Due to the coronavirus crisis, the summit of 17 Central and Eastern European countries with China (known as 17+1), which was scheduled to take place in April 2020 in Beijing, has been postponed indefinitely. Despite the rescheduling amid the pandemic, the 17+1 will continue to shape relations between the countries of the region and China. The platform may be even more important in the future, as before the postponement, China already announced it would elevate the summit from the level of prime ministers to the level of heads of state.
The 17+1 has been labeled by some as China’s tool to divide and conquer Europe. At the same time, analysts (the author included) frequently dismissed these charges, arguing that the 17+1 is an “empty shell” and that cooperation between Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) and China lacks substance.
The proponents of the “empty shell” concept, however, seem to be wrong. A large-scale audit of the 17+1 points to a more alarming scenario. Substance in relations with China is, indeed, not lacking, and cooperation between China and CEE countries flourishes, encompassing political, economic, and societal dimensions.
The reason why observers missed these developments is two-fold. First, the information is fragmented. In individual Central and Eastern European states, China’s actions look scarce and random. The 17+1 is neither a multilateral forum, nor a bilateral one. It is an exercise of “multilateral bilateralism,” resembling the hub and spoke system of relations, with China acting as a hub in the middle. The spokes, i.e. the Central and Eastern European countries, exhibit — to their detriment — limited if any cooperation among themselves. Second, the areas of interaction, be they political, economic, or societal, have been treated as separate. However, the 17+1 is not only a political platform, it breaches politics and enters into the domains of economics, youth cooperation, academic exchanges, and sport, health, and media cooperation. Only when the whole picture is analyzed does the progress and direction of the 17+1 become evident.
Over the past eight years, since the inception of the 17+1 (then the 16+1) in 2012, China has managed to build a system of interconnected relations in CEE, a region where it had been almost absent before. For the foreseeable future, China will continue to rise in power and importance. Its increasing global presence, already taken for granted, will inevitably stimulate its willingness to seek influence through different organizational and institutional settings, including (sub)regional organizations. Given the fact that China finds it extremely difficult to “infiltrate” the long-existing ones, Beijing will attempt to multiply the groupings of its own creation, and try to extract as much as possible from those already in existence, such as the 17+1.
The fears of Chinese incursions on many levels (technological, economic, political, or even military) are, factoring in specific regional contexts, substantiated and the dangers are real. However, a response to the threat of expanding Chinese influence in the form of shutting Beijing out is, in practical terms, impossible – not least because it would probably provoke more extreme reactions from China. Instead, a three-pronged ACT (adapt > counter > target) strategy, modeled on the realities of the 17+1 initiative, is suggested.
While seemingly obvious, adapting to China’s presence in the region (be it in Central and Eastern Europe, or elsewhere) may in fact be the hardest component and the most difficult to pull off correctly. China as an actor and an issue will continue to be a stable and growing, if often irritating, component of various regional constellations. Accepting this fact should not be confused with resignation and much less submission to China’s strategic interests. Quite the contrary: national and international strategies need to assess the existing and potential scope of China’s presence, define priorities as well as risks stemming from this phenomenon, and implement or address them through subsequent policies.
Groupings like the 17+1 were clearly born out of China’s intention to create institutional tools for amplifying its message and increasing its influence. Still, their members can conceivably utilize them as platforms for countering, limiting, or even curbing China’s heft. The way forward consists in making full use of these organizations’ multilateral settings. While countries like the Czech Republic, Estonia, or Greece may find it difficult to face Chinese actions alone, there is no formal impediment against them bonding together and presenting their Chinese partners with a unified position. If China wants to retain its presence through these institutions, it is more likely (if grudgingly) to accept the “multilateral condition” then to risk losing its influence altogether.
Once the members of regional platforms like the 17+1 rediscover the multiplication effects inherent in “effective multilateralism,” to borrow a phrase from the 2003 European Security Strategy, they could even turn these platforms into offensive instruments for targeting China with their specific demands. These might include widely controversial topics (from the Chinese perspective), such as limits imposed on Chinese technological companies or concerns with unfair trade practices, but also more cooperative issues like the need for properly regulating Chinese investment and improving market access for CEE countries’ products. While the actions of EU member states need to be in line with the agreed position on China within the EU, the CEE EU member states can utilize the 17+1 to achieve a better standing in negotiations not only vis-à-vis China, but also within the EU. The western Balkans naturally pivot toward the European Union, despite the unfortunate lack of a credible and clear enlargement roadmap. The EU should provide a clear path to membership to the western Balkan countries to offset the growth of China’s political influence.
The current debate seems transfixed by the image of China as an omnipotent, ever-present and inescapable threat. China is – and will remain – far from it. Even small states, especially those safely separated from the immediate effects of China’s economic, political, and military might, can succeed in promoting their own interests in their dealings with Beijing. The ACT strategy provides a general outline for achieving this objective.
The text is part of the newly published audit of 17+1 relations conducted by China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) network.
Ivana Karásková, Ph.D., is a China Research Fellow and a leader of projects ChinfluenCE and CHOICE at Association for International Affairs (AMO). She lectures on China’s foreign policy and EU-China relations at Charles University in Prague.