The China-CEEC Summit Opens a New Chapter in China-CEEC Cooperation

By Huo Yuzhen

The China-CEEC Summit was held in Beijing via video link on February 9, 2021. Chinese President Xi Jinping personally chaired the Summit and delivered a keynote speech. The Summit has drawn extensive attention as the leaders of China and Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC) discussed plans of development and drew a blueprint for cooperation. This article aims to provide a general picture of China-CEEC cooperation by introducing its past, present and future development.

I. The Historical Background of the Start of China-CEEC Cooperation

Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries were among the first to establish diplomatic relations with China since the founding of New China. The early 1990s witnessed the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the drastic changes in Eastern Europe. Despite the changes in the international situation, peace and development remain to be the theme of the times. Working towards a more fair and equitable international order represents the aspirations of people in all countries. China is committed to respecting the development paths chosen independently by CEE countries, and China-CEEC relations have achieved overall smooth transition and enjoyed new development.

China and CEE countries expressed their earnest desire for strengthening practical cooperation at the first China-CEEC Business Forum which was held in Budapest, the capital of Hungary on 25 June 2011. Success would follow naturally. On 26 April 2012, taking the second China-CEEC Business Forum as an opportunity, leaders of China and 16 CEE countries, namely Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, and Slovenia, gathered in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, announced the launch of cooperation mechanism between China and Central and Eastern European Countries and held the first Summit of Heads of Government of China and Central and Eastern European Countries. In September of the same year, the Secretariat for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries was set up at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China. On 12 April 2019, at the eighth Summit of Heads of Government of China and Central and Eastern European Countries in Dubrovnik, Croatia, Greece joined the Cooperation as a full member.

It is fair to say that China-CEEC cooperation is a pioneering initiative for cross-regional cooperation jointly proposed and launched by China and CEE countries based on the principles of extensive consultation and joint contribution, consensus building and voluntarism, and openness and inclusiveness.

II. Institution Building and Practical Cooperation Results of China-CEEC Cooperation

1. Establishment of a Multi-dimensional Cooperation Framework Led by the Leaders’ Summit 

Since the start of China-CEEC cooperation nine years ago, continued success has been made in institution building. Led by the leaders’ summit, China-CEEC cooperation is supported by a multi-dimensional cooperation framework covering more than 20 fields, including economic cooperation and trade, culture, education, youth, agriculture, tourism, science and technology, health, think tanks, and sub-national exchanges. The leaders’ summit is held on an annual basis, issuing an outcome document each time. In 2015, during the fourth Summit in Suzhou, the European Union, Austria, Greece, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development became observers. In 2016, during the fifth Summit in Riga, Belarus and Switzerland became observers. The National Coordinators’ Meeting takes place twice a year, mainly to coordinate cooperation and implement the results of the Summit. Altogether 16 National Coordinators’ Meetings have been held before the Summit this year. In addition, dozens of cooperation platforms have been established. With each CEE country leading cooperation in specific areas, countries can leverage their strengths and complement each other. Such cooperation is growing and deepening rapidly. It has produced concrete results in various fields, providing a strong underpinning for the development of China-CEEC cooperation and yielding satisfying outcomes. 

2. Important Measures and Key Projects Benefiting All Parties 

As early as in 2012 when China-CEEC cooperation began, China announced at the Summit in Warsaw 12 measures to promote friendly cooperation with CEE countries, covering such fields as economic cooperation and trade, financing, infrastructure, culture, education, tourism, think tanks, and youth. These measures include: establishing a US $10 billion special credit line, including a certain percentage of preferential loans mainly used for cooperation projects on infrastructure, high-tech, and green economy; initiating the China-Central and Eastern Europe Investment Cooperation Fund, etc. Since then, various types of cooperation initiatives have been introduced, injecting continued impetus into cooperation between the two sides in all areas. Cooperation projects on connectivity, energy, steel, science and technology, medicine, agriculture, water resource, aircraft manufacturing, automobiles, and telecommunications have been rolled out one after another, and important early harvest has been achieved in all CEE countries. Among them, a number of key projects such as the Budapest-Belgrade Railway, the Port of Piraeus, the Pelješac Bridge and the Mozura Wind Farm have made contributions to the enhanced connectivity between CEE countries and created new jobs for the local people. Apart from benefiting the local people, these projects also earned a good image and reputation for “Made in China” and Chinese enterprises.

