“16+1 Cooperation” Forges Ahead Steadily

By Liu Zuokui

The 6th Summit of China and Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC), marking the fifth anniversary of the opening of China-CEEC cooperation, was held in Budapest, Hungary on November 27, 2017. This meetingwas heldat a time right afterthe successful conclusion of the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. At the summit, China’s new measures for domestic and foreign affairs which were endorsed in the Report of theCPC Congress were fully illustrated, the achievements of “16+1 Cooperation” in the past 5 years were systematically summarized, and a blueprint for future development was clearly drafted.

I. “16+1 Cooperation” : A Successful Practice ofMajor Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics

First of all, "16+1 cooperation"put into active practice the new ideas and new thoughts of China's diplomacy, with sub-regional cooperation as a new dimension, and has created a new situation in China's diplomacy.

The concept of "central and Eastern Europe" in the framework of "16+1 cooperation" is a totally new geopolitical concept, different from the old definition of the region. Some scholars from the central and Eastern European countries believe that China reconstructs a specific area through its own logic and blueprints, but it is becoming more and more acceptable. The central and East European countries accept this Chinese proposed concept, because the redefinition of the "16+1 cooperation" platform is not to create a new exclusive national identity for the CEEC countries, but to add a new layer of identity for them in international affairs, without any conditions attached. The innovation and breakthrough of the"16+1 cooperation" shows distinctive Chinese characteristicsand Chinese style.

Secondly, the “16+1 Cooperation” demonstrates a sincere wish of China to build a community with a shared future for mankind.

The "16+1 cooperation" framework is built on the background of worldwidefinancial crisis and great uncertainty in economic recovery. Both China and central and Eastern European countries have urgent need to open up new markets and develop new economic and trade partners. Chinese president Xi Jinping stressed that, in the era of economic globalization, China and EU have become a community of shared future with highly integrated interests. "16+1 cooperation" is undoubtedly an important fulcrum and grab for the construction of the China EU community of shared future. Both in bilateral relations and in economic and trade cooperation, the cooperation between China and the central and Eastern European countries has once beenthe short board in the framework of China EU cooperation. "16+1 cooperation" not only made up the short board, but also integrated China with the central and Eastern European countries through a comprehensive, multi-level and wide range of mutually beneficial cooperation to become a community of shared future to overcome economic crisis and achieve common prosperity, as well as a new growth pole for China EU cooperation.

Thirdly, the “16+1 Cooperation” sticks to the core idea of win-win cooperation. 

It always adheres to ideas of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit and win-win cooperation, and that explains why the 16 CEE countries widely accept and actively join in the “16+1 Cooperation”. In the past five years, the “16+1 Cooperation” has made numerous achievements: the connectivity and infrastructure in CEECs are developed rapidly, the economic and trade cooperation between China and CEE countries continues to rise compared to the western European countries. Even though, skeptics still doubt the concept of win-win cooperation raised by the Chinese side due to the imbalanced economic volumes of the two sides. We shall emphasize that win-win cooperation is neither a zero-sum game nor 50 to 50 and everybody got a share of the pie. Because of the asymmetry of the economic volumes and market sizes between China and CEEC as well as the dissimilarity and difference within CEECs, it is unrealistic for each country to equally distribute the interests in every projects. It is a win-win cooperation as long as there is no loss on both sides and it does not cause harm to third parties. The major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics adheres to the ethics of legitimate justice and reasonable benefit, advocates pursuing justice and benefits simultaneously and always put justice abovebenefits. It is possible for China to give up part of the economic interests to promote the “16+1 Cooperation”, which is in accordance with the good tradition of Chinese diplomacy and China’s responsibilities and roles as a major country in international affairs. Since the Belt and Road initiative was proposed by China, the principle of win-win cooperation has further advanced toward the ideas of “wide consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits” in global governance. It means that all the participants shall not only work together and share the results, but also discuss the rules together and participate jointly, truly realizing the goal of equality and mutual benefit. China welcomes the 16 CEE countries to take part in the development of the Belt and Road initiative and the “16+1 Cooperation” on the basis of these spirits, because it will not only bring common development and prosperity, but also provide the “16+1 Cooperation” with a stronger foundation and a broader platform.

