By Ditmir Bushati*
China’s Summit with Central and Eastern European Countries, otherwise known as the 17 + 1 initiative, which took place online on February 9, was held in a shallow atmosphere and without the former brilliance in communicating with the public. The leaders of the Baltic countries, Slovenia, Romania and Bulgaria, withdrew from participation, reducing their representation to ministerial level. Efforts to agree on a joint communiqué ran into problems.
The Chinese-led format of diplomatic cooperation dates back to 2012, as a precursor to the “One Belt One Road” initiative, which envisioned billions in investments and trade with the Baltics, Visegrad countries, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Croatia and the Western Balkans. Greece became part of the initiative in 2019, bringing the total number of EU member states in the group to twelve.
Within EU circles, this initiative has been perceived in some cases as a conquer and divide tactic on the side of China, towards the less developed EU member states in the east of the continent. The initial reasoning for many countries to join the 17+1 format had to do precisely with a sense of abandonment by the partners and investors of the Western Europe.
Due to the signing of the comprehensive China-EU investments agreement, the 17 +1 format seems to be losing importance, especially for the EU member states, which can use the China-EU format to address issues with China through the common policies with the EU.
On the other hand, the China-EU agreement seems to give priority to the bigger EU member states, over the EU member states that are part of the 17 +1 format. China is now looking for the same investors with an agreement that eclipses its first partners in Europe, making the future of the 17+1 format less secure.
This is the reason why not everyone was happy when German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Macron, and European Commission President Von der Leyen took part in December in a video conference with the Chinese President Xi Jinping while the EU finalized its agreement of investments with China.
However, countries like Hungary or others in the Western Balkans remain determined to cement ties with China. Thus, Hungary is the first country in the EU that has obtained vaccines against Covid-19 from China, without waiting for their recognition from the European agency. Relations with Hungary are expected to take on an even greater dimension as China’s Fudan University is expected to open its first European campus in Budapest in 2024. The same thing can be said also for Serbia in terms of obtaining the protective masks and vaccines from China during the Pandemic. Meanwhile, North Macedonia and Montenegro intend to receive the Chinese vaccines.
Nearly ten years later, the careful review of the facts shows that the 17+1 format has fallen below expectations. One of the objectives set in the establishment of this initiative was the increase of Chinese trade with the 17 European countries until 2015, to USD 100 billion. This goal was achieved last week. However, it should be noted that only the China-Germany trade volume is double the trade volume of the 17 member countries of the initiative together with China. Similarly, USD 3.1 billion in the Chinese direct investments carries out during the recent years are below the expected level.
Although the Chinese President Xi Jinping, during his speech at the Summit described the philosophy of the initiative as a win-win platform for the participating parties, it must be said that the export of agricultural products from the 17 countries of the initiative to China continues to face obstacles.
In case we analyze the Western Balkans, the figures speak even more clearly. China represents only 6% of the trade volume and 3% of the foreign direct investments. These figures are unmatched by those of the EU, which represents 69% of trade and 60% of the foreign direct investment in the Western Balkans.
Despite this, China has consistently pursued the “debt diplomacy” with the Western Balkan countries. Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina owe China respectively 40%, 20%, 15% and 15% of their national debt. The only exception in this regard is Albania. Meanwhile, Kosovo, due to its non-recognition by China is not part of the initiative.
Borrowing ostensibly is an attractive short-term solution to build and modernize sectors like infrastructure and energy. However, the contracts of these projects are concluded through non-transparent ways of negotiation that avoid public procurement procedures and competition norms. European labor and environmental standards, as well as policies related to climate change, are ignored. Surveillance technologies purchased from China raise concerns about digital infrastructure security, data privacy and protection.
This policy is not new to China, which as a rising global power has created a seemingly soft, humble and helping profile. Thus, an ecosystem of interests’ intertwining also in other regions such as Southeast Asia, South Asia, Africa or Latin America.
Therefore, during the recent years, there is a growing concern of the US and the West about China’s role in the international arena and its impact on security issues. In this optic, one should also read the last decision of US President Biden to set up a Task Force on issues related to China and the strengthening of interaction with allies for this purpose.
Faced with the new dynamics in the US-China and EU-China relations, it is logical to think about the positioning of five Western Balkan countries in the 17+1 initiative.
Seen in this context, a coordination of US and EU positions is needed in relation to the Western Balkans, where critical infrastructure and trade routes are targeted by China. China has strategic intents in the Western Balkans with an impact beyond our region. The results of this engagement are different due to the NATO membership of three of the countries of the region, foreign policy orientation and traditional ties established during the Cold War period.
Unlike the West, China does not aim to transform the societies it seeks to influence. China does not seem interested in the form of state organization, but in the willingness of states and governments to adapt to its interests and build favoring relationships.
Meanwhile, the countries of the Western Balkans have a vital need for sustainable economic development that comes through transformation, capacity building and the implementation of European norms related to the rule of law in economy. Therefore, the revival of the “intubated” process of EU membership takes paramount importance in the materialization of the above components. Optimism for this process has faded and the Western Balkans may suffer the consequences of the lack of orientation. The EU must understand that the lack of geopolitical instincts creates irreparable vacuums in its front-gate. China is a rising global power. It should be considered a complementary partner for economic development, always within our Euro-Atlantic perimeter./ibna
*DItmir Bushati is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania