04/08/2020, 17.05
CHINA – EUROPEAN UNION
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Wake-up call for Europe: cooperation with China is not working

by Emanuele Scimia

The European members of the 17+1 group are dissatisfied with their "privileged" relationship with Beijing. Their trade deficit with China (US$ 75 billion) is growing. Chinese investments are going mostly to the wealthiest countries of the Old Continent. Czech President Zeman slams the Belt and Road Initiative. This should be a warning for Italy.

Rome (AsiaNews) – European leaders of the 17+1 group are dissatisfied with their “privileged” relationship with China, this according to a report by the Prague-based China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE).

The 17+1 is an informal forum that includes China and 17 countries in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, including 12 European Union member states.

Beijing is using the grouping as a platform to promote the Belt and Road Initiative, a pet project of Chinese President Xi Jinping designed to boost his country as the world’s main trade hub. However, the much-vaunted cooperation with China is not bearing the desired results.

The European members of the 17+1 are increasingly irritated, their economic gains are modest; yet, China’s influence in the region has grown considerably. The most troubling aspect is economic. The trade deficit of the 17 European nations with the Asian giant has widened significantly. The CHOICE study reveals that it reached US$ 75 billion in 2018.

Although Chinese investment has increased, slightly exceeding US$ 5 billion in 2017, it is concentrated in four countries: Czechia (Czech Republic), Poland, Slovakia and Hungary.

What is more, the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies noted that eastern Europe received 2 per cent of total Chinese investments in Europe in 2018 and 3 per cent in 2019, with the largest share, 53 per cent, going to northern Europe.

Beijing's increasingly aggressive attitude is especially resented. Last year, Lithuania severely reprimanded the staff of the Chinese Embassy, ​​suspected of threatening Lithuanian citizens who protested in Vilnius in favour of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

In addition, Poland and Czechia have raised doubts about Huawei's 5G technology – the United States accuses the Chinese telecom multinational of spying on behalf of China.

The European Union views China as a partner but also as a "systemic rival". Many European leaders suspect Beijing is using the Belt and Road scheme to weaken the bloc, trying to get the European 17+1 members to align with its geopolitical agenda.

The group’s annual summit, originally set for 15 April, was postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. For some leaders, this is not a major issue. Czech President Miloš Zeman had already decided not to attend even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Zeman wanted to turn his country into an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" for Chinese investment in Europe, but had to accept the fact that, despite Beijing's proclamations, Chinese money always goes to western Europe, and not on his side of the old Iron Curtain.

The displeasure of European 17+1 leaders runs counter to Italy’s cheerful embrace of China and Xi’s proposal to create a "health" Silk Road.

Despite the negative reaction of some allies (i.e. the United States), Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio has repeatedly emphasised the importance of last year’s cooperation agreement with Beijing. In his view, it would facilitate the arrival of Chinese medical supplies to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

Conversely, others note that China also donated and sold medical equipment to EU members states (the majority) that have not formally joined the Belt and Road project.

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