Fourthly, the “16+1 Cooperation”expands China’s network of global partnership.

It opens up a new way to develop relations with traditional friendly countries. For the last five years, China’s relations with Poland and Serbia have been respectively upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership, while the strategic partnership with the Czech Republic and the comprehensive strategic partnershipwith Hungary were also established. More importantly, the bilateral relations and level of mutual trust between China and CEE countries are greatly enhanced through all kinds of meetings under the framework of the “16+1 Cooperation”. The partnership advocated by China is characterized by equality, peace and inclusiveness, with no classification of major or subordinate countries, no split of different blocs, no imaginary enemies and no targeting at any third party. So it’s neither reasonable nor necessary for some European think tanks to worry that China is dividing EU and seize geopolitical interests by promoting “16+1 Cooperation”. Although China is the initiator of “16+1 Cooperation”, China insists all parties involved shall be equal and shall discuss, constructand enjoy the benefit together. China does not seek a leading role with higher status than others members. At the same time, the “16+1 Cooperation”, like the Belt and Road initiative, endows great openness and inclusiveness. They are open to the third party, thus helping China to make numerous new friends. Following the road of peaceful development, China advocates dialogue rather than confrontation, partnerships rather than alliances.

II. “16+1 Cooperation” :The great significance of the construction of the platform

First, the “16+1 Cooperation” promotes the efficacy and equality of the bilateral cooperation between China and CEEC.

In the framework of “16+1 Cooperation”, bilateral cooperation is thefoundation, “16+1 Cooperation” is the platform, and they depend on and complement each other. On this platform, those 17 countries negotiated equally, exchanged of needed goods, strengthened interconnection, and looked for opportunities on the multilateral platform. In the past five years, the network of strategic partnership for China has been expanding, making significant progresses in the cooperation with various sub-regions in CEE. Local cooperation has become a new breakthrough point and highlight of “16+1 Cooperation”. Beginning with the China-Europe trains and taking the local leaders summits as a platform, China-CEEC cooperation has made a new path and made new achievements. Furthermore, on the platform of “16+1 Cooperation”, various CEECs have shown their own characteristics and potentials one after another, and played an active role in cooperation in various fields. In addition, in the field of bilateral cooperation, the two sides also deeply dug out the potential of cooperation, promoted the establishment of a series of professional cooperation platforms, and achieved positive results. In the future, the bilateral cooperation in the framework of “16+1 Cooperation” still has great potential and many opportunities, which will be one of the main growth points of China-CEEC cooperation.

Second, “16+1 Cooperation” is a new way of exploration to promote regional cooperation.

As a unique sub-regional cooperation, “16+1 Cooperation” has not only challenges but also opportunities, and provided large space for innovative  diplomatic practices for regional cooperation. First, the global governance view of achieving shared growth through co-discussion and collaboration and the idea of democratization of international relations have been put into practice in “16+1 Cooperation”. The CEE has become an important fulcrum in constructing a community with a shared future between China and Europe. Those advanced concepts of cooperation containing Chinese wisdom enhanced centripetal force of “16+1 Cooperation”, and the innovative regional cooperation scheme of China provided CEEC a totally new choice. Secondly, the establishment and improvement of high standard, high frequency and multi-level consultation mechanism not only greatly enhanced the relations between China and CEEC, but also protected the continuing stable development of “16+1 Cooperation”. Finally, booming local cooperation has greatly promoted the diversification of the forms of cooperation, which is the key for the “16+1 Cooperation” to set up an all-round, wide field and multi-level cooperation pattern.

Third, “16+1 Cooperation” has accelerated the development of the China-Europe relation.

China took the “16+1 Cooperation” as an important content and beneficial complement of China-Europe relation, and repeatedly mentioned the crucial influence and positive effect on China-Europe relation in all the important occasions and important documents issued related to the “16+1 Cooperation”. For more than five years, the "16+1 cooperation" has produced practical results in promoting the development of economic, trade and investment relations between central and Eastern European countries and China'. Under the “16+1 Cooperation” framework, the CEEC fully grasped the important opportunities, kept expanding cooperation space, and at the same time contributed to the cooperation between China and Europe in the Belt and Road. Considering the prospect of development, “16+1 Cooperation” will bring more benefits to the balanced development in EU region. 

