17+1 is not merely 18 – CEEC-China summits are here to stayFebruary 9, 2021
Comment by Ivica Bakota
On February 9th, only a couple of days before China’s Lunar New Year, China held a year-long delayed summit with central and eastern (+ southern) European countries participating in the “17+1” cooperation mechanism. Previously set as a “floating” summit, every year taking place in a different participant country, a “new normal” bounded the 2021 summit to be hosted online via video link. For 17+1 summits already known to be followed by dried up official statements contrasted with loosely corroborated rumors and precipitated forecasts, a ‘real-place’ set-up invigorating the latter is missing even more. Few details of the summit agenda were known ahead of the summit, the meeting was virtually a video call lasting a few hours, not so extensively reported by the news agencies, leaving much to post-comments and op-eds in puzzling over the significance, timing and impact of the 2021 “video summit”.
According to media, government releases and some professional “standing China-watchers” in the region, the announcement of a new 17+1 summit in 2021 caught many local actors without much of prospective thoughts and plans, let alone prepared agenda. Some bilateral “success stories” (intensification of Sino-Serbian cooperation) aside, the whole Europe has been mostly preoccupied with COVID-19 incited supply chain strains including the recent vaccine delivery issues, there was not much opportunities to talk about the multilateral projects and cooperation under the 17+1 cooperation.
Each year, 18 countries sign a “guidelines for cooperation” document, outlining their commonly shared commitments for multilateral cooperation, usually involving major infrastructure projects, cultural exchange programs and adding some new coop areas. The last point of reference was a summit held two years ago in Croatia (Dubrovnik, April 2019), the eighth since the 17+1 platform was launched in 2012 and so far termed “successful” in attaching importance to a new cooperation issues and bringing in a new participant (Greece). However, not only COVID-19 happened since then. Some European countries have increasingly raised concerns about Beijing’s “debt trap” diplomacy and “divide and rule” tactics aiming to undermine the solidarity of the EU member-states, candidates and aspiring members. (All but five Western Balkans countries on the European side are also EU members). The EU thus far learned to distinguish China as a partner, a competitor and as a systemic rival, depending on the policy area in question, and is not very keen to describe Chinese cooperation with its 12 member-states as a clean-cut partnership. The question was thus how the 9-year long 17+1 summit tradition should be resumed, to what extent prepare the agenda and draft this year’s guidelines.
When announced by the end of December 2020, the summit was touted to accomplish three things. First, it was among the first multilateral opportunities to show China-Europe relations ‘resumed normalcy’ after twists and turns in 2020. 2020 was a gap year for many international cooperation events, the 17+1 was no exception. Although China had planned to organize the summit, according to some sources, scheduled for April 15, ongoing epidemic delayed the plans. Beijing tentatively proposed alternative summit dates in November and December, but they’ve never been confirmed. Some sources suggest, new dates were met with political resistance of Europeans and the summit had been postponed “indefinitely”. Second, the 2021 ‘video summit’ was said to ride on a new momentum in the China-EU relations brought up with signing of the CAI agreement (Comprehensive Agreement on Investment) in late December. China’s President Xi Jinping on virtual meeting with the EU leaders including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron made a landmark agreement on the market access and investment, which is, among others, believed also to help the EU to position itself as a power with more strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the United States. Legal, economic and geopolitical implications of the CAI agreement were pondered long after the December 30th, think thank wrap ups usually admitting its ‘momentous’ staging during the White House transition period. According to media, several European diplomats have pointed out this “revelation” under strict anonymity, as it was hard to predict such a motivation for scheduling the 17+1 Summit. Third – most intriguing, yet the least confirmed – reason is to pre-empt or simply come before any post-2020 and post-Trump trans-Atlantic reconciliation events, predicted to entail a high-level meeting between Biden and the EU leaders. It should not come as a surprise Chinese ubiquitous focus on the “US factors” in developing its own multilateral diplomacy. Bilateral and multilateral involvement of the US in the region of 17 (which literally has lost any other geo-political denominator) has been of a concern to Beijing especially after the launch of the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), campaign to sign “Clean Network initiative” targeting Huawei and containing other Chinese high-tech companies from “going global”.
With these predicaments ahead, it is hardly surprising that this year’s Summit did not meet many expectations. Some bilateral perspectives emphasized unfulfilled promises, projects pending realization, cooperation stagnating on MOU levels. The most vocal, somewhat expectedly, was Czech President Zeman openly criticizing China for failing to honor promises to invest more in his country. Estonia announced in January to opt for ‘coupling’ the mechanism to a more broad EU-China multilateral platforms, voicing some other disgruntled participants who likewise expected more ‘momentous’ investments in the last 9 years. Generally, aside from any particular or bilateral failed expectations, a certain nocebo effect on Chinese-sponsored multilateral frameworks is starting to take shape, complementing the initial enthusiasm for Chinese investments expected to shower all over the region. According to yet another undisclosed, “but closely related” source that appeared in the media, “the laggards [in cooperation with China] seem less convinced to ever come ahead”.
So, what did actually happen in the summit? A main novelty is China’s President Xi Jinping taking the chair, replacing familiar face of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in token of “upgrading” the importance of 17+1 cooperation. In his speech, Xi Jinping made a keynote statement saying the “17+1 is not merely 18”. The cooperation mechanism should continue to strive “upholding the principles of mutual respect, engaging in cooperation without political conditions, respecting equality among each participant regardless of its size.” Instead of stumbling issues in the present, the macro-perspective of the framework was praised. From its launch in 2012, 17+1 increased the trade volume between China and Central and Eastern Europe by 85%, tourist “exchanges” surged four-fold. The Pelješac bridge construction project in Croatia and Smederevo Hesteel factory in Serbia are singled out, among others, as successful examples of the cooperation under 17+1 mechanism. During the summit the speech made by Serbian President Vučić was noted as the one particularly praising the mechanism and cooperation his country has made with China so far. Going off the stage into the draft preparation rooms, a year-long cooperation gap seems more palpable. Some sources have claimed that the guidelines – a staple to every summit- might not see a daylight due to disagreements among some of CEE countries. Nevertheless, designing the current year a year of the “Green cooperation” and adding the fight against the COVID-19 epidemic as a new cooperation field was apparently met without resistance. Some comments pointed out the draft “rather looks like a list of upcoming events” instead of highlighting some important goals to be achieved. In sum, under current circumstances, with ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, US-EU relations awaiting confirmation of a ‘new normal’ partnership, CAI agreement still echoing all discussions on China-EU relations, organizing the 17+1 summit in order to confirm the commitment for the 17+1 cooperation seems a goal in itself.