Budapest, Again the “Capital” of 16+1
Budapest hosts this year on the 27th of November the sixth summit of 16+1 Initiative, designed China and its 16 Central and Eastern European (CEE) partners. The first economic forum of the 16+1 countries took place also in Budapest, six years ago. The 16+1 mechanism was officially initiated in 2012 during the Warsaw Summit by the People’s Republic of China in order to stimulate the cooperation with Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia. The subsequent yearly summits (Bucharest, Belgrade, Suzhou and Riga) and side events such as business forums, national coordinators’ gatherings, seminars and various 16+1 Ministers' meetings have given a new impetus to China-CEE relations.
Hungary has played an active role in this platform since the very beginning and is considered one of the CEE leaders in terms of intensity of cooperation with China (alongside Poland and Serbia). In addition to being the second largest recipient of Chinese investment in the 16+1 and the first country in CEE where the Bank of China established itself, it hosts the China-CEE Institute (launched at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences on April 24, 2017), “China's first Think Tank independently registered in Europe”, the Belt & Road Center, “established to not only conduct research on the Belt and Road initiative but also to coordinate the academic work of other Think Tanks concerning the project in the Central and Eastern European region” and organizes conferences and forums in order to deepen the debate and understanding of the Chinese initiatives. We will summarize below three of them.
- The second edition of the 16+1 High-Level Academic Forum took place at the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade in Budapest on November 6-7, 2017.
Three other Hungarian institutions were co-organizers of this event: Pallas Athene Geopolitical Foundation (PAGEO), HETFA and Századvég Foundation. The discussion revolved around aspects related to China-CEE cooperation in the global framework, developments and challenges associated with the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s image in CEE, Chinese Diplomacy and the need of increasing awareness of the New Modern China.
This Academic Forum was initiated by the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau in 2015 and the first Forum was organized in Warsaw last year.
The Central Compilation and Translation Bureau (CCTB) is under the jurisdiction of and is directly subordinate to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC). Its main duties and tasks include preparing foreign translations of important documents of the Party and state and the works of Party and government leaders.
The Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT) is a separate legal entity under the Public Foundation “Center for Democracy” (DEMKK in Hungarian) operating as a research institute and a Think Tank affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Hungary. IFAT is carrying out active research in fields covering the priorities of the Hungarian foreign policy. The Institute issues the only foreign policy journal of Hungary, the Külügyi Szemle (Foreign Policy Review).
HETFA (in translation the allegorical “Seven Trees”) is an independent Think Tank in Budapest, established in 2009 by young economists, political scientists and sociologists sharing theoretical and practical experience in social research, public administration and consultancy. Their goal is to provide evidence-based analyses on national as well as local policy issues for the decision-makers and the policy expert community to improve the quality of public debates and public decisions.
Pallas Athene Geopolitical Foundation was created in 2014 by the Central Bank of Hungary, with the main objective of encouraging the increase in geopolitical knowledge which will help promote economic development in Hungary and in the Central-Eastern European region.
The Századvég Foundation is an independent Think Tank whose primary aim is to articulate and promote the issues and processes concerning Hungarian society and public interests, and to publish a clearly written and objective analysis of these processes.
- The China-CEE Think Tanks Network Conference was organized by the China-CEEC Think Tanks Network, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Hungary and the Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade, in Budapest on the 20th of November, 2017.
The China-CEEC Think Tank Network was launched in Beijing in December 2015 to encourage more interaction between scholars from China and CEE countries. It was established by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (Beijing) and is actively supported by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The 2017 meeting in Budapest was the fifth such event between China and CEE countries and it focuses on the 16+1 cooperation in the past five years, offering a sum-up of the achievements and developments in Chinese-CEE relations.
- The China-CEE Institute is organizing a series of events between the 26th and 29th of November 2017 in Budapest. The conference on “Hungary and RMB Internationalization” takes place on the 27th of November on the occasion of the China-CEE summit in Budapest.
As a matter of fact, networking, cooperation and China are three words that are pervasive throughout the international discourse of the group. According to the Chinese scholar Zhengju Ji, vice-director of CCTB, China is a promoter of a new model of international relations seen as a community with a shared future for humankind. Other Chinese researchers such as Xiaoqiu Yu argue that the steady exchange and cooperation between China and the Central and Eastern European countries are beneficial to development of the overall relationship between China and Europe rather than opposite. China has clearly supported the EU integration process. The goals of its recent initiatives are to find a balanced way of cooperation with good results for all sides involved. However, in the absence of mutual trust, China’s real intentions cannot be understood and cherished.
The three conferences presented in this brief article are just a part of the numerous events taking place in China and CEE countries dedicated to exploring the deepening cooperation within the 16+1.
However, there are significant challenges to face. In my opinion:
- The heterogeneity of the group does not enable a unitary approach, which means that the bilateral format is the main form of cooperation between China and CEE-16, on a “case by case” basis. The 16+1 framework remains in the exploratory phase, even if its objectives have become clear enough through the successive Guidelines of cooperation;
- The economic cooperation cannot be significantly intensified until the “spirit of doing business” in the partner country/region is not understood properly and the elements hindering cooperation are mitigated. This involves not only inter-governmental and academic contacts, but also people-to-people contacts and, a trend visible in many of the CEE countries, more and more people studying Chinese language and culture;
- There is no doubt that 16+1 platform enables a better comprehension and communication with partners, it clarifies which are the participants’ expectations regarding the cooperation, and also which are the barriers, risks and possible misunderstandings in the process of joint action.
Hungary seems to be aware of the numerous opportunities that the 16+1 and, in a larger sense, the Belt and Road Initiative, may bring to it. At the same time, its openness towards China contradicts the “illiberal democracy” label it has received from the developed Europe. Hungary’s high cooperation intensity with China is correlated with its own Eurosceptic attitude, the importance attached to national interest and the recognized need of strengthening cooperation with China, now a significant actor on the world stage. As long as the 16+1 format is a way to secure the national interest – a right of each country in the world – and it has no strings attached, it should be embraced by all the CEE countries, including Romania.
 The acronym refers to the CEE countries which cooperate with China under the 16+1 platform, including Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, plus China.