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New Publication: Empty Shell No More: China’s Growing Footprint in Central and Eastern Europe

The result of the first collaborative research project of scholars from the CHOICE network is now out.

The new CHOICE (China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe) audit reveals that the People’s Republic of China has been increasingly active in political, economic and societal domains in the countries gathered in China-led 17+1 platform. The 17+1 initiative, founded in 2012, has been labeled by some as an ‘empty shell’ with the assertion that cooperation between Central and Eastern Europe with China lacks substance. However, it is only when the whole picture is analyzed that the progress and direction of the 17+1 platform becomes evident. Contrary to what has been often assumed, the 17+1 cooperation is loaded with action. While results in the economic domain are falling behind expectations, political and societal ties have seen a huge uptick, resulting in a dramatic rise of China’s presence in the region.

Ten experts from Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia, and Romania covered the most important developments in the fields of political, economic and people-to-people areas of cooperation, identifying the underlying trends. Based on a thorough analysis, the publication offers a set of realistic and achievable suggestions for a joint action plan for the CEE countries within an ACT strategy, the goal of which is to offset the imbalance in the relationship with China. The publication argues that the CEE countries should ‘hijack’ the platform, using it as a tool to promote their interests vis-a-vis Beijing, rather than passively accepting its agenda.

The publication seeks to inform the debate undergoing in the EU regarding its relations with China. The tide is turning in EU-China relations. In March 2019, the joint communication of the European Commission and the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy called for a more balanced and reciprocal relationship with China. The EU, long seen woefully unprepared to deal with the complex challenges of China’s rise, seems to have started to stand up to the task. The new “geopolitical Commission” led by Ursula Van der Leyen has the unwelcome task to give substance to the more self-confident EU policy towards the ‘systemic rival’. China’s continuing outreach towards the Central and Eastern European countries nurtures suspicion of Beijing’s design to divide and rule in relation to the EU. At the same time, new issues – e.g. how to deal with the 5G technology- create new dividing lines among EU member states. While the positions towards China are not only dictated by the internal East-West divide, a truly common EU policy on China remains a distant goal.