Exclusive: China may pare back 'divisive' eastern Europe summits

From Reuters - March 12, 2018

BERLIN/BRUSSELS/SOFIA (Reuters) - China is considering paring back annual summits with eastern European countries that have fueled concerns in western capitals that Beijing is seeking to divide the continent, according to three European diplomats.

The diplomats said there were indications China could delay the next 16+1 summit, scheduled for the Bulgarian capital Sofia later this year, and hold future meetings every two years instead of on an annual basis.

The possible shift comes amid unease in Beijing over criticism of the summits in Brussels, Berlin and other capitals, at a time when the EU is discussing steps to more strictly control corporate takeovers of European firms by Chinese rivals.

Wider EU-China summits have become more tense in recent years, with the past two meetings failing to produce a joint statement amid disagreements over the South China Sea and trade.

Some diplomats also cited disappointment in China andeastern Europe with the slow pace of deals under the format, which was launched in 2012 with a summit in Warsaw and has been held each year since, most recently in Budapest in November.

The 16+1 format wont die, because these formats never do, they have their own lives, but it will be a less intensive format, probably shifting more to bilateral talks, one senior EU official said.

Another European diplomat suggested a decision had been taken at the highest levels of the Chinese government to lower the profile of the summits out of concern that they were hurting Beijings image and undermining its broader goals in Europe.

The Chinese foreign ministry did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the Bulgarian government said Sofia was focused on its role as holder of the rotating EU presidency in the first half of 2018 and no date had been set for the next 16+1 summit.


Besides China, the 16 countries that participate in the summits include EU members Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, as well as non-EU states Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

These countries have seen the summits as a way to lure Chinese investment in roads, railways, power stations and other infrastructure as part of Beijings Belt and Road plan to build transport and trade links in more than 60 countries.

Enthusiasm remains strong in non-EU states like Serbia, which do not have access to EU structural or cohesion funds.

Hungary has also been a champion of the format. Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in January: We need capital to build new roads and pipelines. If the EU is unable to provide enough capital, then we will simply collect it in China.



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