It took eight years, seven summits and four high-level think tank symposiums until finally someone openly and officially declared: the 16+1 China–Central-Eastern European (CEE) Countries Cooperation is not the source of „free money”. The forthright statement came from Professor Chen Xin, the Executive Director of the Budapest-located China-CEE Institute. The Chinese think tank organised an academic event last week in Budapest, a few days after the seventh 16+1 summit in Bulgaria, Sofia. The Budapest think tank conference was one of the largest 16+1-related academic events this year. About 33 scholars from China and CEE countries discussed the present situation of the cooperation in Budapest.
In his closing remarks, Chinese Professor Chen Xin (who speaks Hungarian) said: „16+1 Cooperation is not Szent Mikulás”, what in Hungarian means, the cooperation is not an embodiment of Santa Claus. „It is not about sending the gifts from China, and the 16+1 Summit is not Christmas Eve,”Chen Xin continued with his speech. According to him, the 16+1 Cooperation is a framework, a platform to find common interests.
„The 16+1 Cooperation is not an institutionalised organisation. It is not about membership,” he continued. The professor underlined that the CEE countries should be more proactive, and the 16 countries should come up with their own ideas for the cooperation. He also added that the cooperation places too much emphasis on trade and investments. „It would be good to see cooperation on culture,” Chen Xin continued, adding that the main purpose of the 16+1 is to„know each other better”.
Such an open and direct talk from the Chinese side was long overdue. The first time I attended a 16+1 think tank meeting was in Beijing, in 2013. Since then, every meeting has had more or less the same agenda. CEE participants emphasised the need for more Chinese capital in their countries and criticised their Asian partner for falling below the desired level of investments. In reply to this argument, their Chinese counterparts tried to appease them sometimes even by misleading promises.
It should be noted, however, that this frustrating situation might not be the only factor behind the surprisingly open discussion. A shift in Beijing’s 16+1 policy was something to be expected for years, and during the Sofia summit, Prime Minister Li Keqiang has changed his tone accordingly. He repeatedly stressed the importance of the EU-China relationship and assigned a minor role to the CEE region. Mr. Li Keqiang denied the Western European fears that China is willing to divide the EU with the organisation, adding that the 16+1 cooperation aims to „further enhance the integration of the EU” with promoting free trade and investments. Many analysts pointed out that the reason behind the new rhetoric is the sharpening trade war between China and the United States. As the American president, Donald Trump targets China with tariffs, Beijing seeks to strengthen its ties with Brussels and Berlin.
Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang at the 16+1 Summit in Sofia
Although the 16+1 might be losing its importance in the future, it is far not over yet. Even those pessimistic voices have turned out to be false that forecasted the shift for a bi-annually organised summit. Following the practice, the next meeting will be held next year in 2019 in Croatia. In conclusion, the political climate around the cooperation is changing, but it still remains an important regional platform for China.
So what attitude should the CEE countries follow when it comes to 16+1? In the case of Hungary, the cooperation should remain a priority. Not just because Hungary is among the six countries that received the 95% of the Chinese capital invested in the sixteen countries. But because in the last decade, the Hungarian governments have laid down the solid foundation for further improving the relationship with China. It would be a pity to miss the opportunities since in such turbulent times this relationship is still fragile. Accordingly, the following recommendation should be kept in mind for the future:
China threat theories are on the rise. As Anastas Vangeli, a doctoral researcher at the Graduate School for Social Research in Warsaw pointed out, criticism towards the 16+1 Cooperation is no longer a topic discussed between China-scholars. Today, it is voiced publicly by the European elite. Mr. Vangeli was among the panellists at the Budapest conference last week. In his speech, he mentioned that the Western European elite tends to look at Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as politically problematic ones, and their leaders as „bad guys” who get support from China. Another speaker, Ana Blazheska, senior researcher at the Center for Research and Policy Making in Skopje also mentioned: these three problematic countries are among the top receivers of Chinese investments in the region, and that makes Western countries even more suspicious. Furthermore, Brussels seems reluctant to ease its conflicts with Beijing. During the 20th EU-China Summit this Monday, Li Keqiang stressed the need to uphold free trade and multilateralism as the US and China become increasingly mired in a trade dispute. But European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker put the ball on the Chinese court, saying: „China could open up its market if it wanted”.
In such a political climate, pressure may increase from Western allies in order to consider China not as a friend, but as a security threat. Such a shift in Hungary’s China-policy would undoubtedly poison bilateral relations and harm the achievements the two countries have gained in the last decade. At the same time, it might be the right moment to balance the relationship with the EU. Since China stepped back from 16+1, it is a good time to make friendly gestures toward the EU from Budapest, for example, to reconsider the implementation of the problematic Budapest-Belgrade railway project.
In his closing remarks, Professor Chen Xin argued that 16+1 is a good platform to „know each other better”, as „for many years (after 1989-1991) we forgot each other”. He then also emphasised that the discussion should not focus only on trade and investment, but on cultural relations as well.
This message should be taken seriously. The 16+1 Cooperation was formally established in 2012, in Warsaw. During the first summit, China accepted a document with the title, „Twelve Measures for Promoting Friendly Cooperation with Central and Eastern European Countries”.Out of these twelve measures, only five focused on investment and trade. Four out of the twelve measures focused on cultural and educational issues, like organising festivals, boosting tourism, and increasing the number of scholarship grants. Apparently, the CEE countries did not take Beijing seriously.
I do not remember if any cultural events were organised under the framework of 16+1 Cooperation in Hungary. Seven years have passed, and the cooperation is still only about politics, business and academic cooperation. Promoting cultural and educational programs would not just build trust within the cooperation, but would also benefit the Hungarian people. There is still a lack of knowledge in the Hungarian public about China, and this needs to be changed — even if it will definitely need time and investment.
Be proactive, inclusive and transparent
In 2015, a high-level 16+1 think tank symposium was held in Beijing. During the meeting, the Chinese scholars criticised the CEE countries for not coming up with cooperative ideas and investment plans. Three years later, the same issue was raised at the recent think tank meeting in Budapest. Sandor Kusai, former Hungarian ambassador in Beijing pointed out that CEE countries are still competing with each other, instead of cooperating. CEE countries should realise that 16+1 Cooperation needs a different approach from them. First, these countries should decide what investments they need. Since the infrastructure network is probably the weakest point in the region, they may first put more effort on this issue. After they have the project plans ready, they could start to look for loans and try to make the different financial institutions compete for their infrastructure projects.
It will be only possible if the process is transparent and inclusive. Representatives from the business, academic and civil sectors need to be involved. Also, the media should get access to supervise the process in order to avoid corruption and build trust among the public.
Viktor Buzna, freelance journalist, blogger at Oriented – The Asian Review