2. SIMPLE FORMULA: The “16+1”makes —1
BSSB.BE jamestown.org 28/02/2019
* “We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” ― Tennessee Williams
“16+1” and China’s Bilateral Relations in Central and Eastern Europe
The economic disappointments of 16+1 are explained in part by the model imposed by Beijing, wherein the initiative is not truly a regional development mechanism—rather, it is a “regional institutional gathering that masks the bilateral nature of the relations that are being established primarily between countries.” As a result, Beijing and other member countries have been unable to find a common thread for the 16
European countries to create an integrated community with common objectives.
There are some signs that China will try to better address the needs of specific 16+1 members. Agricultural cooperation, e-commerce, and transportation have been singled out as prioritized sectors for future development. However, to develop more effective cooperation, two major elements will be required: detailed analysis of the sectors where trade can be mutually beneficial, and China relaxing access to its markets. Questions remain as to whether Beijing will be willing and able to follow through on this latter course of action.
The “16+1” Initiative and the Role of the European Union
Disappointments with trade have been amplified by political issues connected to the European Union (EU). The influence exercised by Russia and China has prompted different reactions among CEE states: it is a concern for some countries (such as Poland and the Czech Republic), while it has been embraced by others (such as Hungary and Serbia). Warsaw’s concerns have until recently been muted, as lackluster progress on economic issues was partially offset by the political benefits that Poland has obtained from 16+1. The EU is anxious about the positions on China taken by the eleven states that share both EU and 16+1 membership, and about their high level of cooperation with Beijing (European Parliament, July 2018).
As one of the key countries in 16+1, Poland could leverage its parallel position within the EU, and use the Chinese card to press Brussel and Berlin for concessions.
The loudest EU critic of growing Chinese influence in the CEE region has been Germany—which uses many countries in the region as parts of its own production chains, and treats them as part of an informal sphere of political influence (China-CEEC Think Tanks Network, August 7 2017).
Facing the growing anxiety in Berlin over the 16+1 structure, Beijing decided to appease Germany, and has invited Berlin to participate in the initiative’s meetings. Despite this, 16+1 continues to be seen by some in Europe as a Chinese wedge into the EU.
The “Three Seas Initiative” as a Potential Alternative for “16+1”
Mediocre economic benefits and diminishing political opportunities for bilateral cooperation within the 16+1 framework have been two of the primary reasons for Poland’s disengagement from China. However, Warsaw is also strongly motivated by a desire to cultivate closer relations with the United States—which is an important source of security not only for Poland, but also for other NATO countries.
- Recent diplomatic spats between the EU and the United States—amplified by Washington’s efforts to deal directly with EU member states on a bilateral basis—have been treated by the Polish government as an opportunity to strengthen its position in Europe as a staunch U.S. ally (European Council on Foreign Relations, December 19 2018).
- Warsaw is pursuing a regional agenda that strengthens its position in the EU, while also engaging Washington. The “Three Seas Initiative” (TSI), which has garnered the support of U.S. President Trump, is part of this effort (Central European Financial Observer, July 18 2017).
- The TSI was initiated jointly by Poland and Croatia, and comprises the twelve member states of the EU located between the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas.
- The initiative is primarily focused on the development of energy, transportation and digital networks. It has a narrower scope than 16+1, and it will not provide a simple replacement for the wide agenda of the Chinese-led initiative (Uniwersytet Lodzki, 2018). However the detailed list of projects, including specific pipelines, rail lines, and highways, seems to better match regional needs than do the vague plans included in the 16+1 declarations (Three Seas Initiative, September 2018).
Poland, one of the pillars of the 16+1 Initiative and a former enthusiast of closer relations with the PRC, has dramatically changed its attitude. 16+1 has not delivered economically for the majority of its participants, and its “one size fits all” model has failed to take into account the specific situations of individual countries. Minor adjustments declared in the course of 16+1 summits in Budapest and Sofia are a good start, but remain insufficient to satisfy the needs of China’s partners. Beijing’s close cooperation with Russia, and its courting of Berlin, also do not make the PRC a particularly attractive partner for Poland.
Polish authorities have decided to put more focus on their bilateral ties with the United States—and with regional projects such as the Three Seas Initiative—rather than deepening cooperation with China.
Poland’s disengagement from China is likely to have a significant impact on the future of the 16+1 Initiative. A majority of 16+1 countries have also gained very limited benefits from the program—and if they follow the examples of Poland and the Czech Republic in distancing themselves from China, that will negatively impact PRC plans in Central and Eastern Europe.
The decoupling from China is not preordained: Poland and other countries are interested in maintaining ties with Beijing, and the 16+1 structure still holds potential benefits for its members. However, to successfully reboot cooperation, the Chinese side will need to offer more of concrete value to Poland and other countries in the region.
Łukasz Sarek is a China market analyst and consultant. He is also a researcher at the Asia Research Centre, Centre for Security Studies, War Studies University in Warsaw.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: jamestown.org