining the China-led SCO after being excluded from the EU for years. Even those countries that are already members of the EU will likely relish the chance to partner with China and its booming economy as Europe continues to struggle with recession. Romanian Prime Minster Victor Ponta offered a hint of this attitude when he declared that Romania is “willing to serve as China’s gateway to Europe.” Chinese media also noted that Romania gave Li a particularly warm welcome — for the first time in 20 years, Romania held a formal welcome ceremony at the airport for an arriving foreign dignitary. The Central and Eastern European countries are just as eager as China is to increase their cooperation.
So what does it mean that China is making a special effort to engage with Central and Eastern Europe? China’s “march West” policy is even more ambitious than previously thought. The “New Silk Road” as envisioned by the new leadership could stretch all the way from China to Central Europe — much like the original Silk Road. This is especially relevant in light of recent research suggesting that China’s economic relationships often encourage its partners to lend their political support in international fora. The more countries that welcome and come to rely on China’s economic aid, the more powerful China could become in international bodies such as the UN.
China has recognized a golden opportunity for implementing its strategy, as Central Asia and Eastern Europe have received little international attention in recent years. China is more than willing to pick up the EU’s diplomatic slack, and in turn expects to reap both economic and geopolitical benefits.