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The 10th Anniversary of Cooperation Between China and Central and Eastern Europe: How to Continue to Maintain Steady Progress in the Future


On the 10th anniversary of the erstwhile 17+1 (now 14+1) cooperation mechanism between China and Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, scholars at Fudan University and invited experts on Europe examine the state of the mechanism and prospects for the future. The scholars argue that the cooperation mechanism has served China’s strategic interests; for example, one scholar argues it has usefully promoted the “friendly attitude of Hungary and other countries towards China.” However, many of the experts assert that CEE countries have experienced a “gap between their expectations and reality” for the mechanism, and as a result, China should consider boosting investment and trade with these countries in order to improve the value proposition for them going forward.

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This year marks the 10th anniversary of the establishment of the China-Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC) Cooperation Mechanism. Over the past 10 years, what irreplaceable role has this mechanism played in promoting relations between China and Central and Eastern European countries? How are things today? Looking into the future, how will the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism continue to be deepened and solidified and how can it continue to serve the overall development of China-CEEC relations and even China-EU relations? Focusing on the above issues, some members of the Fudan Europe Watch academic community (an academic community spontaneously formed by young scholars of European issues at Fudan University) and special guests conducted in-depth discussions on this issue and expressed their views as follows.


Brief introduction of the experts of the Fudan Europe Watch academic community (in no particular order):


Jian Junbo: Deputy Director and Associate Researcher of the Center for China-EU Relations, Fudan University


Ma Bin: Associate Researcher, Center for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Fudan University


Peng Chongzhou: Postdoctoral Fellow, School of International Relations and Public Affairs, Fudan University


Special guests: (in no particular order):


Gao Xiaochuan: Deputy Director and Associate Researcher, Center for Central and Eastern European Studies, East China Normal University


Song Lilei: Professor of School of Politics and International Relations, Tongji University, Deputy Director of Center for European Studies


Achievements and Challenges of China-CEEC in the Past 10 Years


Jian Junbo: The China-CEEC mechanism has developed and achieved fruitful results in the past 10 years, mainly as follows:


First, through deliberate strengthening of economic and trade ties, it has effectively promoted the development of economic and trade relations between China and the entire CEE region in multiple levels, fields, and forms. It is a model of a multilateral cooperation mechanism for equal development.


Second, through various high-level official communication channels, the political relationship between China and some small and medium-sized European countries has been effectively strengthened, and the development of comprehensive relations has been promoted through this, which has become a beneficial and irreplaceable supplement to the overall relationship between China and Europe.


Third, through the opening of various interconnection projects, countries in Central and Eastern Europe have been effectively absorbed into the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has promoted the integration of this region with core developed regions in Europe and has become an important platform for promoting the BRI.


Fourth, through the strengthening of bilateral economic and trade relations, the economic prosperity of Central and Eastern European countries has been promoted, and China’s economic opening to the outside world has also been promoted.


Fifth, it is beneficial to the mutual understanding between the people of China and the region as a whole and promotes the progress of education and S&T for both sides.


Sixth, and perhaps most importantly, it has enhanced the status and influence of the Central and Eastern European region in Europe and the international community, and it has also transformed the relationship between China and the region from a status of obscurity to being well-known and increasingly important.


However, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the development of the mechanism, in the context of the highly complex international situation, it has also encountered some challenges. First, it requires a particularly clear strategic line to guide development over the next decade. Second, the stability and sustainability of the mechanism must be strengthened. Third, the EU’s doubts about the existence of the mechanism need to be dispelled. Therefore, it is necessary to carry out appropriate reforms so that the mechanism can continue to play its due role.


Gao Xiaochuan: Against the backdrop of new changes in the relationship between major powers, China-CEEC cooperation has entered its tenth year. As a new paradigm of trans-regional multilateral cooperation, this mechanism has played a positive role in expanding multilateral diplomacy and practical cooperation between China and CEEC. At present, with the United States increasing its strategic reliance on Central and Eastern Europe and the European Union’s prominent geopolitical role, the internal and external environments of Central and Eastern Europe are becoming more complex. In the process of deepening China-CEEC cooperation, external contradictory and restrictive factors are becoming more and more prominent. Against this background, the question of how to strengthen the role of the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism is worthy of in-depth consideration.


