This shift was highlighted, and formalized, recently by several countries in the region leaving the ‘17+1’ format, through which China cooperates with a group of countries from the region. The shifting attitudes towards China will also influence the relationship between the European Union as a whole and China.
A Trojan Horse that never was
When the format was launched in 2012 between 16 CEE countries at the time and China, the countries jumping on board expected a wave of Chinese investment and an opportunity to diversify mostly west-bound trade.
These hopes never fully materialized as Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in CEE has been generally lower compared to the rest of Europe and China never became an important export destination for any of the countries. The growing disillusionment and concern about Chinese security threats has led to some of the countries speaking up about the perceived perils of closer cooperation.
The first to withdraw from what had become ‘17+1’ by 2021 was Lithuania, which also took an interest in strengthening ties with Taiwan and allowed it to open a Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius. This triggered a breakdown in the bilateral relations with China. As a retaliatory response, China blocked Lithuanian imports and imports from other EU states containing inputs from Lithuania, leading the EU to launch an official dispute at the WTO.
War in Ukraine
Since the invasion started, CEE countries have been dealing with large numbers of Ukrainian refugees, organizing shipments of military equipment to Ukraine, and at the same time worrying whether they could be next on Russia’s list.
However, the concerns and security environment that these countries face seems to be almost entirely disregarded by China. On the sidelines of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Xi and Putin signed the joint communiqué in which China backed Moscow’s demands to reverse NATO borders to the pre-1997 situation, completely disregarding CEE’s security interests.
China’s implicit support for Russia after the invasion has sowed deep mistrust of its respect for the sovereignty of other nations. The Chinese diplomatic apparatus clearly noticed this changing mood among CEE governments and sent a special envoy to eight capitals in April-May tasked with ‘eliminating misunderstandings regarding Russia-Ukraine conflict’.
However, the trip was not particularly successful. The delegation failed to secure high-level meetings, with the most prominent case being the Polish minister of foreign affairs declining to meet Huo Yuzhen, the Chinese Special Councilor for CEEC cooperation. Given that Andrzej Duda, President of Poland, was the only head of an EU state who attended the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony just before the Russian invasion in February, the change in attitudes is clear.
Following the envoy’s visit to the Czech Republic, the Czech parliament’s foreign affairs committee unanimously approved a resolution calling for the country to quit the ‘16+1’ format and the government is expected to act upon it in the near future. Meanwhile, Latvia and Estonia recently jointly announced that they would no longer be participating in the cooperation framework, turning it into ‘14+1’.