Xi Jinping in his keynote speech at the China and Central & Eastern European Countries (CEEC or 17+1 initiative) Leadership Summit last year pointed out the future cooperation between 17+1 should start from: a) unity against the epidemic; b) focus on connectivity and expanding practical cooperation; c) green development with Science & Technology innovation; and d) promote cooperation for stability.
The Summit was attended by 17 heads of State, indicating that the 17+1 was still regarded as the cooperation and communicating mechanism with China. The presidents looked forward to Xi’s proposals for enhanced regional cooperation, but they were instead narrated the nine-year track record of the 17+1 initiative such as the increase in trade volume between China and CEECs by nearly 85 per cent and tourism by nearly four times. Besides, infrastructure, energy, innovation, food and agriculture, medical care and cultural exchanges projects were also discussed.
However, what is of equal significance is that leaders of six countries did not attend the meeting and Lithuania took the initiative (Feb 2021) in boycotting the Summit. Going further, shortly after the Summit Lithuania announced its withdrawal from the 17+1 initiative, announcing setting up Trade Representative Office in Taiwan. Since then there has been an expansion of support for Taiwan and reluctance from CEECs to cooperate with China, especially for 5G roll-out and nuclear energy cooperation, given their security interests. Poland has been in alignment with the US policy on 5G, even though it has economic relations with China, especially in rail transport, being an important transit country for China’s rail freight transportation. Furthermore, the recent Russia-Ukraine conflict is pushing the CEECs towards the US-led West, given the Chinese tacit support to Russia, besides their own security concerns. Slovenia expressed (Nov 2021) solidarity with Lithuania’s stance on China and later three Baltic countries also visited Taiwan to attend an Open Congress Forum held on December 2-3, 2021. Meanwhile, the new Czech Republic Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, who took office in late 2021 has also been seen to have pro-Taiwan and anti-China leanings. In June 2021, the Romanian government approved a bill barring the Chinese company ‘Huawei’ from participating in 5G roll-out plans. The country also halted cooperation with China, on the construction of Cernavoda Nuclear Power Plant.
‘Coercive Capital’ concept defined by the International Centre for Private Business refers to ‘sources of external funding that lack transparency, accountability and market orientation’. This capital often comes for authoritarian regimes, such as China and Russia, which exploit the governance loopholes in the capital receiving countries to influence their decision-making. In the case of Slovenia and Czech Republic, Beijing has successfully established important relationships with local oligarchs whose economic interests are aligned with its own interest. China uses these relationships to promote policies that benefit its interest and also exert influence over these countries. Chinese entities have been able to influence in areas such as the government communication network of the two countries.
Interestingly, the Japanese ambassador to Poland, Akio Miyajima noted recently that Europe’s attitude towards China has been changing, especially among the CEECs that expected China to provide economic assistance. It is a fact that the promised Chinese investment did not progress as expected, leading to a re-think by Poland and Czech Republic about the proposed benefits. Moreover, the outbreak of the pandemic added to their worries since they believed that it was China which plunged the world into pandemic. The concerns of the CEECs have been exacerbated by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, compelling these countries to look towards NATO in terms of their security policy, toeing pro-American lines, creating a situation where the source of security assurance for CEECs was in the US-led West.
This was highlighted by the fact that since 2019, the three Baltic countries have been constantly listing China and Russia as threats. China-CEEC relations are expected to face rough weather for a host of reasons: lack of fulfilment of promises for economic support or investment in the CEECs by China which was primarily because of poor Chinese economic growth; assertive attitude of the US administration towards the CEECs in bringing these countries on its side and promoting anti-China and pro-Taiwan policy.
Chinese expansionist policies backed by ‘Coercive Capital’ as practised in Africa as well as in the CEECs were increasingly being viewed as a security threat. This, given the Russian moves in Ukraine, could potentially change the geopolitics to pave way for a new order in Central and Eastern Europe, away from Chinese dominance and dependence.