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16+1: China’s Calculated Approach to Europe

16+1: China’s Calculated Approach to Europe

Cover Image Source: Jeffrey Piraeus, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jb912/22867579686/in/photolist-AQJjKh-dubVCP-qLHfaf-jnt5Qa-nHR1K5-fkjsj2-8jSbdj-8jSb9u-6AUtsk-NtEWNQ-e8Mj6T-TBLyKP-8jNZ9t-7i4663-nvkwkk-6AFNCd-22rAQQW-ot2orC-7FeSk4-V5JjFa-sxRDsi-BMHLjQ-nCDLHQ-oi4YxJ-hjnQ3b-249rk9u-gRJP7w-eKiNN4-7FeRNZ-5DeAZp-qa8uSQ-28YSTQm-cne4co-pS38MJ-iKSrQE-26rPjQH-49yjqZ-MPrH9M-q6Z5Mq-7kDiQ9-V2fz4y-5CHr9Y-23TR2mB-dz1Zdv-f32TnB-jutUQN-nQsBRA-23nxevy-VSKx6D-nomryG

In 2012, China created the 16+1 cooperation format with 16 central and eastern European countries including 11 EU member states, to engage in regional cooperation primarily in economic and trade-related areas. While China is no stranger to regional economic initiatives, central to the ASEAN+1 block and the founding member of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, the 16+1 format marks a significant step to engage exclusively with European states. Significantly, it also provides a means for China to do business with Europe on its own terms without dealing directly with many of the cumbersome mechanisms of the European Union. Indeed, it has thus far proved to be highly successful in facilitating economic cooperation in the region. China has pledged billions in infrastructural investment to member countries and at the 2018 16+1 summit in Sofia, it even organised a special economic forum, with over 250 Chinese firms and 700 European business executives participating.  

China’s clear economic interest in the region builds on a history of infrastructural investments including the 2016 acquisition of a majority stake Greece’s Piraeus port by Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO. With Greece highly likely to join the 16+1 format in the near future, the 16+1 initiative seems poised to consolidate China’s status as a major player in the European economy. On the grand scale, it helps provide geostrategic access to major Western markets and trade routes. At a more localised level, however, it also encourages trade with smaller, less developed European economies with potential for sizeable growth in the years to come. The rationale behind this cooperation seems, on the surface, largely economic - an extension of China’s long-standing desire to promote win-win investment across the world. But the 16+1 format also had important political ramifications, not least for the most important international organisation in the region: the European Union.

The EU traditionally relies on consensus from its member states, finding strength in speaking with ‘one voice’on the international stage. This unified voice has proved to be particularly loud in advocating for human rights. In its 2015 Action Plan, the EU renewed and strengthened this advocacy, vowing to meet global human rights challenges through focused action, coordinated use of policy instruments and enhanced projects working ‘on the ground’. However, by engaging with EU states bilaterally and offering vast investment and economic opportunity, China seems to be compromising the EU’s ability to act and organise itself as a cohesive political unit with a unified stance on international human rights. In March 2017 for instance, Hungary, a member of the 16+1 format, refused to sign an EU joint letter condemning the reported torture of detained lawyers in China. Just months later, Greece similarly blocked an EU statement at the United Nations on China’s human rights record, resulting in the first EU failure to make its statement at the UN Human Rights Council. These internal acts of defiance at first may appear to be minor setbacks for the EU by small, rebellious member states. On closer inspection, however, they shed light on profound developments that pose a significant challenge to the EU’s governing apparatus. First, they highlight the severe limitations of the EU’s consensus-based decision making which can do little in the face of any divergence of opinion or foreign policy stances of its member states. Second, they are also testament to China’s success in winning new friends in Europe, friends who are willing to stoke the anger of Brussels for the approval of Beijing.

While China is undoubtedly using its economic influence for political leverage in Europe, the sudden willingness of EU member states to favour positive relations with China above the EU’s human rights efforts reflects more than just China’s growing power. Indeed, there is a strong argument that these developments are rooted in pre-existing political tensions within the EU itself. It is notable, for instance, that both Hungary and Greece have experienced considerable disputes with the EU’s centralised governance. Regarding Greece, the EU’s harsh austerity measures and handling of the migrant crisis have seen the country transformed from the most pro-European country in Europe to the most Eurosceptic. Similar sentiments exist in Hungary too where immigration issues and the rise of right-wing populism have eroded trust in the EU and its institutions. This pre-existing Euroscepticism, bolstered by immigration and economic hardship, provides the perfect political context of an ideologically divided EU in which member states may prioritize positive relations with major external partners such as China, without much thought or loyalty towards the unity, influence and outward effectiveness of EU policy stances.

The 16+1 initiative and its potential for growth in Europe mark a profound challenge for the EU, shedding light on the shortcomings of its internal decision-making apparatus and compromising its ability to act as a cohesive political bloc. For both China and European member countries, however, the opportunities that arise from this arrangement are both clear and profound. As China uses its economic position to forge new friendships that help shield it from international criticism, EU states can demonstrate their sovereignty in a union that many are coming to question. This, in addition to the vast amounts of investment and associated benefits China offers, is an attractive proposition for European states: an increase in both economic and political capital with few short-term risks. The implications of this relationship therefore have the potential to fundamentally transform not only China’s role in Europe but also the EU’s own standing with its member states and the world.  

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