3. Practical Cooperation Between the Two Sides Taken to a Higher Level

In the past nine years, China-CEEC cooperation has increasingly played a bigger role in promoting the practical cooperation between the two sides. Total trade between China and CEE countries exceeded US$100 billion for the first time in 2020, an increase of 85% over nine years ago. The growth rate of China’s imports exceeded that of exports by 22 percentage points, which means that more and more products from Central and Eastern Europe entered the Chinese market, providing more diverse choices for the Chinese people. In terms of investment, China’s investment in CEE countries was a mere US$3 billion in 2014. By the end of 2019, it exceeded $16.8 billion, an increase by several fold. Meanwhile, the 17 CEE countries have also invested more than US$1.6 billion in China. With many incentive measures and policies, personnel exchanges have increased rapidly. The number of Chinese tourists to CEE countries has increased more than five times, and there are more than one million mutual tourist visits each year, an increase of nearly four times. In 2018, the number of Chinese tourists to CEE countries accounted for nearly one-third of the total number of foreign tourists to Europe. 

Having achieved fruitful results in institution building and cooperation in various fields, China and CEE countries felt the need to take stock of the existing cooperation and draw a blueprint for the next step of development. Following this consensus, they agreed to hold the China-CEEC Summit in Beijing in April 2020 and President Xi Jinping would personally chair the Summit. Due to the impact of COVID-19, the Summit had to be postponed. Thanks to the joint efforts of all parties, President Xi Jinping chaired the Summit in Beijing via video link on 9 February 2021. This Summit, the highest-level meeting since the start of China-CEEC cooperation, has achieved full success.

III. The Major Significance of China-CEEC Summit and the Wide Prospects for Cooperation

1. The Significance of the Summit

The China-CEEC Summit held on 9 February via video link is not only the highest-level meeting under the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism since its establishment, but also China’s first home-ground diplomatic event in 2021. The significance of this Summit to China’s diplomacy is obvious, but it is much more than that if it is reviewed in a broader context.

First, internationally, this Summit was held against the special backdrop of countries fighting COVID-19. It has demonstrated to the world China and CEE countries’ resolve to work together, overcome difficulties and seek common development. At present, as countries around the world are looking towards economic recovery and rebuilding confidence in the post-COVID-19 era, the Summit has played a fine leading and exemplary role in this regard.

Second, domestically, China achieved a decisive victory in the fight against extreme poverty in 2020, and the year 2021 is the launch of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan and the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China. China will actively foster a new development paradigm with domestic circulation as the mainstay and domestic and international circulations reinforcing each other and work towards a higher-standard open economy. The timing of the Summit sends a positive message to the world, one that says that China’s development is firm and strong and it offers new development opportunities for the global economy and multilateral practical cooperation. 

Third, in terms of the development of China-CEEC cooperation itself, better institution building, cooperation philosophy and outcomes delivery all require us to take stock of past experience, look ahead into the future and make strategic plans to guide future actions. This way, we can usher in a new stage of development and meet the rising expectations of people in our countries.

Fourth, China-CEEC cooperation is an important part of and beneficial complement to China-Europe relations. Its growth contributes to the implementation of major cooperation outcomes between China and European countries at the sub-regional level, and will thus give fresh impetus to the comprehensive and balanced growth of China-EU Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. 

All in all, the Summit demonstrates to the world that China truly practices multilateralism and is resolute in working with all countries to build a new type of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind. The conclusion of the Summit is yet another success story of major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics guided by Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy.

2. Important Outcomes of the Summit

At the Summit, President Xi Jinping delivered a keynote speech entitled “Keeping up the Momentum and Working Together for a New Chapter in China-CEEC Cooperation”. In the speech, he emphasized that the cooperation between CEE countries was “initiated with a commitment to win-win cooperation and common development”. With deep insight, President Xi Jinping summed up the principles of the China-CEEC cooperation as extensive consultation and joint contribution, real results and balance, openness and inclusiveness, and an innovative and pioneering spirit. The Summit identified four priority areas for cooperation, namely COVID-19 response, practical cooperation, connectivity and green innovation. It also released the 2021 Cooperation between China and CEEC Beijing List of Activities (the Beijing List of Activities) and the Outcome List of China-CEEC Summit (the Outcome List).

The Outcome List includes 88 outcome documents reached between China and CEE countries since the 2019 Dubrovnik Summit. The 35 documents on intergovernmental cooperation and 53 on business cooperation listed span a wide range of areas such as trade, finance and investment, customs, science and technology, research and education, sports, health, inspection and quarantine, tourism, culture, energy, green development, infrastructure, Belt and Road cooperation and others.

According to the Beijing List of Activities, the year 2021 is designated as the China-CEEC Year of Green Development and Environmental Protection, and areas of cooperation include planning and coordination, trade and investment, pandemic containment and health cooperation, connectivity, innovation, science, technology, energy, environmental protection, agriculture, food industry and forestry, people-to-people exchanges, education, sports, youth and local cooperation. Nearly 40 events are to be held in 2021, demonstrating the richness of China-CEEC cooperation.

3. China-CEEC Cooperation Outlook

(1) Solidarity in COVID-19 Response

The two sides stand ready to step up experience sharing on pandemic response and COVID-19 treatment, explore the possibility of traditional medicine cooperation and enhance the level of health and medical cooperation, so as to contribute to the global community of health for all. At the Summit, President Xi Jinping stated that China will actively consider vaccine cooperation with CEE countries. The two sides will also promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, coordinate COVID response and economic and social development, resume travels and economic activities in a prudent and orderly manner, and keep industrial and supply chains stable.

