China’s president will meet leaders from central and eastern European countries early next month for a virtual summit that has been delayed for nearly a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The talks between President Xi Jinping and the leaders of 17 European countries are scheduled for February 9, according to Czech news agency CTK. Czech President Milos Zeman will join the videoconference from Poland, where he will be attending a Visegrad Four summit with the leaders of Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, CTK said on Thursday. The South China Morning Post reported earlier, citing diplomatic sources, that Beijing had proposed the talks be held in early February in a bid to show new momentum in its relationship with Europe. The “17+1” bloc – or the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC) – was launched in 2012. It aims to advance trade and investment between members but the European side has been increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of tangible progress and a growing trade deficit with China. Annual summits are hosted on a rotational basis – the last one was held in Dubrovnik in southern Croatia in April 2019. Last year’s was supposed to be held in Beijing in April – with Xi to host the summit in place of Premier Li Keqiang, who has co-chaired the talks since 2013 – but was postponed because of the coronavirus crisis. Chinese observers expect cooperation to fight the virus, post-pandemic economic recovery and climate change to be high on the agenda when the 18 leaders meet next month. One area highlighted in China-CEEC relations is the China-Europe Railway Express, which saw record high freight shipments passing through central and eastern Europe to western Europe last year – largely due to rising sea freight costs and surging demand for personal protection gear. “These [freight trains] are a proven success and have ensured a smooth supply chain during the pandemic,” said Wang Yiwei, an international relations expert with Renmin University in Beijing. He said the landmark Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) agreed between China and the 27-member European Union bloc at the end of December could also help boost Chinese investment in central and eastern Europe, particularly in the service industry. All but five of the European 17+1 countries are also EU members, raising concerns in major European Union economies, including France and Germany, that Beijing is seeking to undermine the solidarity of the bloc. “China will try to show that progress has been made and that the 17+1 platform is … complementary to the EU efforts to bridge development gaps in Europe,” Wang said. Shi Zhiqin, director of the China-EU relations programme at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy in Beijing, said China may also use the talks to offer reassurance to the smaller nations in the EU that their interests will be addressed by the CAI. “China hopes the CAI will be ratified by EU member states as soon as possible … [Beijing] is keen to push forward its relations both with the CEEC and the EU under this investment deal,” Shi said.