In 2012 China initiated the 16+1 format , a cooperation framework that includes 16 central and eastern European countries, 11 of them members of the European Union. The initiative caused alarm among many European leaders, who feared that China would use it to divide and rule the EU through promises of substantial economic investment. Indeed, the union has long since abandoned hope that the programme of economic reform and opening up begun by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 would lead to China’s democratisation. The EU now increasingly fears the geopolitical implications of China’s growing economic presence in both its member states and its immediate neighbourhood. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council at the 18th EU-China Summit in Beijing in July 2016. Photo: European External Action Service (CC BY-NC) Since its inception, the 16+1 format has evolved in both its objectives and its influence on relationships between Beijing and its European partners. The 16+1 summit in Warsaw in 2012 solely covered business topics; the 2013 summit in Bucharest featured the term “connectivity” for the first time – often in reference to the development of rail systems; the 2014 summit in Belgrade added specific sectors to the mix; the 2015 summit in Suzhou introduced exclusive projects to the platform; the 2016 summit in Riga institutionalised several joint European projects – notably, the Trans-European Transport Network , whose goal is to “strengthen social, economic and territorial cohesion in the EU” – for the first time; the 2018 summit in Sofia discussed a connectivity network running between such projects and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); and the 2019 summit in Dubrovnik introduced Greece as a member of the grouping, announcing that its members would “harmonise” and institutionalise what was now the 17+1 to the point at which it might cooperate with the World Bank. While Greece is not part of central and eastern Europe, the Chinese government views the country as the gateway to the Balkans – an untapped market it intends to invest in – and an important link in the BRI.
On the face of it, the format simply helps China implement the BRI and provides European countries with access to additional sources of investment. This can be seen in projects such as Serbia’s E763 Highway project; the Budapest-Belgrade railway; the China-Europe Land-Sea Express Line; a contract to build the first phase of the Peljesac Bridge and its access roads in Croatia; and Chinese companies’ acquisition of Huta Stalowa Wola civil engineering machinery division and KFLT Bearings Poland. Yet, despite Chinese assurances that the 17+1 is only a platform for investment, there are good reasons for concern about its political implications – particularly given the recent series of inconclusive votes on issues related to China in the Council of the EU. In 2016, after the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China on a territorial dispute with the Philippines in the South China […]