A protester holds a placard depicting Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban as Mao Zedong during a protest on June 5 against a planned Fudan University campus in Budapest. Photo: Reuters
by Andreea Brînză
by Andreea Brînză

Where China went wrong in Central and Eastern Europe

  • Lithuania’s decision to opt out of the China-led 17+1 mechanism has laid bare participating countries’ frustrations
  • Apart from conducting relations bilaterally despite the existence of the platform, China has focused only on leaders in power, an approach that has backfired
China’s 17+1 mechanism with Central and Eastern European countries was always perceived as a Trojan horse inside the European Union, but it never became a game changer in Beijing’s foreign policy.

While the EU has seen it as a threat and overestimated its influence, for China, the 17+1 mechanism has been more of a forum that enables it to skip individual high-level visits to all 17 countries than a tool to gain power over the EU by creating a sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe.

Created in 2012 as a dialogue mechanism between China and 16 countries, the 17+1 grouping’s biggest achievement so far has been to evolve from an initial ministerial meeting to a presidential one and to add one member – Greece. But while China upgraded the 17+1 platform, in Europe, it has been downgraded with fewer countries interested in taking part in a zombie mechanism.
Lithuania’s decision to pull out of the 17+1 bloc for “ practical purposes” is just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, the 17+1 mechanism and China’s involvement in the region have been marked by frustration, disillusionment and mistakes. This has led to some Central and Eastern European countries leveraging their China relations to display loyalty to the EU or the US, or as a topic of criticism for opposition parties.
Lithuanian foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said the 17+1 mechanism was “divisive” from an EU perspective. Photo: EPA-EFE
As with many other Chinese initiatives, including the Belt and Road Initiative, the 17+1 mechanism is just a bilateral forum, with China acting as bandmaster. It never evolved into a multilateral platform in which all countries interact as equals and drive the agenda.

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Moreover, China built its relations with Central and Eastern European countries by only focusing on the leaders in power, not on each country as a whole. Thus, changes in leadership determined the change in those countries’ perception of China and the 17+1, which culminated in six countries sending only ministers to the latest summit attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China’s strongest relations in Central and Eastern Europe are with Hungary and Serbia, but these ties are driven by China’s robust relationship with their leaders Viktor Orban and Aleksandar Vucic. If they were to be replaced by opponents, as has happened elsewhere, relations with China would falter. This was the case in Romania and Greece.
The first direct freight train from China enters a railway station in Belgrade, Serbia, on October 24, 2019. Serbia’s ties to China have strengthened under President Aleksandar Vucic. Photo: Xinhua
In 2013, when Victor Ponta was prime minister, Romania-China relations reached their zenith, while during Alexis Tsipras’s tenure, Greece joined the then 16+1 mechanism. Once those leaders were replaced by opposition governments, their countries’ relations with China began to weaken.
While Romania took a 180-degree turn, taking many steps to distance itself from China, relations with Greece lost their momentum, with the country refusing to host the 17+1 summit in 2022, according to one expert, and adopting an increasingly cautious stance on China.
Meanwhile, China-US conflict has pushed some Central and Eastern European countries to choose sides, with leaders using their relations with China as a negotiating tool and to win influence. Lithuania’s decision to be “ out for practical purposes” from the 17+1 proved to be a smart political calculus that is now elevating the country’s position in the EU.
Then Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras (foreground) gives a speech aboard the Chinese frigate Changbaishan at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, on February 19, 2015. Tsipras said he believed Greece could be a significant commercial gateway for China into Europe. Photo: Reuters

Romania showed its loyalty to the EU and the US by banning Huawei, cancelling a Chinese company’s participation in the Cernavoda Nuclear Power Plant project and blocking companies from countries without a bilateral agreement with the EU from participating in public infrastructure tenders, thus keeping out Chinese companies.

Imposing such measures against China was tempting for a right-wing Romanian coalition that wants to contrast itself to the left-wing party which used to have closer relations with China.

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Even countries like Hungary aren’t spared from such political trends. Budapest’s recent decision to rename streets in a shot at Beijing and large public protests weren’t just about opposition to Fudan University, promoting human rights or targeting China in general, but also a political strategy aimed at Viktor Orban as China becomes tied to him. This does not bode well for China-Hungary relations in a post-Orban era.


Thousands march in Budapest against plan to build campus for China’s Fudan University

Thousands march in Budapest against plan to build campus for China’s Fudan University

This is why investing in one man isn’t the best tactic for China – a supposed master of long-term thinking and strategy – but a waste of energy and opportunities. The same goes for keeping the 17+1 as nothing more than a format for meetings, while conducting relations bilaterally.

China should start rethinking the 17+1 mechanism by letting go of its “Chinese characteristics” and transforming it into a multilateral mechanism in which Central and Eastern European countries take the driver’s seat. Beijing should also stop focusing all its attention on the powerful leader of the moment and start investing in building relations and providing real benefits to the region.

Apart from disillusionment over the lack of investment and promises that were not lived up to, which have started to define the 17+1 mechanism, another hurdle for China is its conflict with the US and its growing disagreements with the EU, which pressure or encourage countries to distance themselves from Beijing.
The 17+1 mechanism itself has a US-supported competitor, the Three Seas Initiative. If China doesn’t want to lose ground, it should follow the example of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which succeeded in becoming a functional international organisation, a model China could follow for the 17+1 or the Belt and Road Initiative.

Andreea Brînză is vice-president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP). Her research focuses on the geopolitics and geoeconomics of China and especially on the Belt and Road Initiative