For that to happen, the Summit participants decide to hold China-CEEC Health Ministers’ Special Meeting, Health Experts’ Meeting and other activities in a flexible manner, depending on the development of the pandemic, and support Hungary in holding the second China-CEEC Expert Forum on Regulation of Medical Products and Medical Devices in Budapest.

(2) Practical Cooperation

Practical cooperation has all along been the aim and focus of China-CEEC cooperation. This Summit introduced further major initiatives to advance practical cooperation. President Xi Jinping announced at the Summit that China intends to import, in the coming five years, more than US$170 billion of goods from CEE countries. China stands ready to speed up the entry of agri-food products from CEE countries in a bid to double such agricultural exports to China and raise two-way agricultural trade by 50 percent over the next five years. China proposes setting up a farm produce wholesale market in the CEE region. The two sides also plan to develop demonstration zones and industrial parks for China-CEEC business cooperation in Chinese cities like Ningbo and Cangzhou, step up people-to-people exchanges and strengthen sports cooperation using the opportunity of the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games.

To implement the above-mentioned measures, the two sides plan to hold in China in 2021 the fifth China-CEEC Customs Inspection and Quarantine Cooperation Dialogue, the fourth China International Import Expo and the sixth Meeting of the China-CEEC Business Council. They also agreed to hold the fourth China-CEEC Ministerial Conference on Economic and Trade Promotion and the second China-CEEC Expo in Ningbo, the third China-CEEC SME Cooperation Forum in Cangzhou, and the China-CEEC Textile Expo in Romania.

(3) Connectivity

Connectivity is key to developing smooth avenues of cooperation for interconnected development. Since launching the China-CEEC cooperation, the two sides have engaged in a series of key projects with remarkable results. At this Summit, President Xi Jinping pointed out cooperation priorities such as constantly improving connectivity, jointly pursuing high-quality Belt and Road cooperation, speeding up major projects such as the Budapest-Belgrade Railway, continuing to support the development of the China-Europe Railway Express, deepening customs cooperation to ensure trade security and faster clearance, and exploring cooperation on a pilot basis under the “Smart Customs, Smart Borders and Smart Connectivity” Initiative.

Guided by these principles, in 2021 the fourth China-CEEC Transport Ministers’ Meeting will be hosted by Poland, and the third China-CEEC Logistics Secretariat Focal Point Meeting and the fourth China-CEEC High-level Customs Cooperation Forum will be hosted by China or interested CEE countries.

(4) Green Innovation

Green innovation is a new spotlight of this Summit and future-oriented driver of cooperation. Participants of the Summit designated the year 2021 as the China-CEEC Year of Green Development and Environmental Protection and will actively carry out relevant exchanges and cooperation. President Xi Jinping stated at the Summit that China will steadfastly advance international cooperation on climate change and take the China-CEEC Year of Green Development and Environmental Protection as an opportunity to deepen exchange and cooperation in green economy, clean energy and other related areas. China also proposed setting up a China-CEEC STI Research Center, holding a China-CEEC Forum for Young S&T Talent, widening cooperation on the digital economy, e-commerce and the health sector and setting up a China-CEEC dialogue mechanism on e-commerce cooperation and a China-CEEC alliance in the public health industry.

In this connection, in 2021, China will host the second China-CEEC Ministers’ Conference on Environmental Cooperation and the fifth China-CEEC Conference on Innovation Cooperation. The possibility of holding a China-CEEC Forum for Young S&T Talent in China will be considered. Furthermore, Serbia and Montenegro both expressed interest in setting up a China-CEEC Smart City Center.

Sub-national cooperation has been an important part of China-CEEC cooperation. Prior to this Summit, the fifth China-CEEC Local Leaders’ Meeting was held in Shenyang via video link. In 2021, Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, will host the fifth China-CEEC Capital Mayors Forum and China’s Ningbo will host the China-CEEC Mayors Forum. China-CEEC sub-national cooperation will produce more fruits this year.

Although there might be challenges with the deepening of China-CEEC cooperation, this model of cooperation, which is gaining more and more attention, resources and efficiency, has won the recognition of all sides. The fact that bilateral cooperation between China and CEE countries has benefited from the China-CEEC cooperation platform has also been recognized by all participants.

As an old Chinese poem puts it, “The river is wide at full tide; a strong wind sends the sail surging forward.” The world trend for peace, development and cooperation has provided ample space for China-CEEC cooperation, and the Beijing Summit has charted the course for the two sides to advance cooperation. With close cooperation and joint efforts of all, the ship of China-CEEC cooperation will break waves and sail far.

Huo Yuzhen is Special Representative for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.