Relations between China and CEE Countries: Development, Challenges and Recommendations

China International Studies | 作者: Long Jing | 时间: 2014-11-21 | 责编: Li Minjie
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Long Jing[1]


      In China’s diplomacy, the term “Central and Eastern European countries” (CEE countries) refers to a geographic area. It also contains multi-dimensional political concepts of ideology and geopolitics. During the Cold-War era, CEE countries included all socialist countries in Europe other than the Soviet Union. By the time when the Soviet Union collapsed and great political changes took place in CEE countries, the term “CEE countries” gradually resumed its original geographic connotation. As China and CEE countries established their cooperation mechanism, the vague concept of CEE countries has become clearly defined: CEE countries include all 16 countries covering the region east of Germany and Austria, north of Greece, south of the Baltic and west of Russia and the CIS European members. They are five Central European countries of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Slovenia, three Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and eight Eastern and Southeast European country of Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Albania. These countries are notably diversified in economic and social situation, religion, culture as well as their foreign policies. However, they also have certain similarities: they used to be members in the socialist camp; they have gone through difficult but uncompleted systemic transformation; and they are all developing countries. These features serve as the cornerstone for China and CEE countries to set up a mechanism for their cooperation. The development of China’s relations with CEE countries constitutes an important part in China’s diplomatic strategy in the new era.


The Development of Relations Between China and CEE Countries in the post-Cold War Era


The transitional period featuring alienated relationship between China and CEE countries

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, CEE countries experienced a stormy transformation in their political and social system. During this period, they prioritized the policy of “turning back to Europe” in both domestic reform and foreign policy performance. They worked hard to get free from security vacuum and to adopt the Western economic and social development model with the accession to NATO and the EU as the major concern. At the same time, CEE countries’ relations with China were relegated to a less important status, and the bilateral relations were alienated and estranged as a result of non-existence of common ideology and political system between the two sides. For instance, CEE countries stressed their difference with China in political system and kept distance with China, and they energetically followed suite of the Western standards of democracy and human rights, and pointed their fingers at China on issues of Taiwan, Tibet, etc.

During this period, China, in spite of differences with CEE countries in ideology and values, respected choices made by CEE countries for their development path and understood adjustments made by them in their foreign policies. Through unremitting efforts of China, the bilateral relationship has come to see improvement in the latter part of this period following the deepening transition in CEE countries, the gradual formation of their foreign policies as well as remarkable achievements made by China in its reform and opening-up. President Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland paid a state visit to China in mid-November of 1997. The visit was the first official visit to China by a Polish head of state in the past 38 years. The two heads of state signed a joint communiqué, thus ushering in a new stage of improvement of relations between the two countries.


The “dual-speed” development period in the first decade of the new century

Since the 21st century, the foreign policies of CEE countries have been gradually maturing. For instance, firstly, their leaning-to-the West policy has been readjusted to a more balanced foreign policy, and CEE countries have paid more attention in developing relations with other countries including China while prioritizing ties with the United States and Europe. Secondly, at a time of ever deepening global economic integration and China’s rapid economic growth, CEE countries have attached greater importance to their economic and trade links with China. The bilateral trade volume between CEE countries and China has witnessed a remarkable growth. In 2001, the total trade volume between China and CEE countries in the region was only US$ 4.3 billion, and the figure sharply increased to US$ 52.9 billion in 2011, with an annual average growth of 27.6%. Confronted with a difficult situation during the global financial crisis, the bilateral trade has kept on growing, and China’s imports from CEE countries grows by 30% annually. With more active two-way investment activities being underway, the Chinese investments in CEE countries have covered chemical, machinery, household appliances, telecommunications, automobiles, new energy and other sectors, and expanded to other new fields of agriculture, finance, and science and technology, contributing increasingly to local economic growth and employment. Infrastructure cooperation is evidenced by projects such as the bridge on the Danube in Belgrade. Poland is China’s biggest trading partner in the region. The trade volume between the two countries was only US$ 144 million in 1991. However, in 2008 the figure has exceeded US$ 10 billion and in 2012 the bilateral trade volume has increased to US$ 14.38 billion.