Last but not the least, “16+1 Cooperation” is an important platform for promoting the Belt and Road Initiative.

“16+1 Cooperation” has become an important policy communication platform for “Belt and Road” construction. Through the platform, from the top leadership, to the specific decision-making mechanism, to specific areas of cooperation,coordinators and those responsible persons achieved a seamless communication policy, and reached important strategic consensus, thus promoted a a series of important cooperation projects and initiatives."16+1" has laid a good foundation for promoting the connectivity between China and Europe.Through which China completed the composition of Maritime Silk Road and Silk Road on the Land in Europe. The MaritimeSilk Road used the China-European land and Sea Express lines as a main handle and the land silk road usedas the main handle the construction of the new Eurasian Continental Bridge and the promotion of the effective operation of the China-European regular train service.Since a series of hard connectivity projects were launched one after another in CEE region, and the matching soft connectivity projects were also gradually promoted, there has formed a multi-level and effective cooperation in infrastructure. In the framework of the Belt and Road, the trade cooperation between China and CEEC maintainedsteady progress, with the trade deficit issue properly addressed and  investment cooperation recorded rapid growth. With flexibility, market-oriented and pragmatic cooperation as the main direction, the framework of “16+1 Cooperation”provided active assistance to the operation of the Belt and Road, by introducing various forms of financial instruments, providing a number of financial supports and formulating a series of financial arrangements, and has became a new highlight in  financial cooperation in the Belt and Road Initiative. “16+1 Cooperation” has also actively promoted people to people exchanges in the Belt and Road Initiative and formed a series of new initiatives of non-governmental exchanges and communication.

III. “16+1 Cooperation”: The AchievementsIn the Past Five Years

First,investment promotion flourishing in multiple fields.

The “16+1 Cooperation” has made outstanding achievements in the field of investment in the past five years, achieved gratifying progress in the major projects cooperation, and obtained remarkable achievements and improvements in the fields of infrastructure, energy, environmental protection, high-tech industry investment, etc. The investment data climbed year by year, which helped greatly the economic development of Central and Eastern European Countries. In particular, China's investment in the western Balkans has made obvious progress, which attraced wide attention from the international community.Investment promotion will continue to be one of the main breakthrough points of cooperation between China and CEEC in the future, and will effectively improve the trade volume between China and CEEC and alleviate the trade deficit.

Second, local cooperation growing vigorously.

Local cooperation is a distinguishing feature of the cooperation between China and CEEC. It effectively solved the problem of asymmetric sizes of the markets of China and CEEC, achieved seamless connection between different grassroots actors, enhanced the cooperation between China and CEEC in depth, and inspired the enthusiasm of all actors in cooperation. Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Hebei, Beijing and other provinces intensified their respective local cooperation with CEEC and have achieved remarkable results.
Third, enhancing precise and specialized cooperation.

The “16+1 Cooperation” framework increased the level of the precise cooperation in various specialized fields, perfected good guiding arrangement, and promoted the adaptation to the market rules and willingness of cooperation. On such basis, China and CEEC respectively put forward various cooperation platforms. Nearly 20 in total, those platforms involved various fields. All these have enriched the China-CEEC Cooperation, actively boosted the “16+1 Cooperation” for further development in CEEC, thus achieved the goal of comprehensive, multi-level and wide-ranging policy exchanges and pragmatic cooperation.

Fourth,rich and colorful people-to-people exchanges.

People-to-people exchanges between China and CEEC have also achieved great developments in the past five years.The scale, level and effectiveness of people-to-people exchange have been unprecedentedly promoted, the mutual understanding between China and CEEC went deeper. Cooperation in the fields of political parties, education, health, youth, media, think tanks etc. has achieved remarkable results. For example, in the field of think tanks cooperation, 16+1 Cooperation has become a hot topic in the research area of international studies, which greatly promoted the development of CEE as a research field in China and CEEC.

Fifth, making progress in promoting the Belt and Road Initiative.