Peng Chongzhou: The formal establishment of the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism in 2012 has made China a pivotal country in the CEEC region and provided a basic framework for China to develop relations with CEECs. At the same time, the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism has played a role in promoting the friendly attitude of Hungary and other countries towards China. Therefore, although Chinese officials have always emphasized that the cooperation mechanism is a mutually beneficial mechanism dedicated to the development of economic exchanges, its positive role in promoting political relations between China and CEECs cannot be ignored.


In recent years, there are two main sources of difficulties encountered by the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism. First of all, the main original intention of the CEECs when the mechanism was established was to attract Chinese investment to develop their own economies and reduce their dependence on Western European countries. However, the economic benefits brought by the cooperation mechanism are not yet significant. However, since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, the bilateral trade between China and CEECs has grown significantly against the trend. In 2021, it increased by 29.7%, reaching US$124.02 billion, accounting for 15% of the total bilateral trade between China and Europe. At the same time, however, due to the trade deficit with China, some countries face a certain gap between their expectations and reality.


Second, the rampant value diplomacy in Europe has also had a certain impact on the cooperation mechanism.


Song Lilei: Historically, the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism has strengthened China’s influence in the region and has strengthened China’s strategic relevance and integration of interests with small and medium-sized CEECs. At the same time, relying on this platform, China has clarified its position and attitude on issues such as global governance, the maintenance of trade liberalization, and regional economic integration. In terms of economics, it has also deepened the depression of China-EU cooperation, including policy preference for EU candidate countries such as southeastern Europe.


How will the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism continue to deepen and become more solid in the future?


Peng Chongzhou: The impact of value diplomacy cannot cover up the rapid development of economic and trade relations between China and Central and Eastern Europe in the past two years. Therefore, first of all, we must carefully study the factors that promote the substantial growth of economic and trade exchanges between China and Central and Eastern Europe, so as to provide guidance for the further development of economic and trade relations. Second, for the five Western Balkan countries and EU member states, different development paths should be sought. For the Western Balkan countries, since they have not joined the European Union and have an urgent need for infrastructure investment, further implementation of investment in infrastructure projects under the framework of China-CEEC cooperation is the focus of cooperation with these countries.


For the EU member states in the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism, the consistency of their internal regulations and standards with the EU means that traditional Chinese investment fields such as infrastructure are difficult to enter on a large scale. Therefore, as President Xi Jinping pointed out at the 2021 China-CEEC Summit, promoting China’s imports from these countries and developing balanced trade are the focus for next steps. In addition, people-to-people and cultural exchanges and cooperation in scientific research institutions, academic institutions, and enterprises should be further developed to offset the negative impact of value diplomacy.


Ma Bin: At present, the key to the development of the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism is to enhance its independence and openness, to be able to base itself on reality, to rely on the practical problems encountered in the development of relations between China and CEECs, and to allow it to play its own unique role. The key is to move from the virtual to the real and to establish a mechanism within the framework of the cooperation mechanism that can play the role of guidance, coordination, and consultation which can then be used as a platform to carry out daily work and serve the development of relations between China and CEECs.


Considering the changes in China-EU relations, the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism must be adjusted in at least the following three aspects to adapt to changes in the environment. The first is to strengthen problem orientation, solidify the mechanism, prevent waste of resources, and focus on solving practical obstacles or difficulties in the development of relations between China and CEECs. The second is to serve China-Europe relations, that is, the development of relations between China and CEECs must obey and serve the healthy growth of the relationship between China and Europe such that this cooperation mechanism can become a useful supplement to the development of China-EU relations. Both China and CEECs should handle issues as responsible members of the international community and beware of political manipulation affecting the development of bilateral relations. The third is to adjust responses to multiple issues, that is, to recognize that different issues such as in politics, economics, society, security, and strategy are mutually reinforcing but they cannot replace one another. As such, we must avoid the one-sided thinking of “place the economy first.”


Song Lilei: As the United States and other external forces continue to intervene in Central and Eastern Europe, China should subdivide the cooperation between China and Central and Eastern Europe, pay attention to communication and coordination with the European Union, and actively communicate and negotiate with regional organizations such as the cooperation process in Southeast Europe and the Three Seas Initiative (Editor’s Note: The “Three Seas Initiative” refers to the Baltic Sea, Adriatic Sea, and Black Sea Initiative. Proposed by Croatia and Poland in 2015, the initiative aims at strengthening trade, infrastructure, energy, and political cooperation among countries in the region. Members include 12 Central and Eastern European countries including Poland, Croatia, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary).


