Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently attended the seventh Leaders' Meeting of China and Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) in Sofia, Bulgaria. Li reiterated that the 16+1 mechanism is an open and transparent platform, adding that China-CEEC cooperation has always followed international rules and EU regulations while Chinese enterprises are required to participate in bidding for European projects in accordance with market regulations and business rules.
The 16+1 cooperation has made remarkable progress since its first summit in Warsaw, Poland, in 2012. In 2017, China's import and export trade volume with the 16 countries was nearly $68 billion, growing 15.9 percent over the previous year. Currently, Chinese investment in the CEEC has reached nearly $10 billion while the group has invested more than $1.4 billion in China.
The China Railway Express, which offers a convenient rail link to Europe, also makes it easier for CEEC's exports to reach China, helping spur trade volume between China and Poland and other countries. In 2017, China's imports from CEE countries reached $18.5 billion, up 24 percent year-on-year. China and the CEEC also carried out industrial cooperation with the participation of the Czech aviation industry and the Bulgarian agricultural sector.
The 16 CEE countries have signed deals related to the China-led Belt and Road initiative (BRI). Although Beijing has always regarded the 16+1 mechanism as economic cooperation, Belgium and other EU members are skeptical of its intentions.
Together with Serbia, Hungary and Macedonia, China planned the China-Europe Land-Sea Express Route years ago to promote cooperation under the framework of the BRI, aiming to build a modern Hungary-Serbia railway and eventually link it with the Port of Piraeus in Greece. The railway not only shortens transportation time, but also promotes connectivity between the Balkans and the outside world.
However, the EU has put hurdles in the way of building the railway. Construction has been held up in Hungary because of an EU investigation. Brussels is worried that China has geopolitical intentions in promoting the 16+1 mechanism and that the China-CEEC cooperation will dent unity within the EU.
Eleven of the 16 CEE countries are EU members. They believe that Brussels has raised a bogey of political influence related to the organization. While it becomes increasingly harder for the "old Europe" to provide economic support to the CEE, countries in the region need to look east to enhance cooperation with China and India.
In fact, Beijing attaches great importance to the EU's concerns, supports its Juncker Plan and promotes it to connect with the BRI. Mechanisms such as China-EU Joint Investment Fund and China-EU Connectivity Platform have operated successfully. China proposed to bring the connectivity projects with the CEEC into the framework of the China-EU cooperation in infrastructure. The Hungary-Serbia railway is also a key project among the pan-European transport corridors.
Chinese companies invested in and set up wind farms and solar power plants in the CEEC, contributing to the EU's renewable energy target.
Besides, China took part in the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in January 2016, and the two sides decided to enhance cooperation in investment and financing in the CEEC market.
It is obvious that the 16+1 cooperation will by no means weaken the EU's influence. The cooperation will help promote economic development among its members, boost balanced development in Europe and thus foster the process of European integration.
China is working hard to combine its competitive industries with the CEEC's needs and key technologies of developed countries in Western Europe. China is not looking at keeping the CEEC market to its own, nor does it have any geopolitical motives.
It has been five years since the BRI was first raised. The year 2018 also marks the 15th anniversary of the China-EU comprehensive strategic partnership. The 16+1 cooperation can help China and Europe deepen ties and protect the global economic order based on rules.