China’s divide-and-rule tactics in Eastern Europe are running into trouble.
The “17+1” platform created by Beijing in 2012 to build ties with 17 Central and Eastern European countries looked decidedly like the 11+1 on Tuesday, when half of the 12 EU national leaders invited to the club failed to show up to pay homage to Chinese President Xi Jinping.
It’s a stinging diplomatic setback for Xi, who had a first class “divide and rule” card to play by offering to double China’s food imports from Eastern Europe over the next five years. It was a smart stratagem from Xi to appeal to the farm sector as it is a glaring political sore point where poorer rural economies in Eastern Europe feel hard done by and complain that they are undermined by the highly protectionist farming powerhouses of Western Europe.
The 17+1 format has traditionally been a forum for Beijing to press its influence in Eastern Europe by pledging investments associated with the Belt and Road Initiative, a giant infrastructure and transport project linking China to EU markets. But Xi broached some new territory on Tuesday. In addition to his proposal to buy more food from the region, the Chinese president also vowed to improve customs procedures and raised the prospect of more Eastern Europeans (other than Serbians and Hungarians) receiving China’s coronavirus vaccines.
This charm offensive is starting to fall flat, however. Eastern European countries are increasingly unconvinced that Beijing is really delivering the economic perks they originally imagined. More crucially, there are security relations to consider, along with diplomatic ties to the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, who wants to muster a broad diplomatic counterweight to China.
All six countries that snubbed China on Tuesday were from the 2004 intake of Eastern European NATO members. Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia joined the three Baltic countries — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — in not sending their presidents or prime ministers to join what China had hoped to be a “Xi plus 17 leaders” summit. For the Baltic states in particular, NATO’s role as a guarantor of security against Russia outstrips other concerns.
Instead of national leaders, ministers represented those countries. Only a day before the event, Chinese diplomats were piling pressure on these capitals to send “a higher level representation,” according to a diplomat from one of these six countries.
“The Chinese think we are not giving them face,” said the diplomat, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the case. “It’s also a big surprise to Beijing since all 27 EU countries unanimously approved the [European Union’s] investment pact [with China in December].”
The Baltic states — in particular Lithuania — took the lead here, when its diplomats started investigating three weeks ago whether it was possible to “underrepresent” themselves in the summit.
“When it comes to the Baltic states it’s really simple — you have Russia,” said Una Bērziņa-Čerenkova, head of the China Studies Center at Rīga Stradiņš University in Latvia. “China is already getting the idea that the Baltic states are backing out slowly … even though it’s not a loud divorce.”
So frenetic were the last-minute diplomatic efforts at marshalling leaders that Beijing wouldn’t publicly acknowledge the summit until 6 a.m. local time on Tuesday, conceding that leaders “and high-level representatives” from the 17 countries would be in attendance later in the day.
When asked about the 17+1, Washington said it was committed to working with Europe on China policy. “We recognize our European partners have their own interests and relationships, and we are not forcing them to choose between China and the United States. However, we remain concerned that China has frequently used multilateral organizations as a tool to advance [its] economic, national security, and foreign policy interests at the expense of other countries’ peace and prosperity, respect for human rights, and the rules-based international order,” a State Department spokesperson said.
Slovakia shows its political chops
Agriculture played a big role in the latest 17+1 summit, as the European countries expressed frustration at China’s pace of opening up its market to agri-food exports.
At the summit, Mariyana Nikolova, Bulgaria’s deputy prime minister, was quick to stress the problems of trade imbalance and access to the Chinese market.
“We rely on the support of the Chinese government and the leadership of President Xi Jinping to identify and implement further concrete measures to expand and facilitate access to the Chinese market,” she said, according to the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency.
She asked Xi to “help extend the range of the exported goods by simplifying and speeding up import procedures in China, in particular food and agricultural goods.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda echoed that sentiment, saying Poland was “dissatisfied” with the speed of China’s increased market access, TVN24 reported. Action would be needed, he said, “such as the lifting of administrative restrictions on imports of agri-food goods from Poland.”
Poland dominates Eastern European agricultural exports to China, with Hungary in second place, helping satisfy Chinese demand for meat and dairy, including offal and chocolate, according to a report from the Institute of Agricultural Economics in Belgrade.
Slovakia was one of the few countries able to claim a victory on agriculture by signing a protocol whereby it could potentially sell more lamb to China, just a day before the summit. In return, Slovak Prime Minister Igor Matovič showed up at the summit, despite earlier speculation that he would also skip it.
Road to nowhere?
None of this is to say that the old centerpiece of the Belt and Road Initiative took a backseat. At the summit, Xi said he planned to make Central and Eastern Europe the “first region” in the world to be fully covered by the scheme.
He didn’t mention any specific new infrastructure projects, which could be made more difficult, at least in the EU, given the Commission’s push for a harder nosed approach to scrutinizing member states’ infrastructure deals with countries like China.
Undaunted, Xi said he would launch a new “customs clearance coordination and consultation point” for the “China-Europe Land-Sea Express Line” from Budapest to the Chinese-owned port of Piraeus near Athens. This would cover Hungary, Serbia, North Macedonia and Greece. Shipments of goods are complicated on the route since it involves EU and non-EU countries, but there was no immediate detail from the Chinese side on how the new mechanism could work.
Amid continued EU fear of China’s divide-and-rule tactics — for example, by introducing different technical standards — Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said the platform would be a symbol of “cooperation, solidarity, understanding and transparency,” according to a Greek official.
Not everyone was equally impressed with that proclamation of solidarity. “Today’s summit … is taking place in a divided atmosphere, as a few leaders dropped out last week and efforts to agree on a joint communiqué are running into problems,” said Ditmir Bushati, former foreign minister of Albania, one of the non-EU countries in “17+1”.
“Ten years since the launch of this [Chinese] initiative, the format has fallen below expectation,” Bushati added.
Nektaria Stamouli, Eddy Wax and Nahal Toosi contributed reporting.
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