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Resilience and inertia of small countries: Southeast Europe and China–CEE (16+1) framework in (post)-COVID period

July 1, 2021

Comment by Ivica Bakota

The current year-long hibernation period of the 16+1 cooperation mechanism caused by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is increasingly proving to be decisive for future dynamic of China-sponsored foreign policy initiatives and Chinese involvement in the CEE region. Apart from numerous delayed projects and cooperation plans left ashore, apparent China strategy of the Biden administration urged some CEE members to express serious doubts in viability of the present cooperation framework, some even to decline further participation. Washington’s open claim to curb Beijing’s encroaching political and economic clout over the CEE was received differently across the EU’s “Eastern flank”, countries varied between the blanc support, worrisome attempt to balance between the two superpowers and – mostly – staying low before Washington develops commitment-demanding multilateral approach to counter Beijing’s influence increasingly perceived in geopolitical terms. EU is also catching up, in July 2021 announcing GCE initiative aiming at providing alternative to Chinese BRI (Belt and Road Initiative). It is increasingly certain that for the first time since the launch of the 16+1 (or 17+1 as it was known from 2018), Chinese foreign policy initiatives in the region are going to be faced with adversary and conflicting, instead of merely con-current multilateral frameworks and blocks. As a result of these underwater shifts within the framework, generic name “China-Central East Europe cooperation mechanism” is refashioned again, discouraging the usage of namesakes that require counting (adding or losing) the number of actual participants. A couple months ago, the main question for the future of the China-CEE cooperation mechanism was: can the framework, with certain alterations, simply pick up from pre-COVID period? The last “online” China-CEE Summit in February this year still reflected only concerns with resuming the previous track of cooperation. Today, however, these limited concerns seem as distant as pre-COVID situation, urging Beijing to respond possibly game-changing situation that is rolling out in the region and reshaping fundamentally its multilateral framework with CEE.

Southeast European countries that include six former Yugoslav countries (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia), Albania and Bulgaria (conditionally Greece after 2018) as a cluster of the EU and non-EU members is geopolitically the most volatile region among CEE members and could serve as an indicator to changes that happened in the last year and half. These countries are also pertinent case study as they entailed very different experiences in bilateral relations with China and participation in the 17 + 1 cooperation mechanism. The 2018 Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) report on basic attitude of 17 countries towards China-CEEC cooperation lists Southeast European countries in all three brackets, having a fair share of “active supporters”, “aspiring participants” and “cooperation laggards”. Compared with other CEE regions and blocks, Southeast European countries yield relatively smaller comprehensive and international power, their dependence on the West, the European “core member states” by far exceeds any other European region. However, their (largely demonstrative) ability to “balance between the East and West” in a bilateral or multilateral frameworks still rose some concerns mostly related to the regional stability and the “domino effect” for the rest of Europe. By borrowing a new institutionalist term, it is still safe to say that the main (and probably the only unifying) feature in Southeast European region’s relations with China is “uncontested asymmetry”, which can be simply put as, on the one hand, inability or just demonstrative ability of the most “active supporters” within the 16+1 framework to balance between China and Europe, but more importantly, on the other, resilience or inertia of its “cooperation laggards” to leave China-based framework.

While Washington seeks to “consolidate the West” against influences arriving from Russia and China, it seems that a chance for Southeast European countries to contest underlying asymmetry in their relations with China comes to fore. This line of thought has been trialed in the media for a while, although the political circles of these countries are still shy to suggest any game-changing official attitude towards China and its FP initiatives. The “Abazovic’s testimony” (see the previous report: “Highway to debt: Re-balkanization of Montenegro’s fate”) in March brought to the limelight a swinging character of Southeast European countries, which augmented with traditional concerns on its geopolitical permeability was rendered as a “litmus test” for the success of collective pressure against systemic challenges posed by China in the rest of Europe. Chinese influence started to be slowly securitized with a new smearing rhetoric in the media, even to stir (domestic) political cleavages.

It became more affront during the last year of the Trump’s term, when Washington gained stronger foothold in the local business community, academia and media in order to curb China’s ‘malicious’ influence, virtually ending the initial period of geo-political bonanza enjoyed by China in building regional cooperation framework. The “White House Agreement” between Serbia and Kosovo from September 2020, inserted “5G clause” aimed to antagonize domestic China admirers more than to disturb Sino-Serbian cooperation, but it also proved inability of an “active supporter” to balance back its neutral position between China and the US. The Biden administration did not withdraw, but enhanced this diplomatic offensive. The (US) Development Finance Corporation (DFC) continues to “dock” the business community in Serbia, Greece and other countries seen as “active supporters” of the China-based cooperation frameworks. It should not be strange, according to the opinion of local analysts, to see the US companies focusing on the investment projects with these two countries, both receiving the big share of investment from China also situated along BRI`s flagship Budapest-Thessaloniki railway modernization project. Recent 3SI Summit (The Three Seas Initiative) held in Sofia in July 2021 is seen as Washington’s reemphasized commitment for regional cooperation, but now more openly in deterring Chinese concurrent initiative(s). According to sources from local media, this offensive is more visible behind the scenes, involving large-scale public procurement and investment projects (port concessions, highway building, etc.).

