Sat, Oct 27, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Eastern Europe growing disenchanted with China’s promises

By Alan Crawford and Peter Martin  /  Bloomberg

There is an implied risk that Chinese investment assumes political favors in return, the official added.

Li was due in Brussels along with about 50 fellow leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who leads the largest European nation in the 16+1.

However, Morawiecki skipped this year’s 16+1 summit in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and sent his deputy instead.

Among the eastern framework’s members, Poland has been key in leading skepticism, two of the people familiar with the deliberations said.

Hungary under EU-baiting Prime Minister Viktor Orban remains doggedly stuck to China, the people said.

“There was a mismatch of expectations,” said Piotr Buras, head of the Warsaw bureau of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Poland wanted Chinese direct investment and involvement in greenfield projects, whereas the Chinese were more interested in public contracts for infrastructure, preferential terms and purchases of high-tech companies.

He also cited a conflict among some eastern Europeans at being seen to choose China as a strategic partner over the US.

Poland “has chosen the US and it’s tough for them to go into bed with both,” Buras said.

Inefficiency and needless state interference are among other complaints expressed by forum members. The central bureaucracy means it is often easier to deal directly with Chinese provincial governments than with Beijing, one official from an eastern EU government said.

“It’s like stories my grandfather told me about milk production” in communist times, the official said, asking not to be named discussing the forum since it remains politically sensitive.

The upshot is a lot of effort with little to show for it, the official said.

China still feels that former Soviet bloc countries in eastern Europe are closer to them, but those diplomatic ties often do not translate to today, an official from another European government said.

For all the disappointment, the 16+1 is unlikely to be scrapped, the official said.

Countries still see value in the guarantee of an annual audience with the Chinese premier and find that the 16+1 raises their profile in China’s investment-rich provinces.

That is an especially important benefit for the forum’s smallest nations, the official said.

“This is not about dividing Europe,” Renmin University professor of international affairs Wang Yiwei (王義桅) said. “Eastern and central European countries are second-class citizens in Europe even if they join the European Union — now they are looking east.”

A former Chinese diplomat in Brussels, Wang said that some of the forum’s members are concerned the Belt and Road Initiative might “dilute” the project, but that the 16+1 remains a promising model.

“Problems and difficulties are very natural,” he said.

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