The cooperation between 16 Central and Eastern European (CEE) states and China that is better known as the “16+1” has evolved as a result of CEE and EU pressure, but also because of China’s changing political motivations. In this sense, the formula is rather dynamic. Among new features of the 16+1 are the processes of “EU-ization”, stronger bilateralism, loose institutionalization, and CEE attempts to make the format less China-centric.
Among other changes are China-led endeavors that suggest the possibility of enlarging the formula (e.g. Greece has recently joined the grouping at its summit in Dubrovnik), expand its flexibility, multiply lower-level formulas and areas of cooperation, and also use the 16+1 as a political tool for furthering China’s (but also the CEE’s) interests. Both China and the CEE have proven eager to upgrade or downgrade the relevance of the 16+1 due to their own particular interests at a particular moment.
Results of the 16+1 to date have been both positive and negative as seen from China and the CEE. It seems apparent that the 16+1 has led to more political and normative results than economic ones. Indeed, economic outcomes mostly involve a trade surplus for China, which means an expanding deficit on the CEE side, and relatively insignificant Chinese investments in the region, with a small exception for the non-EU CEE members.
When it comes to political and normative achievements, a positive outcome for China is the fact that the 16+1 was set up and functions relatively normally, including examples of CEE countries that might be described as China’s political friends (e.g. Serbia and Hungary). China has become a significant player in Europe thanks to this format. While this could be assessed as a positive outcome for CEE countries that have managed to strengthen their relations with China, it also raises concerns about China’s increasing assertiveness.
These concerns have given rise to doubts within the EU about this formula and the PRC’s role in CEE, but also a lack of willingness among CEE countries to institutionalize the 16+1 on the European side. Normative achievements that should be considered include political ‘slogans’ and initiatives that have been added to the 16+1 agenda. Among these are the Chinese-led Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) or connectivity, and the CEE-led Three Seas Initiative or Eastern Partnership.
Bearing in mind the rising global concerns about China, including increasing US-China rivalry in Europe but also the EU’s increasingly cautious approach to China and some 16+1 countries’ disappointment with this formula, especially, but not only, in the case of Poland, the PRC is unlikely to seek an augmented role for the 16+1. What China is and will likely be trying to do is to improve relations with the EU and placate Brussels in the midst of the disputes with the US.
In this sense, the profile of the 16+1 will likely be kept low so as to avoid inflaming concerns in Brussels and Western Europe. Greece’s recent accession to the formula might be promoted as the result of a Greek initiative, which essentially vindicates some degree of 16+1 relevance, and a consensus reached by all participants, but not as a Chinese attempt to divide Europe.
‚Seven Years of the 16+1: An Assessment of China’s ‘Multilateral Bilateralism’ in Central Europe‘ – Study by Justyna Szczudlik – Institut français des relations internationales / IFRI.