In parallel, the EU’s concerns against Chinese activities in its "backyard" have stirred some controversies, raising some local critiques that the vague definition of “two-sided” relations with China from the 2019 EU Commission policy paper, actually exacerbates differences among Europe’s core and periphery, where is implied that “northwest Europe can cooperate with China, but southeast Europe should regard China as its ‘strategic competitor’”. This attitude is particularly felt among the EU candidate countries in the Southeast European region, especially after the EU’s enlargement policy has made little progress in the past year. However, European normative power remains strong, regardless of foreign policy drifts of the local political elites, distancing or diverging from the common foreign and security policy (CFSP) in regards to China issues is becoming more directly linked with authoritarian tendencies of the local political leaders than result of a simple balancing in pursuing national interests.

The Deputy Prime Minister of Montenegro “complaining” to the Foreign Policy Committee of the European Parliament about China’s “malicious” influence after this country failed to find a solution with the Chinese creditors regarding the loan for highway project in March this year seems to be the first case of the open “demand-side” politicization of “China influence” in the region. The Southeast European litmus test seems to be gaining foothold, although likelihood of other Southeast European countries to follow the lead or change the attitude towards China and its foreign policy initiatives is still far from certain. There are at least three reasons that still seem to defy “litmus logic” right now.

First, Southeast European region and China have a good track of “traditionally” stable and uncontroversial relations. Southeast European countries have no open bilateral issues with China nor have undermined the important principles in dealing with China (One China policy, peaceful coexistence and non-interference). After the Yugoslav wars and democratic transition in the 1990s, China adopted a neutral attitude towards the emerging and transforming Southeast European countries, respecting their sovereignty and voice in the international community as the basis for building comprehensive bilateral relations. Moreover, Southeast European region (with exception of Greece) is the only “double Beijing” area in Europe (countries that have no official - economic or political - attachments with Taiwan), demonstrating their inability, but also inertia to balance. As a rather cumulative effect, big power tensions involving China like the current China-US tension generally do not penetrate into domestic political arena, China policy have little impact in wedging domestic cleavages, and public opinion and media are not much reflective on China related issues. Therefore, as it can be seen from the recent Montenegro’s debt controversy, most of issue-related articles critical of China were “outsourced”, creating limited echo chambers between a numerous foreign opinion-makers and a few local fact-checking experts.

Second, constrained with bilateral and multilateral asymmetry, Southeast European countries generally avoid taking a stance on sensitive issues related to China in the international multilateral frameworks and are generally willing to be on the margin or periphery of China-EU bilateral relations. Within Europe, these countries are generally expected to be in line with China policy, rather than allowed to impact common China policy with free-riding opportunism or some self-centered foreign political moves. They either “pass a buck” whenever possible or “bandwagon” whenever necessary. Some, like Montenegro, can temporarily attain “quasi-core” status by giving in to either side in expectation of some immediate return. However, maintaining the “quasi-core” status requires sustainable source of reciprocal benefits, which are rarely as such, especially when a country has no direct interest or is not pressured domestically to maintain a stance on some China related issue. Therefore, Southeast European countries are not only ascribed to, but prefer to stay in periphery of EU-China relations. Periphery not only refers the geographical location, the comprehensive strength within the EU, or the (in)ability to balance between China and EU, but exactly what uncontested asymmetry also implies for a “laggard” participant, resilience to give up or diminish exactly this little say a country has in Chinese multilateral framework over some sensitive issue in Sino-European relations.

Finally, from a bilateral perspective, each country participates in Chinese foreign initiatives according to its own vision and prospects of bilateral relations with China. The cost of participating in this not much demanding multilateral platform is still lower than the opportunity to strengthen cooperation with China. “Active supporters” and “cooperation laggards” both have ability to advance or downgrade their position within Chinese multilateral mechanism at expense usually perceived not bigger than potential gain. This is also the reason why “cooperation laggards” prefer rather not to leave usually the only China headed multilateral platform they attend. It is easy to change country’s “would rather stay” position into “would rather leave”, but in fact, the price the “core” countries paid for this swing is often much higher than expected, far more “expensive” than pressuring active supporters to roll back the scale of China-bound cooperation. It is early to predict anything conclusive for the future dynamics of China-CEE cooperation mechanism, but it seems that changes in this regard would occur only when the “consolidated West” begin to attach importance to the “laggards” within the Chinese framework, rather than focusing on active supporters.

Resilience and inertia of small countries: Southeast Europe and China–CEE (16+1) framework in (post)-COVID period
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