The Unexpected Consequences of China’s Cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe

Published date01 January 2020
Date01 January 2020
Subject MatterResearch Articles
The Unexpected
of China’s Cooperation
with Central and
Eastern Europe
Emilian Kavalski1
The Central and East European (CEE) region is often overlooked in the conver-
sations on contemporary geopolitics. Yet, owing to China’s growing relations in
the CEE countries, the region has been subject to increasing international atten-
tion. By process tracing the development of the ‘17 + 1’ mechanism, this article
offers a brief overview of Sino-CEE relations. Situated within the broader Belt
and Road Initiative (BRI), the ‘17 + 1’ has provided a unique regional arrange-
ment for extending Chinese influence in the CEE countries. This article explores
whether there is something else than the instrumental economic reasoning for
the willingness of CEE countries to partner with China. The analysis detects
three distinct (and not always complementary) strategic narratives, motivating
the participation of CEE states in the ‘17 + 1’ mechanism. The study concludes
with an enquiry on China’s preparedness to respond to such identity geopolitics
not only in the CEE region but also throughout the vast expanse covered by the
BRI initiative.
Belt and Road Initiative, China-EU relations, China-CEE cooperation, ‘17 + 1’
mechanism, strategic narratives
Research Article
1 China-Eurasia Relations and International Studies, Global Institute for Silk Roads Studies, School of
International Studies, University of Nottingham Ningbo, Ningbo, China.
Corresponding author:
Emilian Kavalski, Li Dak Sum Chair Professor in China-Eurasia Relations and International Studies,
Director of the Global Institute for Silk Roads Studies, School of International Studies, University of
Nottingham Ningbo, Ningbo, Zhejiang 315100, China.
International Studies
57(1) 1–19, 2020
2019 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0020881719880739
2 International Studies 57(1)
The year 2019 did not begin auspiciously for China’s relations with the coun-
tries of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Poland and Czechia, two of Beijing’s
erstwhile regional partners in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), indicated their
intention to exclude the Chinese telecommunications company, Huawei, from
their respective 5G networks. In January 2019, Poland arrested Huawei’s coun-
try director on allegations of espionage (Kavalski, 2018c). At the same time, the
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš ordered a ban on the use of Huawei and
ZTE devices by government officials after accusing the Chinese Ambassador to
the country, Zhang Jianmin, of wilful deception. According to Babiš,
Ambassador Zhang made a false statement that Czechia will be reconsidering
its ban on Huawei’s participation in the country’s 5G network (Elmar, 2018). As
expected, the Chinese reactions were swift and firm, accusing the two countries
of ‘obeying Washington’s command’ and becoming ‘accomplices’ in a Western
‘bullying of Chinese enterprises’ (Global Times, 2019). And, indeed, it would
be easy to interpret the Polish and Czech positions only in the context of a
global struggle for power between the USA and China. Yet, while still part of
the explanation, such an assessment overlooks several factors that have played
an important part in both Warsaw’s and Prague’s willingness to seek confronta-
tion with Beijing.
Positioned as two of the poster children of China’s relations with CEE coun-
tries, Poland and Czechia have copped significant criticism from the European
Union (EU) and the USA for their bonhomie with Beijing. Previously in July
2018, Johannes Hahn, the European Commissioner for the European
Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, accused CEE countries of
becoming ‘Trojan horses’ for China—that is, countries with split loyalties and
undermining the European integration process (Heath & Gray, 2018). Likewise,
in October 2018, Wess Mitchell, the US Assistant Secretary of State, said that
China has ‘snuck up on us’ in the CEE region. As Mitchell insisted, ‘our allies in
Central Europe must not be under any illusions that [China] is their friend’, but
that through its ‘predatory “debt-mongering”’, it seeks to undermine the ‘unity of
the Western alliance’ (Wemer, 2018). What both Hahn and Mitchell were referring
to is the development of the so-called ‘17 + 1’ mechanism tasked with the projec-
tion of the BRI in CEE countries. In this setting, Beijing has been promising the
CEE countries more investments and deepening cooperation, while offering
numerous opportunities for high-level meetings and photo ops. However, more
than 5 years after the ‘17 + 1’ was launched, apart from the EU and the US criti-
cism, most of the CEE countries have little else to show as a tangible outcome of
their relations with China. This does not mean that Chinese trade and investments
in CEE countries have not increased, on the contrary—they have. However, their
level has not matched the volume of the Chinese rhetoric. The EU remains the
main trade and investment partner for all the countries of the CEE region. In this
setting, several of the CEE participants in the ‘17 + 1’ are growing frustrated with
China, and, in some instances (as the cases of Poland and Czechia might indicate),
they appear willing to cut their losses before it is too late.

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