17 + 1 = 0 Future Progress?


A Follow-Up on the 17+1 Meeting in February 2021

Key Words: Eastern Europe, Middle Europe, Investment, United States, European Union

A gathering of China with 16 Central and Eastern European countries, as well as the recently added Greece, took place in the middle of February. This year, the focus laid on vaccine procurement, which President Xi Jinping used to promote the Chinese vaccine. After several European heads of state had announced that they would not attend the meeting in person, with Estonia going so far as to send only its minister of transportation, experts expected postponement. However, this year's 17 + 1 meeting was special for several reasons, and allowed speculation about the future course of European-Chinese relations.

The 17 + 1 mechanism, which has been portrayed in some circles as a dangerous wedge hammered between member states, is showing serious signs of slowing down. The enthusiasm aroused by Chinese promises of investment and economic involvement in the Central and Eastern European region during the first years of the format's operation seems to be waning. Polish president Andrzej Duda noted at the summit that Poland was dissatisfied with the pace of opening the Chinese economy to Polish products, especially from the food industry. But it seems that Poland is not alone in its opinion when it comes to the fruits of 17+1 cooperation. This may be indicated by the fact that almost 1/3 of the format countries (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovenia) decided to send representatives of a lower rank to the summit - a sign of European dissatisfaciton and of Chinese faliure to implement successful long-term strategy. In trying to put together seventeen different countries with divergent goals, values, perspectives, and histories, Beijing was unable to produce positive results. The single common denominator among them had been their shared history of socialist regime- something Greece's 2019 inclusion hastily disturbed.

Certainly, the limited involvement of Chinese capital in the region, for which Western Europe is more tempting due to a better developed infrastructure or purchasing power, did not help. The promised projects and investments were not realized simply because they were not attractive to Chinese investors, or because they were blocked, such as the participation of a Chinese company in the construction of the Czech nuclear power plant Dukovany, announced earlier this year.

The 17 + 1 format remains part of the New Silk Road and China's plans for economic expansion, but this year's summit clearly showed that the Middle Kingdom must thoroughly remodel its strategy if it wants to keep all european participants at the negotiating table. Foggy promises and diplomatic speeches must be replaced by hard investments and streams of money. Even then, a doubling of Beijing's efforts to reinvigorate the format may not be enough. Issues, such as Europes own fears of internal division, have resulted in restrictions imposed on China in the field of 5G technology, as well as an EU investment control mechanism that may thwart Chinese decision-makers' plans. Perhaps it is time for a completely new proposal for this part of Europe?

Chinese indecision and the lack of a strategic vision for the development of the 17 + 1 format are not the only problems.

Both the format and other forms of closer cooperation with the Middle Kingdom have come under fire due to concerns over a myriad of issues, chief among them human rights, labor rights, and security issues. Due to U.S. pressure, countries such as Poland, Romania, Estonia and Latvia decided to restrict Chinese 5G technology solutions. 

The validity of a thesis considering the 17 + 1 as an attempt to divide the European Union may lack merit. The value of direct foreign investments from China flowing to the countries of Western Europe and the USA is far greater than that which is directed towards the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Chinese investment in the 12 EU Member States participating in 17 + 1 remains modest at EUR 8.6 billion in 2010-2019. For comparison, in the same period, China invested more in Finland (EUR 12 billion) and the Netherlands (EUR 10.2 billion). As former Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski said during a recent conference at Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS):

"Western Europeans have their long standing commercial relationships with China [...] and they are not letting us, Central Europeans into those relationships [...]. Perhaps it [17+1] should be phased out, but on one condition - that the rest of the European Union starts abiding by the Lisbon Treaty and conducts policy towards China in common."

Putting aside Chinese apathy towards investing in Central and Eastern Europe, the interests of the entire European Union and individual member states can also be taken into account. One should strive for an assertive and independent foreign and economic policy towards China, but at the same time not succumb to the illusion that cooperation with China is an evil that should be avoided at all costs. The current rejection of cooperation with the PRC solely through the prism of liberal values ​​ignores the fact that both the U.S. and Western countries have earned a lot of money from trade with the Middle Kingdom. In such a situation, it seems very hypocritical to call for less wealthy countries in the region to refrain from building economic relations with China. Certainly, adherence to liberal principles is one of the elements that bind the entire Western world together; in calculations related to the Middle Kingdom however, the realpolitik element is crucial, and according to which tells us that excessive attachment to both the US and China is an undesirable state.

If it is true that the United States is losing the position of the global hegemon, and this place is taken by the People's Republic of China, it is in the interest of individual European countries and the entire European Union to play the most skilful cards possible. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe should have no illusions that their presence on either side of the American-Chinese barricade will have a measurable impact on changing the balance of power simply because of shared values. The only key to building the prosperity of the region is skillful manuveuring between the world's giants, not blind stubbornness in supporting either side.

In conclusion, a number of questions arise: How sustainable is the 17+1 format? Can it be sustainable if the EU focuses on stronger interaction and stands united against China? Or why oppose China at all? Hasn't Europe already been left behind by the United States? Don't the numerous investments that the United States is pumping into Chinese banks even suggest that the EU, whether as 17+1 or as a united economic power, is no longer in China's interest at all?

However these questions are answered, one can nevertheless state the following: The EU must come out of its defensive position and cannot just expect the People's Republic to approach it. Proactive and committed offers and negotiations must be pushed forward if the EU does not want to be completely left behind by the US. We can therefore state: 17 + 1 > 0, assuming that EU = active.

Patryk Szczotka & Laura M. Detels