The political relations between China and CEE countries, however, remained relatively sluggish compared with their economic relations. Such an asymmetry was primarily caused by some CEE countries’ superior mentality towards China on issues concerning political system, human rights, religion and other values. Poland and the Czech Republic, both important CEE countries, often accused China on issues of human rights and the Tibet from 2003 to 2009. During the Dalai Lama’s visit to Europe in December 2008, he was received respectively by the then Poland President Lech Kaczynski and the then Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek. As a consequence it forced the Chinese Government to keep a distance with CEE countries in order to avoid political risks, and blocked China’s consideration to upgrade its relations with the region in China’s overall foreign policy layout.


The new era for launching the cooperation mechanism

In April 2012, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao paid a visit to Central and Eastern Europe, and in Warsaw the 2nd China-CEE economic and trade forum was held and the 1st meeting between the Chinese and CEE leaders was conducted. The Chinese side at the meeting initiated 12 proposals to promote pragmatic cooperation, signifying that the bilateral relationship between China and CEE countries has entered a new stage of development.

Several highlights in China’s diplomatic strategy are manifested in this new stage of relations between China and CEE countries. Firstly, China renews its focus on Central and Eastern Europe. During the period from the normalization of diplomatic relations to 2012 when the cooperation mechanism was established, the political relations between China and CEE countries were mediocre based on so-called “partners of friendship and cooperation”, and were evidently not as close as the relations with other countries in the world. Currently with the establishment and development of China-CEE cooperation mechanism, China has actually regarded the Central and Eastern Europe as an important region, which has become an important component for regional cooperation in China’s external strategy. Secondly, China tries in its diplomacy to develop bilateral relations with the region in multilateral and regional approaches. To promote bilateral relations with the CEE countries, China has made efforts to establish platforms for exchanges and cooperation at multi-levels in many fields, and through various tracks. Multi-level exchanges include top-down political contacts and meetings among top leaders, ministers, coordinators, and local government officials; multi-fields means that conferences and forums conducted so far within the cooperation mechanism have covered fields such as agriculture, industry, tourism, education and culture. And multi-track means that in addition to dialogues among governments, the cooperation mechanism also provides platforms for people from different walks of life to contact each other and exchange ideas, such as China-CEE entrepreneurs dialogue, high-level think tank symposium and China-CEE young politicians forum, etc.

The above-mentioned diplomatic endeavors have strengthened and uplifted China’s relations with CEE countries. China and Poland proclaimed the establishment of strategic partnership in November 2011. Chinese Prime Minister Li keqiang paid a visit to Romania and made a speech in the Parliament, highlighting Romania’s strategic importance and positioning the country as a strategic pillar in China’s cooperation with the Central and Eastern Europe. In April 2014, Czech Foreign Minister paid the first visit to China in 15 years, and the visit opened the door for more political exchanges at higher level. Prior to his foreign minister’s China trip, Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka made it clear that he wishes to improve relations with China so as to catch up with the footsteps of other European countries in its relations with China.


Challenges Faced by China and CEE Countries in Developing Their Relations


Over the past two years and so since the official launching of the cooperation mechanism, China and CEE countries have witnessed rapid development in their relations with remarkable achievements. However, they are also confronted with challenges which require timely response.


Suspicions and watchfulness from the EU and major EU members

Apart from the five Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia), the rest of CEE countries have become EU members one after another. The five Western Balkan countries are also at different stages in a bid to join the EU. It can be said that for all these countries concerned, the European Union is the top priority in their diplomacy. To deepen relations with these countries, the EU as a regional force could not be avoided.

The EU takes suspicious and cautious attitudes to the establishment and development of the China-CEE cooperation mechanism. In the fall of 2012 when China established the China-CEE cooperation Secretariat and the first meeting of national coordinators was held in Beijing, Catherine Ashton, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, issued a statement, signaling an indirect warning to both China and CEE countries not to form some sort of alliance. The EU concerns that five non-EU states from the Western Balkan might choose China and abandon the EU, and that they might make the China-CEE cooperation mechanism an alternative option since it is difficult to join the EU. The EU even thinks that its concern has taken place in Turkey. Turkey is believed to make major shift in its diplomacy by considering seriously to join the China-led SCO when it fails in its EU membership application for years. The EU worries that this will occur to five Western Balkan countries pending their EU accession, especially at a time when the EU further enlargement is not so smooth-going. Secondly, the EU is also worried that those EU states in the Central and Eastern Europe might get too close to China in the neglect of the Brussels. The persistent economic downturn in Europe and the EU’s rigid conditions for aid policies have forced new EU members to alienate the EU because of its “lip service” and jump into cooperation with China, which develops fast to become the second largest economy in the world. In short, the EU is concerned that China tries to achieve political objective of dividing the EU countries through economic means and regrouping EU states according to their attitudes towards China, thus weakening the appeal of Brussels and preventing its consistency in foreign policy. In addition, Germany, as a major power within the EU and the largest trading partner and investor in CEE countries, is very watchful to China’s cooperation efforts in the region. Chancellor Angela Merkel has questioned why China has to engage in separate bilateral talks with CEE countries, and claimed that the embattled EU could not but to accept China’s practices.