In addition, we must pay more attention to deeper cooperation and rely on local cooperation. Zhejiang is an example of local cooperation and has become the vanguard of local cooperation between China and CEECs. In addition, people-to-people exchanges with CEECs should continue to be promoted, especially with continuous cooperation in cultural and educational exchanges. In particular, educational cooperation and exchanges have been fruitful, and it is the most direct way to promote mutual understanding between Chinese and Central and Eastern European peoples.


Gao Xiaochuan: China should continue to regard China-CEEC cooperation as a positive practice in promoting China’s new type of major-country diplomacy. Seizing the development opportunities in the post-pandemic period, China should combine the economic development strategies of most Central and Eastern European countries with a deepening of multilateral and bilateral practical cooperation to enhance endogenous driving forces for the development of relations with CEECs. This can give full play to the innovative and constructive role of the cooperation mechanism and provide a good example for major countries to carry out equal and friendly exchanges with small and medium-sized countries.


The path of deepening cooperation should adopt different methods according to the actual situations in different countries and should make full use of the new opportunities brought about by the new industrial policies of China and Europe in the post-pandemic period and the economic development strategies of CEECs to deepen practical cooperation. At the same time, China should consider taking more active measures to address the priority concerns of CEECs under the cooperation mechanism, enhance the strategic integration between China and CEECs in high value-added production chains, and strengthen the material basis for the stable development of China’s relations with them so as to clear bottlenecks between China and some CEECs. China should vigorously publicize the concepts behind the Belt and Road Initiative and China-CEEC cooperation for mutual benefit and coordinated development, continuously expand the international influence of China-CEEC cooperation under the framework of China-EU relations. China must establish more examples of cooperation with Hungary, Serbia, and Greece in CEECs and respond to the “Security Threat Theory” and “Exit Theory” in some countries with more fruitful cooperation results.


Jian Junbo: The trend of the times, the international situation, and the domestic situations of both sides are undergoing profound changes. The China-CEEC cooperation mechanism can be deepened and implemented on the basis of appropriate reforms.


First, the mechanism has played a huge role in the past decade, and it should continue to exist and play a greater role in the next ten years. Without the cooperation mechanism between China and Central and Eastern Europe, the economic and trade ties between China and CEECs, and even between China and many European countries, will lose momentum and opportunities for cooperation due to the loss of cooperation platforms, which will impact the current close China-CEEC cooperation. It is not in the interest of both parties, nor is it in the interest of the EU.


Second, the mechanism should be allowed to play a greater role in promoting mutual benefit and win-win results. Cooperation should continue to be based on a highly pragmatic basis in order to achieve the continuity of cooperation, which means that the two sides cooperate to meet the common interests of China and CEECs as the goal, care about one another, and strive to realize the interests of one another. Both sides should try to make cooperation meet the local or EU (China) laws and norms, make the cooperation conform to international standards, and even lead the cooperation trend of international standards. Both sides must cooperate to try to abandon any impractical or domestic or internationally controversial projects and must accept third-party economic participation when appropriate. In addition, to a certain extent, China should appropriately expand and equalize investment in CEECs, strengthen investment relations; and effectively increase the enthusiasm of more enterprises, groups, and local governments to participate in institutional cooperation projects.


Third, we should consider the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism within the framework of China-EU relations and the development of pluralist mechanisms in the CEEC region. In order to make this mechanism better promote and strengthen China-EU relations, the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism can be moderately opened to the EU so that it can fully participate in mechanism cooperation projects and achieve mutual benefit and win-win results among the three parties. In addition, for both parties, the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism is a platform for developing relations with one another, but it is not the only tool for developing bilateral relations. To this end, China should actively develop practical cooperative relations with CEECs bilaterally and through other multilateral mechanisms (such as the Three Seas Initiative) while actively utilizing the China-CEEC mechanism. In the next ten years, the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism will definitely develop better than today on the basis of openness, inclusiveness, and sustainability.


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复旦欧洲观察 (Fudan Europe Watch). "The 10th Anniversary of Cooperation Between China and Central and Eastern Europe: How to Continue to Maintain Steady Progress in the Future [中国与中东欧合作十周年:未来如何持续行稳致远]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in The Paper [澎湃], July 2, 2022

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