As China progresses to develop the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), its sphere of influence is expanding way beyond Central Asia. A continuation of the initial BRI model, China is now extending its influence into Eastern Europe with its “17+1” initiative. Though many worry that such a geopolitical arrangement may further divide a Europe that already suffers from considerable internal strife, the disintegration of Europe is not the goal of China’s geopolitical initiatives. Instead, it seeks to use these initiatives to fight the United States on the global stage.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the 17+1 project, also called the China-CEEC (Central and Eastern European Countries) summit, is a Chinese initiated-platform launched in 2012 to expand cooperation between Beijing and a group of eleven EU member states and five Balkan countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia. China managed to incorporate Greece in the latest summit, consolidating a total of seventeen partner countries in the region. Although the initiative predates the formal announcement of China’s BRI, the 17+1 summit is widely seen as an extension of the BRI. The three priority areas that China has identified for increasing cooperation under the 17+1 include infrastructure, advanced technologies, and green technologies. Related projects include railways, ports, digital networks, fiber-optic cables, and wind as well as solar power plants. According to an analysis by the CSIS Reconnecting Asia Project, China has contributed around $15.4 billion toward infrastructure and other investment in the 17+1 countries since 2012 in areas such as energy, transport, information and communication technology (ICT), manufacturing, real estate, and mergers and acquisitions (M&As).
Effects on Europe
Though some claim that this project’s aftermath might jeopardize European unity, “17+1” is the product of an already divided Europe—one without internal coherence or coordination. For example, after China’s announcement of its new partners, the European Commission’s Joint Communication on Elements for a new EU Strategy on China protested by arguing that any economic and diplomatic engagement with China should be coordinated with the European Union beforehand to ensure that the arrangements are “in line with EU law, rules, and policies, and that the overall outcome is beneficial for the EU as a whole.” However, that these countries already felt willing to work with China without consulting the Union shows that European unity was already nonexistent in regards to relations with China. Even in regards of other foreign policy issues, Europe struggles to take a uniform stand on matters such as immigration with the emergence of far-right political parties in countries like Hungary, Germany, and France, which are drastically polarizing and transforming European societies.
In any case, we’ve seen that the “17+1” project has faced intensifying criticism from the European Union. According to the Diplomat, EU officials have blamed China for undermining the European integration process and sowing division in the continent. However, the intensity of such criticisms do not necessarily translate into their validity. In fact, China’s immediate interest doesn’t lie in the disunity of the European Union for two reasons, the first of which is closely-related to China’s foreign policy model of non-interference. When it comes to the internal affairs of any political entity, whether a nation or an organization like the European Union, China has always distanced itself on the basis of its historically long-standing non-interference principle. Chinese diplomats even argue that this initiative might actually contribute to European unity by reducing the discrepancy of EU internal economic development by stimulating the national economy of countries like Greece.
Even if one discounts China’s stated belief in the non-interference principle, it is relatively unlikely that China would risk directly provoking the EU with divisive diplomatic efforts, especially at a time when EU unity is already on its own track of deterioration. Currently, Europe is challenged by increasing polarization with the rise of various far right political movements, such as the National Front in France and the Fidesz party in Hungary. These emerging political forces pose internal challenges to fundamental European political values and institutions, which are rapidly fragmenting Europe at its core. China must surely recognize that these divisive forces in Europe have taken on and will continue to take on lives of their own even without its external interference. It is unlikely that China would risk such international backlash to accelerate an already naturally-occurring process.
Combatting the United States on the global stage
Further, helping facilitate the disintegration of the European Union would only divert China’s attention away from its primary geostrategic aim: combatting the United States on the global stage. Ever since the beginning of US-China competitive relations, the geopolitical dominance of the United States has always partially relied on its grasp on Asia Pacific, extracting momentum from the oceanic sphere. Ties with South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan furthered the United States as a naval power. This American strength on the sea not only frames US-China dynamics, but also helps determine (along with the importance of commercial shipping) the geostrategic significance of the ocean over land: the sea is now the primary platform for power projection by world superpowers.
The Belt and Road Initiative, correspondingly, aims at countering the United States’ naval power and its alliances by reinforcing the geopolitical significance of land. It seeks to achieve this goal by reconnecting Central Asian and Eastern European actors along the ancient route of the Silk Road with the touch of modern variations that suit current geopolitical goals. With projects like BRI and “17+1,” China is able to construct a coherent and interconnected geopolitical sphere of its own influence. Though ruling the sea and having plenty of friends in Asia Pacific, the United States. will find it extremely hard to compete with China in terms of such a land-based initiative, simply given its geographical positioning. China has thus chosen a new battleground in which it has more participative advantage over the United States because of more sufficient funding. Such a new platform also automatically cuts its opponent off with the natural underpinnings since most of the projects are located in the heartland of Eurasian landmass. Thus, it is extremely difficult for the United States, with its geographical remoteness, to counter these land-based connectivity projects.
BRI and its related projects each have their stated individual goals, which makes it easy to get distracted by the analysis of singular projects. It is important to keep in mind that although these projects spread widely around the globe, they contribute more to a grand strategy than to regional goals. At an individual level, BRI or “17+1” projects resemble jigsaw pieces that must be combined together to reveal their holistic vision. Despite the projects’ extensive span and diverse forms, they are all united by a major geopolitical agenda. One might say that China is striving to create its own transcontinental land-based sphere of influence, which is woven together by the collection of BRI connectivity projects. Such a sphere of influence is expected to be independent from the conventional transatlantic or transpacific platforms of European and American influence.The photo featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons 4.0 International. The original can be found here.
Valerie Zhu is a second-year student, double majoring in Political Science and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. Currently serving as the Chief Coordinator of The Peacebuilding Project at UChicago, she is interested in global conflict resolution and spent the past summer in Jerusalem studying the narratives and the issues of coexistence inside the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.