Strengthened cooperation between China and CEE countries has even got the United States feel uncomfortable. Although the cooperation mechanism has always put the emphasis on economic, cultural and educational exchanges, Washington still tries to speculate China’s intentions from geopolitical angle, saying that China’s geopolitical presence and influence in this region will have a direct impact on the magnitude and vitality of US relations with the Eastern European countries.


Political challenges posed by CEE countries’ domestic situation

After their political change in the early 1990s, CEE countries took steps to copy Western political system of separation of powers, parliamentary democracy and multi-party politics. However, a mature political system cannot come into being overnight. Up to now the political ecology in CEE countries is still at initial stage of multi-party politics although the Western-style democracy has been adopted and practiced for over two decades. Major problems include: (1) the irrational design of political institutions. Take Romania for example: according to the Constitution, divi-sion of responsibilities between the president and the prime minister is not clearly defined so that their differences in ruling philosophy and direction would often appear when they belong to different political parties, and often lead to internal and external policy incoherence. (2) Political parties have not yet developed to maturity. Either the old political parties which were reestablished after political change in the 1990s or the newly-formed political parties, all of them are insufficient of political experiences as well as charisma of accommodating or compromising with other political counterparts. And as a result, the instability of coalition governments is a frequent phenomenon. The above-mentioned problems caused frequent change of governments in some CEE countries, together with indecisiveness in policy-making and non-implementation of policies. The instability of political situation in CEE countries has obsessed China-CEE cooperation, and government changes in some countries have impeded the implementation of cooperation projects.


Security concerns brought about by the Ukraine-Crimea crisis

The Ukrainian crisis and the events in Crimea have increased CEE countries’ suspicion and misgivings of Russia, and intensified their strategic choice of following up and relying on the US-led NATO on security. On one hand, some CEE countries, who are also NATO members, have expressed their willingness to further strengthen cooperation with NATO. For example, Poland asked NATO to station 10,000 troops on its territory and hoped to accelerate the process. The Czech Republic does not envisage NATO troops on its soil, but has expressed its willingness to expand military cooperation with NATO in more fields. Romania has asked the US and NATO to reinforce their Black Sea deployment in dealing with risks caused by the Crimea events to the region. On the other hand, those non-EU states like Macedonia and others may speed up their accession to NATO out of security anxieties.

Historically speaking, China has always been in the periphery of the regional geopolitical game in Central and Eastern Europe. However, with the improvement of China’s relations with Moscow, the countries in this region would unavoidably have certain suspicions about China. Many of them look at China’s reactions to the Ukraine-Crimean crisis through their persistent Russia-phobia perspectives, worrying that China-Russia full-fledged comprehensive strategic partnership of collaboration will evolve eventually to some sort of alliance. In this respect, the Western media has fueled regional fear and concerns. As a result, some CEE countries misinterpreted and misunderstood China’s policy toward Ukraine, thus breeding out certain security anxieties which have never existed between China and CEE countries.



Anxiety and sense of uselessness in the bilateral economic cooperation

The cooperation mechanism between China and CEE countries was established at a time when the European economy was shattered by the financial crisis and most of the CEE countries found their economy ill-performed due to many factors. On the other hand, they are subject to harsh conditions and strict regulations in receiving financial assistance from the EU. Hence, economic gains through cooperation with China become the first and foremost objective of these countries.

However, the economic cooperation between China and CEE countries cannot overstep economic development stages and mutual breaking-in and multilateral interactions also take some time. Hence, some CEE countries begin to feel anxious and even think the cooperation with China is not helpful, thus affecting their enthusiasm for cooperation with China. Frequent government change in CEE countries enlarges the gap between high expectations of the cooperation and slow results: all the ruling parties hope that cooperation agreements signed in his tenure will bring quick and compelling economic benefits which, in turn, will help them win reelection rather than benefit their opponents. That’s why they tend to reach short-term and quick-fixed cooperation projects for the purpose of seeking instant success. Such approaches are adverse to sustainable and strategic cooperation between China and CEE countries.


