Beijing has dismissed concerns and allegations about its cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries, making clear that China is neither trying to alienate these nations from the European Union nor seeking a “sphere of influence” there.
The past week witnessed a steady pace of China and CEEC visits and meetings to expand two-way teamwork and reiterate commitment to promoting China-EU ties.
Over the weekend in Guiyang, Guizhou province, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with visiting Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau and Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic.
Wang said at a news conference on Saturday that China-CEEC cooperation focuses on pragmatic economic and trade teamwork, “does not involve the field of defense and security, and has never had any geopolitical, strategic intention, let alone (seeking) any sphere of influence”.
Such cooperation is “conducive to achieving balanced development of Europe as a whole” and actually speeding up Europe’s integration process, Wang said. He emphasized that China and the EU “are partners rather than rivals “and their ties offer “opportunities rather than challenges”.
On Wednesday, President Xi Jinping highlighted mutual support for economic recovery with Montenegro and envisioned greater, more stable China-CEEC cooperation, during a phone conversation with Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic.
As Montenegro seeks to join the EU, China respects this decision, and the steadily growing China-Montenegro pragmatic cooperation within the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism “is conducive to Montenegro’s early accession to the EU”, said Chinese Ambassador to Montenegro Liu Jin.
“China has no geopolitical ambitions in Montenegro and the Western Balkans, nor does it intend to compete with the EU for influence,” Liu said at an academic webinar on Thursday.
The alleged “threat” by China to Europe is not supported by trade data, either.
The 17 CEE countries as a whole and the EU have registered double-digit, year-on-year trade growth with China. Trade with CEE countries rose 50.2 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to the Ministry of Commerce, while trade with the EU increased 32.1 percent in the first four months of 2021, according to data from the General Administration of Customs.
Advancing a regular economic agenda between China and the CEE countries amid the COVID-19 pandemic will only help make them, as well as the whole of Europe, more resilient to headwinds, and Beijing believes that a weaker Europe would only lead to China’s loss, experts and officials said.
Behind the attacks on China-CEEC cooperation are beliefs held by some that China may undermine some leading EU countries’ influence in Central and Eastern European countries, or that China is penetrating the region economically or militarily and sabotaging Europe’s integration process, according to a recent research article published by the China Development Institute, which is based in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.
But China-CEEC cooperation is a key part of China-EU ties, it “helps shape a balanced growth of China-EU ties” and “helps narrow the economic disparities within the EU”, the think tank said.
As China works on jointly building the Belt and Road Initiative and pursues greater connectivity with Europe, “weakening or alienating the EU simply does not serve China’s interests”, it added.
Nine years after its launch, China-CEEC cooperation has yielded fruitful outcomes and delivered tangible benefits to the people of participating countries, and it is “a useful and important supplement to China-Europe relations”, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on May 24.
Meanwhile, senior diplomat Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, made an official visit to Slovenia and Croatia last week.
China and the EU should “firmly grasp the greater direction” of the evolving China-EU relations at a strategic level and ensure that China-EU relations “continue advancing on the right track”, Yang said while meeting with Slovenian President Borut Pahor in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana on Wednesday.
Many CEE countries have voiced their support for stronger China-EU relations as well.
During Yang’s visit to Croatia, that nation’s leaders said on Thursday that the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism has provided a strong driving force for deepening Croatia-China relations, and Croatia will play an active role in promoting the further growth of EU-China ties.
On Saturday, Polish Foreign Minister Rau said in the talks with Foreign Minister Wang that Poland is willing to promote the healthy development of EU-China ties and cooperation between China and CEE countries.