The CEE region was wholly brought into the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, and became the access point for the Belt and Road to the Europe. The “16+1 Cooperation” began to actively participate in the Belt and Road one year after its start, which promoted the Belt and Road Initiative to develop in CEE and Europe. It helped the realizationof the Maritime Silk Road (China-Europe Land-Sea Express Route) and the Silk Road on the Land (the new Eurasian Continental Bridge and the China Europe Express) in Europe, introduced a series of connectivity projects, issued a series of financial support instruments, actively promoted the people-to-people connection, helped the Belt and Road to make remarkable achievements, and became one of the demonstration areas of the Belt and Road construction.

Sixth, initiating the early exploration.

The “16+1 Cooperation” is an important initiative to promote regional cooperation between China and Europe, earlier than the sub-regional cooperation between China and Northern and Southern European countries. Although it has met various problems and challenges during the process, in general, the achievements outweigh the problems, and it also provides valuable experiences for other sub-regional cooperation between China and EU. It is the first step of sub-regional cooperation between China and EU, and has created a new highlight of the cooperation between China and Europe.

IV. “16+1 Cooperation”: Successful ExperiencesIn the Past Five Years

First, playing an active role to shape the cooperation framework.

The introduction of the “16+1 Cooperation” framework evidently demonstrated the initiative, enterprising and practicality of the Chinese policy makers. As a new initiative put forward by China, it is a new platform for cooperation constructed on the basis of the national conditions of the 17 countries and concrete requirements from these countries. The “16+1 Cooperation” has made innovation and breakthrough in regional cooperation, shown obvious Chinese characteristics, and provided new studying cases for China's diplomacy.

Second, win-win cooperation and mutual benefit.

The “16+1 Cooperation” has kept adhering to the principle of mutual respect, equality, mutual benefit and win-win cooperation, which is the very reason for CEEC to approve and actively participate in this framework. In the past five years, “16+1 Cooperation” made impressive achievements, the connectivity and infrastructure between China and CEEC made great progress, and economic and trade cooperation between China and CEECenhanced greatly at the backdrop of the downward trend of international trade as a whole. All these achievements are directly relevant to the principles of the win-win and mutual benefit cooperation advocated by China.

Third, open and inclusive cooperation.

From the beginning, the “16+1 Cooperation” is not an exclusive arrangement, but aimed at being an open platform, compatible with all kinds of beneficial and positive factors. The EU has always been invited as an observer, and Austria, EBRD, Greece, Switzerland and Belarus were also invited as observers during different periods, whose participation enlarged the scale of cooperation. The introduction of observers has greatly improved the openness of “16+1 Cooperation”, and provide institutional guarantee for the stakeholders to express their concerns and for each side to jointly promote the development of “16+1 Cooperation”.

Fourth, flexible, pragmatic and economic and trade-oriented cooperation.

The “16+1 Cooperation” actively adopted a pragmatic and flexible cooperation approach, incorporated any content of win-win cooperation into the framework of cooperation, regardless of its size, country, scale, or model. At the same time, “16+1 Cooperation” does not blindly expand the scope of cooperation, does not involve deepideological problems, does not involve geopolitical disputes, nor high-politics fields such as military cooperation, but is wholly devoted to economic and trade cooperation and concentrated in the fields of financial, infrastructure and people to people exchanges.

Fifth, exchange and brainstorm with various partners.

The “16+1 Cooperation” gave full play to the multilateral platform, created various opportunities for partners to exchange with each other. The establishment of various high-level and professional exchange channels, as well as professional conferences and platforms of different levels and scales, and the availability of multiple exchange channels could contribute to exchanges and brainstorms with various partners, and helped to reach more consensus. These platforms range from the exchanges of supreme leaders, to the meetings of national coordinators of China and CEECs, to coordination mechanisms of specific fields, such as the Contact Mechanism for the Investment Promotion Agencies of China and CEE Countries, 16+1 Transportation and Infrastructure Cooperation Association, the Executive Mechanism for the 16+1 Joint Chamber of Commerce, the 16+1 Agricultural Cooperation Association, the 16+1 Logistics Cooperation Association and so on, all increasing the opportunities for multilateral exchanges.