Social and public opinion environment affected by values and ideology

After the end of Cold War, some countries in the former Soviet camp claimed to switch to Western values and ideology. In their relations with China, they put the stress on “human rights above sovereignty” and accused China on Tibet and other issues. This constituted the main reason for hampered political relations with China. With an evolving world situation, CEE countries start to practice a more balanced and pragmatic foreign policy. However, the historical legacy of past “China policy” remains intact in right-wing media, NGO, and even in the mindset of certain politicians and ruling parties, and they utter noises detrimental to the positive development China-CEE cooperation. For instance, the Government of Poland was criticized at the Parliament for giving supports to communism in China through trade activities with China. Meanwhile, people in all walks of life in Central and Eastern Europe have their views on China misled by United States and Western media. Influenced by the “China-bashing” in the West, people in many CEE countries tend to hold a skeptical view about China, and voices questioning cooperation with China have never stopped. At present, all governments in CEE countries have approved and participated with great enthusiasm in cooperation with China, with prevailing positive coverage of the cooperation in news media. However, if the cooperation cannot present timely successes, and if trade and economic returns cannot benefit the people as expected, then those who oppose the cooperation are bound to raise their accusations and the broad masses of the people who lack the full understanding of China will become followers of unfavorable public opinions on China.


Recommendations for Further Development of China-CEE Relations


China’s cooperation with CEE countries constitutes a new growth driver in China’s relations with the EU and is an important component in China’s all-round diplomatic strategy in the new era. In this respect, the cooperation mechanism in future is bound to face challenges as well as opportunities.


Both top-level design and overall planning are needed for the benefit of China-CEE cooperation

In the new era, the significance of China-CEE cooperation is by no means confined to bilateral relations development. The cooperation should be constructed as a model of cooperation which China carries out with developing countries, with small and medium-sized states, and with member states within existing international and regional organizations. Therefore, forward-looking design for the future development path and direction for China-CEE cooperation is very much required, and diplomatic concepts China initiated like equality, mutual benefits, win-win cooperation and inclusiveness should be integrated in the management of the cooperation mechanism. Up to now, the Secretariat for China-CEE Cooperation institutionalizes the cooperation. However, Western observers take the Secretariat as an official body of the Chinese Government, rather than an institution managed and supervised jointly by both China and CEE countries. Consequently, some people might see it as an unequal treatment. Therefore, CEE countries should be encouraged to establish corresponding coordination bodies and that will contribute to smooth and healthy development of this cooperation mechanism. Any coordination bodies set up by CEE countries will help reduce competition and increase cooperation among themselves, thus making all countries winners in cooperation rather than contenders vying for Chinese investments.

To remove the concerns from the EU, Germany and other important European partners and to create a benign and complementary environment rather than a competitive one, China-CEE cooperation should be an inseparable part in the China-EU relations when designing and making plans for China’s foreign policy. In fact, when reviewing the whole development process of China-CEE cooperation, one could not fail to find that China has been paying increasing attentions to EU concerns, emphasizing repeatedly on many occasions that China-CEE cooperation runs parallel with and is complementary to the China-EU comprehensive strategic partnership. Chinese Premier Li keqiang visited Romania in November 2013. In his speech at the Third China-CEE Countries Economic and Trade Forum and in the Bucharest Outlines signed after the second meeting of the leaders between China and CEE countries, Mr. Li Keqiang stressed that CEE countries are an important part of Europe and that enhanced practical cooperation between China and CEE countries is conducive to the development of the respective countries and to a more balanced development in Europe. He also stressed that it will enrich and substantiate comprehensive strategic partnership between China and the EU and become new growth driver for China-EU cooperation. Since China-CEE cooperation began not long ago, and the resulting benefits to the region and to the EU will take time, hence the removal of the EU doubts.

