China says 16+1 summits are good for EU

Foreign Minister of China Wang Yi speaks during his press conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, 15 October 2015. [Vassil Donev/EPA/EFE]

Annual summits between China and central and eastern European countries are beneficial to the European Union as a whole, the Chinese government told Bulgaria’s foreign minister, brushing off concerns that Beijing is seeking to divide the continent.

China has courted central and eastern European states, including annual summits in the 16+1 format, which has unnerved Western European capitals who fear China wants to sow divisions in the bloc.

The 16+1 format was conceived after the first China–Central and Eastern European Countries Economic and Trade Forum, which was held in Budapest in 2011.

The countries included are China, 11 EU members: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and five EU hopefuls: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. (Kosovo is missing, as a result of Serbia’s intransigence over the status of its former province.)

China strengthens grip on Central Europe and Balkans at Budapest summit

A 16+1 summit of the Central and Eastern European Countries and China took place yesterday (27 November) in Budapest, hosted by the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán. His Bulgarian colleague Boyko Borissov announced that next years’ summit will take place in Sofia.

Reuters reported in March that China was considering paring back the summits, though China has said preparatory talks for this year’s summit in Bulgaria are continuing.

Meeting Bulgaria’s deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs Ekaterina Zaharieva in Argentina, Chinese State Councillor Wang Yi said the “16+1” platform had had a positive effect on economic development, referring to China’s cooperation mechanism with those countries.

“The 16+1 cooperation and China-EU cooperation are not mutually exclusive,” China’s Foreign Ministry cited Wang as telling Zaharieva on Tuesday. “Objectively, it helps with the European integration process.”

China believes that this year’s summit will achieve new results and further promote mutually beneficial cooperation between China and central and eastern Europe, Wang added, according to the statement issued on Wednesday.

Zaharieva told Wang that Bulgaria will “enthusiastically welcome” Chinese leaders to the summit and that they are busy making preparations for it, according to China’s foreign ministry.

Cooperation between China and central and eastern Europe does not affect China’s broader cooperation with the EU, she added.

Bulgaria also supports China’s Belt and Road initiative and wants to promote more infrastructure projects under its framework, Zaharieva said, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s grand plan to build a new Silk Road.

In 2016, the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), a Chinese state-owned enterprise, acquired the majority stake in the Piraeus Port Authority. The Chinese government considers Greece’s’ Piraeus port as the main entry point for Chinese exports into the southern, eastern and central EU, as well as the key hub for maritime transportation across and around the Mediterranean Sea.

‘Chinese Balkan corridor’ pits EU north against south

The Western Balkans have become China’s preferred access point to the EU, and a corridor to Europe’s north from the Greek port of Piraeus is being financed by Beijing. But Brussels fears EU rules will not be respected, while in northern countries, big ports resent the competition.

Since then, the Chinese government obtained the key to influence the trade routes between China and the EU. The main corridor is Piraeus, but also the Chinese-funded upgrade of the Belgrade-Budapest railway.

Diplomats said that Chinese involvement in the Western Balkans was “provoking second thoughts in northern Europe and especially in Brussels”.

Big ports of the north like Rotterdam and Hamburg could end up losing a lot of trade volume, because of these new projects in the south.

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