The “17+1” format created by China in 2012, as part of which it has been attempting to acquire influence in 17 Eastern European countries from the Baltics to the Balkans, has received a blow. Tuesday, six nations, including Latvia, didn’t respond to the invitation to participate in a highest-level online summit with Xi Jinping.
China’s “divide and conquer” policy, i.e. it’s strategy to divide EU’s joint policies by offering Eastern Europe one thing and Western Europe something entirely different, is facing obvious opposition. Firstly, from the Baltic states who have not yet benefitted in any way from closer ties with China and who are now worryingly observing China’s and Russia’s attempts to become closer. Now, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have been joined by Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia who sent their ministers – not presidents or prime ministers – to participate in the summit, despite pressure from China.
The “17+1” format has long allowed China to turn to individual Eastern European states with promises of investments as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. However, only a handful of countries are able to say that they’ve benefited economically from any of this. While others, for instance, Montenegro have gained controversial debts amounting to hundreds of millions of euros.
China’s policies directed towards Eastern Europe intend purchasing cheap sympathy by offering its vaccines, easing customs procedures and doubling the import of food products from Eastern Europe over the next five years. Strategically this is a smart move, considering that farmers in Eastern Europe feel disenfranchised in comparison to their Western counterparts who receive better subsidies.
However, Eastern European nations are beginning to realize that the promises and scarce benefits are not enough to compensate for the losses that may arise from cooperation with China. Nevertheless, Balkan nations have also criticized the two-faced approach of some EU superpowers, especially Germany and France, who establish their own bilateral relations with China.
Despite the obvious relaxed attitudes of its Eastern European partners, China wants to show everyone that the summit is another success and that it is still able to maintain close ties with the region.
This is evidenced by paid articles and interviews in different media outlets (not only in Latvia, but also elsewhere in Europe) that describe the “amazing” successes and decisions reached during the summit. In the summit, the Chinese leader proudly boasted about his country’s investments in Eastern and Central Europe over the last years which amount to more than 16.8 billion dollars. It was also noted that the China-Europe freight train route encompasses the majority of Central and Eastern European countries and that it has made over 30,000 trips. He failed to mention that in many cases these trips were one-time pompous “tests” targeting the local and international community. Xi also promised that in the next five years China intends to import goods worth over 170 billion dollars from Central and Eastern Europe, and that this will be achieved by doubling the export of farm goods from these regions to China and increasing the trade of farm goods by 50%.
It seems that soon the “big oriental brother with Vinnie the Pooh at the helm” will achieve what the EU has not been able to – economic growth for Eastern European and Central European producers. However, Xi’s promises may remain unfulfilled, because it’s highly likely that in five years he will talk to the leaders of completely different nations in the “17+1” summit and boast about insignificant achievements in cooperation. China’s goal is to divide the EU, which is easier to achieve at times of crisis. It is up to the EU member states to resist being lured by Beijing’s cheap promises.
*Juris Paiders has a Ph.D. in Geography Studies, works for the University of Latvia and in his spare time, and writes articles for the independent newspaper “Neatkarīgā” in Latvia. For decades, he has been researching such topics as territorial systems, economic geography, logistics, and transport geography. For the last decade, he has been closely following China’s expansion from a logistics and transportation perspective.