Europe and the US have a number of common concerns caused by the rise of China that could help to repair transatlantic relations. Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries should invest in strengthening the EU’s unity and transatlantic cooperation vis-à-vis China rather than the 17+1 format.
The 17+1 cooperation between the CEE countries and China has long been a target of criticism in the EU, as it has been seen to undermine European unity. Lately some members have begun to consider withdrawing from the group; the Estonian foreign minister has spoken publicly about this. These discussions reflect several factors, including Chinese activities, US and EU expectations, and broader geopolitical tensions.
The format was launched at Beijing’s initiative in 2012. Its main goals have been the promotion of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and to increase trade and investment. Estonia, among others, has always been lukewarm about this cooperation forum, since it has not seen the grouping defined by China as an attractive reference group. It includes a motley crew of Eastern members of the EU and candidate countries from the Western Balkans. Greece joined the group last year, increasing the original number of participants to 17+1.
The CEE countries joined the forum for economic reasons, in the hope of gaining a share of China’s rapid development. The cooperation has not, however, brought the expected economic benefits. One of its most visible projects has been the Budapest–Belgrade railway, which has stalled for a number of reasons, including investigations by the European Commission into the project’s compliance with EU rules. China has invested less in the 17+1 countries than, for example, Finland or Sweden. China accounts for under 3% of Estonia’s trade.
In recent years, the political costs and risks caused by 17+1 cooperation have grown. First, it has become increasingly evident that China aims to use its economic presence to gain political influence. In the framework of 17+1, Beijing has actively created networks of contacts with politicians and various other groups and tried to shape attitudes and positions in target countries in line with Chinese interests. This might be regarded as normal diplomatic activity; however, what makes it problematic is China being an authoritarian major power, led by the Communist Party, whose activities undermine the target countries’ democratic systems and international norms.
China works systematically to silence criticism of its activities, be it repressions in Hong Kong or Xinjiang, territorial claims in the South China Sea or responsibility for the outbreak of the latest coronavirus pandemic. As a result of Covid-19, attitudes towards China have hardened in the Baltic states, Poland and the Czech Republic, among others.
Second, the China policy of NATO’s Eastern flank countries is increasingly influenced by Washington’s expectations. It is well known that the Baltic states and Poland need US security guarantees vis-à-vis Russia. For them, China does not, unlike Russia, pose an existential threat and they don’t necessarily want to have Beijing as an enemy alongside Moscow. However, from the US perspective, China is the biggest threat to its position as a great power, and hence it expects support from its allies in constraining China’s growing global influence. So, for example, the Baltic states and Poland have signed joint declarations with the US on cooperating on the development of 5G networks, which should lead to the exclusion of the Chinese company Huawei from their 5G markets.
However, such steps are not just due to pressure from Washington: all EU countries are considering ways to manage security risks caused by the participation of third countries in the development of 5G networks. European countries need to limit Chinese access above all for the sake of their own security.
Hence, third, the EU is making efforts to strengthen its China policy and has taken an increasingly suspicious stance on 17+1 cooperation. It should be noted, however, that the EU’s common policy on China has been undermined by certain members of the 17+1 format, while the group has not adopted shared positions. The EU’s criticism of the human rights situation in China or Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea has been watered down mainly thanks to Hungary and Greece, the countries that have been most keen to gain major Chinese investment in their infrastructure. On the other hand, several large member states, including Germany and Italy, have prioritised economic interests in their bilateral relations with China.
Europe and the US have a number of shared interests vis-à-vis China, such as defending human rights and the freedom of speech, countering Chinese protectionist measures in trade relations and protecting critical infrastructure, including 5G networks. President Donald Trump has done a lot to block cooperation with the EU on these issues, and yet, the shared concerns caused by the rise of China can help to repair the transatlantic relationship. It is indeed time for the CEE countries to prioritise strengthening the EU’s unity and transatlantic cooperation vis-à-vis China and reconsider the virtues of 17+1 cooperation.
This article was originally published in the Finnish newspaper Kaleva.