V. “16+1 Cooperation” : Challenges

From the beginning, the 16+1 Cooperation has not been smooth sailing, but rather faced with many challenges, which should be recognized by both China and CEEC.

1. The promotion of some flagship projects is less successful than expected

The flagship projects, for example, the Hungary-Serbia railway, have attracted wide concern, but progressed in a slow pace till now. Hungary-Serbia railway is a multilateral project, affected not only by the examination of the EU, but also by the specific conditions and financing modes of the partners such as Hungary and Serbia, and by the third parties such as Russia, thus progressed quite slow. There will be more and more Chinese projects carried out in CEE, together with more and more restrictions in various aspects, which need time, patience and wisdom to gradually solve.

2. The EU and some of its member states remain hesitating and suspicious

16+1 Cooperation is an indivisible part of the cooperation between China and Europe, and a useful complement to China-Europe relationship. China has always insisted on forming the 16+1 Cooperation as an important "interface" for The Belt and Road Initiative to integrate into European economic circle, and the priority area for the construction of relations of Four Major Partnerships between China and Europe, as well as a new growth pole of China-Europe cooperation. Although our attitude is sincere, CEEC also have cooperation demands and wishes, the EU and some member states are still suspicious about it, sometimes worrying that China intends to "divide and rule" Europe, which to some degree affected the environment of 16+1 Cooperation. In this way, we still need to keep working on enhancing mutual trust and clarifying doubts between China and Europe.

3. The bottleneck of investment and financing is difficult to solve in short term
In order to promote the Belt and Road Initiative and 16+1 Cooperation, China have invested plenty of financial instruments in CEE,
and promoted a number of projects to come to fruition in CEE. However, in general, some big projects, especially large infrastructure projects, were carried out more in the western Balkan states that have not yet joined the European Union rather than the European Union members in CEE region. In order to avoid risks, we have proposed some conditions for financing sovereign guarantee, which obstructed lots of funds from China to be used in European Union member countries and therefore affected the enthusiasm of cooperation of the CEEC. Because of the different environment for investment and financing, and in considering of its high interest rate, China’s commercial financing is not competitive in the CEE market. The above difficulties need both sides to find a way to creatively solve problems and overcome obstacles.

4. With big diversity among different CEECs, there is a situation of "one zone, one policy" and "one country, one policy"
CEE is not a homogenous area, with great diversity among the situations of different regions and states. There is big difference
among the Central Europe region, the Baltic Sea region and the Western Balkans region. The Central Europe region is relatively developed and deeply integrated into the European industrial chain, while the countries in the Baltic Sea region are relatively small and deeply involved in the European integration and the countries in the Western Balkan region are mostly candidate states of the EU. For each country, there are also obvious differences among their concrete conditions. Therefore, in facing difficulties of coordination,Chinese policy in CEEC should not be “one-size-fits-all”, but to precisely handle and properly issue policies in order to successfully arrange cooperation with different regions and states.


So far, the continued development of “16+1 Cooperation” is closely related to China’s insistence to the principle of achieving shared growth through co-discussion and collaboration. “Co-discussion” means to insist on discussing with all the other states equally and making rules together from the very beginning, without considering their size, power or wealth.  “Collaboration” means to take a participatory and inclusive attitude as cooperative partners in all fields of international relation, international cooperation, international exchange or international projects, rather than  force things on others. “Shared growth” means that no matter how many achievements and benefits have been made, they should not be exclusively owned by only one side, nor being beneficial to someone while doing harm to the others. “16+1 Cooperation” firmly adhered to those principles, it did not classify the 16 countries by their size, insisted on co-discussing and coordination in making policies, and shared the good results of cooperation.

In conclusion, “16+1 Cooperation” has made outstanding achievements and remarkable results in the past five years while problems also existed. However, as long as we join our efforts with the CEECs, maintain confidence and patience, being sincere and pragmatic, positive and enterprising, the “16+1 Cooperation” will continue to move forward steadily and firmly, and attain a yet higher level in the next five years to come.

Liu Zuokui is Research Fellow and Director of the China-CEE Institute under the Institute of European Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.