The Framework of China’s Cooperation with Central-Eastern Europe: A View from the Baltics
This small material represents an interpretation-based commentary on a particular issue – how a strategically important region for a global actor could clearly determine its role within a sophisticated framework related to a geo-strategic initiative of another global actor. Our discussion revolves around the Baltic States, the EU, China, its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and, a direct extension of the latter, the Chinese state’s rapidly developing interconnectedness with a patchy region of sixteen Central and Eastern European countries (the 16+1 Initiative).
A cooperative cluster
The factor of BRI existence is gradually becoming a major driving element of both Chinese political economy and foreign relations.
Should we presume the factor of functional imminence for the 16+1 framework to be further ‘crafted up’ and institutionalized, the discussion must then immediately lead to an academic enquiry on the identification of relationships between China and those countries involved in the framework-originated activities. The vast majority of the 16+1 countries-participants, including the Baltics, are Member States of the European Union (EU). This number grows even higher to reach ‘thirteen’ when, out of idle curiosity, NATO Members within the 16+1 ‘basket’ are to be counted. If we concentrate on the EU and leave NATO outside of the ‘equation’ for now, it will be easier to argue that the 16+1 is ultimately yet another dimension of China’s interactions with the EU. The sooner the EU accepts such a status quo, the more beneficial the cooperation with China will become for the whole entity. In no way are the non-EU countries are neglected in this argument – they are simply treated as a periphery of a contemporary political empire.
The EU, in order to maintain its geostrategic relevance, needs to work out a good solution on how to seamlessly ‘accommodate’ the 16+1 into the grand scheme of the EU-China strategic cooperation.
The opinion on offer is that there is a timely opportunity for the imperial paradigm to hesitate on the sidelines before entering the academic discourse on the EU-China cooperation. There is a massive body of academic literature – from J. Zielonka (2006, 2011, 2012, 2013) to A. Motyl (1997, 1999, 2001), from N. Parker (2008, 2010) to S. Howe (2002) – that made it a routine for students of international relations to discuss modern imperial entities, namely the United States, China, Russia, and the EU, and their interactions with each other. There is a principal point here, that the discourse on contemporary political empires does not carry any negativity and/or groundless speculations in terms of its connotation – a major entity simply must be treated as it is. Quite often, it is a challenging exercise because, as stated by Parker (2010, p. 127), “[a]n irony of arguing for the prominence of empire in geopolitics is that it is so often a form of geopolitics which dares not to speak its name”.
Here, there is no place to hide away from the classic “economy is political” and the Chinese side truly feels “historic ownership of the Silk Road”.
At the same time, it could be assumed that the BRI-driven frameworks, including the 16+1, evidently represent highly advanced examples of interconnections-building activity, not only within China’s immediate neighborhood but also globally. Significantly, the factor of BRI existence is gradually becoming a major driving element of both Chinese political economy and foreign relations. Here, there is no place to hide away from the classic “economy is political” (Keohane, 1984, p. 21), and the Chinese side truly feels “historic ownership of the Silk Road” (Fallon, 2015, p.141) – the route’s modern understanding brings up multiplicity of prospective options and outcomes. Wang Jisi’s (2013) major standing point is that “China is neither east nor west; not north nor south”, with a denial that China is either a developing or a developed country. It could be suggested that Wang’s ‘middle-ground’ interpretation is conceptually associated with particularities of ‘Chinese characteristics’ that are linked to almost everything in China – politics, power, democracy, family, socialism, way of life and even cuisine. In this respect, the most recent revision of the super-holistic concept of ‘Tianxia’ (天下) – ‘all-under-heaven’ – strikingly resonates with the BRI-related activities that are certainly ‘all-on-the-ground’.
China has unified its previously separate policies towards different parts of Asia as well as the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Caucasus, and the Baltic Sea areas into a comprehensive one.
Plenty of new interconnections are to be developed in less than a decade – gigantic efforts are planned and partially underway to get dozens of nations linked by infrastructure elements of intercontinental breadth. Meanwhile, foreign policy strategies throughout the world are to be redesigned due to the BRI-bound diversification of trading routes. All these future moderators have nothing to do with science fiction – they are realities of tomorrow, and they are directly affecting the EU’s global position, with an intriguing chance for the entity to become much stronger politically.
The most recent revision of the super-holistic concept of ‘Tianxia’ (天下) – ‘all-under-heaven’ – strikingly resonates with the BRI-related activities that are certainly ‘all-on-the-ground’.