In addition, comprehensive consideration and overall planning should be made in working out China’s diplomatic strategy by combining China-CEE cooperation with China’s peripheral diplomacy, new type of big-countries relations as well as initiatives on building new Silk Road economic belt and the 21st century maritime Silk Road, so as to give more strategic importance to the China-CEE cooperation in the framework of China’s diplomacy. Europe was the destination of the ancient Silk Road in history. Now when we make the initiative of building a new Silk Road economic belt, we should take Europe into this new-type economic cooperation. Thus, the new Silk Road economic belt initiative and China-CEE cooperation, both in their objectives and pathways, are accommodating and complementary to each other. And China-CEE cooperation should be regarded as pivotal expansion and extension of the new Silk Road economic belt. If we are successful in doing so, it will be conducive to the implementation of the two important strategies, reducing the geopolitical sensitivities existing among China and CEE countries, promoting geo-economic relevance and changing the sense of alienation in geo-cognition.


Particularity of CEE countries should be taken into full consideration

Particularities, on one hand, refer to CEE countries’ dreadful and watchful feelings towards Russia caused by historical reasons. CEE countries were subject to prolonged control of the Soviet Union. They are so fearful of Russia’s comeback that they rely on political and security protection from the West. In future, China should focus on economic exchanges and cooperation with CEE countries and play down any political and strategic elements in the cooperation, in order to ensure a steady and progressive progress at the early stage of the bilateral cooperation.

Another aspect of particularity refers to great diversities among CEE countries in their national condition, history, culture, religion and society. These differences cannot be ignored. The factors which may affect relations with China include: their dependence on Russia in trade and energy, and their accession to the EU and NATO. Western scholars pointed out that CEE countries, though having similar historical experience in the Cold War time, have embarked on different paths of reform and development after they had major political changes following the end of the Cold War. If China adopts the same approach for the economic cooperation, that would lead to competition and even antagonism among CEE countries. Therefore, a pathway for effective cooperation is to study in a serious manner and get insight of sub-regional organizations in the Central and Eastern Europe. Countries in Central Europe, the Balkan and the Baltic states have similar economic and social situation and demands for cooperation, and their similarities are greater than the entire CEE countries as a whole. With a fairly strong cohesion and coordination potential, these countries have already had various institutionalized or semi-institutionalized cooperation organizations which are conducive to their pragmatic cooperation. At present the active sub-regional organizations include: the Mediterranean Union, the Visegrad Group, Process for Cooperation in South-Eastern Europe, the Western Balkans Stability and Joint Processes, the Black Sea Economic Cooperation and the Council of the Baltic States.


To improve demonstration effect of economic “early harvest”

CEE countries practice multi-party political system, the governments and politicians are driven by elections so that they have to show to interest groups and constituencies cooperation results with China. At present, China should concentrate on key projects, formulate detailed measures in implementing the Bucharest Outlines, select landmark investment projects, increase imports from CEE countries and provide more scholarships so as to benefit all 16 CEE countries. With an effective “early harvest” in sight, governments of CEE countries will be able to win more domestic supports and to convince the United States and the EU. Under the coordination of the Central Government, the above-mentioned objectives can be achieved by encouraging an enthusiastic role played by the local governments in China. The provinces, municipalities and cities in China have their respective advantages in fields of economy, energy, agriculture and education. By making a good use of various forums among mayors, on urban development as well as economic, trade and agriculture fields, and in particular the meeting mechanism between local leaders of China and CEE countries, specific projects could be quickly started and adverse impact on cooperation brought about by any “hiccups” in China-CEE political relations could be prevented.


Cultural and educational exchanges should be strengthened to create a favorable atmosphere for cooperation through public diplomacy.

Scholars from CEE countries acknowledge that both the public and politicians in the region have insufficient knowledge of China, and the resulting prejudice sentiments on China further deepen existing ideological differences with China. Therefore, unofficial exchanges between China and CEE countries through their cooperation mechanism will help increase mutual understanding, remove misunderstanding and create a favorable social and public opinion environment for investment and cooperation.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao proposed at the 2nd China-CEE economic and trade forum in 2012 to expand exchanges in education, culture, public health, sports and tourism, and to promote mutual understanding and friendship among the peoples and in particular the younger generation. In his 12 proposals, there are large amount of cultural and educational cooperation projects. Article 7of the Bucharest Outlines in 2013 lists six specific measures including multi-tack cooperation and exchanges among think tanks, media, and young politicians in many fields such as education, tourism, and visa application.



[1]Long Jing is Assistant Research Fellow at Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.