Conceptually, via its BRI, China has unified its previously separate policies towards different parts of Asia as well as the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the Caucasus, and the Baltic Sea areas into a comprehensive one. Should global multipolar redesign be assumed as being underway, the BRI could be definitely treated as the most outstanding example of China’s active participation in the process. President Xi’s remarks regarding an “in-depth exchange of views […] on a new model of major-country relations” (2014, p.306) that he had with US President Obama directly confirmed that a “major country” China, together with a “major country” USA, will be attempting to build “a new model” that will bring “benefits to […] the people of the world at large”.
Avoiding a fragmented Europe
Foreign policy strategies throughout the world are to be redesigned due to the BRI-bound diversification of trading routes.
In this context, the EU, in order to maintain its geostrategic relevance, needs to work out a good solution on how to seamlessly ‘accommodate’ the 16+1 into the grand scheme of the EU-China strategic cooperation. Noting a certain degree of positive stability that the EU-China interrelations enjoy for quite some time, it could be rightfully stated that the existing strategic grand framework has already entered a distinct period when the two sides could prospectively employ an evolutionarily stable strategy (Smith, 1972) to keep succeeding further. Such an approach can define the evolutionary outcome as “a function not only of the static payoff elements but also of the dynamic protocol of pay” (Hirshleifer and Coll, 1987, p. 1). Departing from this useful yet nevertheless abstract theorizing, it could be suggested that the EU-China strategic cooperation, characterized by relative stability and longevity, has already cobbled the way for its process to be understood from the perspective of evolution and functional dynamism. This premise then opens new avenues for policy-makers to broaden the scope of existing cooperation by adding new elements into it, and without making the European continent fragmented by myriads of different cooperative clusters with the same strategic partner.
Fallon, T. (2015). The New Silk Road: Xi Jinping's Grand Strategy for Eurasia. American Foreign Policy Interests, 37 (3), 140-147.
Hirshleifer J. and Coll J.C.M. (1987) ‘What strategies can support the evolutionary emergence of cooperation?’, CISA Working Paper No.58, Centre for International and Strategic Studies, University of California, Los Angeles, February.
Howe, S. (2002). Empire: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Keohane, R.O. (1984). After hegemony: cooperation and discord in the world political economy. NJ: Princeton University Press.
Motyl, A.J. (1997). Thinking about empire. In K. Barkley & M. von Hagen (Eds.), After empire: multiethnic societies and nation building (pp. 19-29). Oxford: Westview Press.
Motyl, A.J. (1999). Revolutions, nations, empires: conceptual limits and theoretical possibilities. New York: Columbia University Press.
Motyl, A.J. (2001). Imperial ends: the decay, collapse, and revival of empires. New York: Columbia University Press.
Parker, N. (2008). The geopolitics of Europe's identity: centers, boundaries, and margins. (Ed.) New York: Palgrave.
Parker, N. (2010). Empire as a geopolitical figure. Geopolitics, 15 (1), 109-132.
Smith, M.J. (1972) Game theory and the evolution of fighting. On evolution. Edinburgh University Press.
Wang, Jisi (2013). China’s dilemma: Marching West but Thinking East. Resource document. Public event. ThinkIN China. Beijing. Event 28. http://www.east-west-dichotomy.com/wang-jisi-i-dont-see-why-we-should-not-have-some-benign-competition/ and http://www.thinkinchina.asia/28/. Accessed 7 August 2017.
Xi, J. (2014). Build a new model of major-country relationship between China and the United States. In J. Xi, The Governance of China (pp. 306-308). Foreign Languages Press Co. Ltd.
Zielonka, J. (2006). Europe as Empire. The nature of the enlarged European Union. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zielonka, J. (2011). America and Europe: two contrasting or parallel empires? Journal of Political Power, 4 (3), 337-354.
Zielonka, J. (2012). Empires and the modern international system. Geopolitics, 17 (3), 502-525.
Zielonka, J. (2013). The International system in Europe: Westphalian anarchy or medieval chaos? Journal of European Integration, 35 (1), 1-18.
 This commentary is partially based on Vlad Vernygora, ‘The Belt and Road: Gently Rebuffing Geo-politics’ in China-CEEC Cooperation and the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, eds. Huang Ping and Liu Zuokui (China Social Science Press, 2016), pp. 1-12.