A 16+1 Think Tank Network for better China-CEECs relations
With the rise of its economic strength, China has endeavored to develop its relations with every part of the world, including Central and Eastern European countries (CEECs). Apart from securing its own needs for external resources and new markets, China also wishes to play a more important role in global governance as a responsible stake-holder.
In 2012, China and 16 CEECs agreed to set up a special mechanism of cooperation. Dubbed the 16+1, it intends to open a new avenue of cooperation between the two sides. Much progress has been made in areas such as trade, investment, infrastructure, finance, tourism, education, agriculture, culture and local cooperation among others. Premier Li Keqiang noted, at the Fourth Summit of China and the CEECs in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, on Nov. 24, 2015, that "Over the past three years, 16+1 cooperation, just like a high-speed train, has set out on its journey and gained speed all the way from Warsaw to Bucharest, and from Belgrade to Suzhou."
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang presides over the the Fourth Summit of China and Central and Eastern European (CEE) Countries in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Nov. 24, 2015. [Xinhua]
The theme of the Suzhou Summit is "a new beginning, new domains and a new vision." These three "new" aspects represent one agenda for cooperation over the next five years and six cooperative priorities: implementing a roadmap for advancing cooperation, promoting synergy between the Belt and Road initiative and the development strategies of the CEECs, setting new examples for cooperation on production capacity, looking for new ways to invest and finance cooperation, stimulating trade and investment, and expanding people-to-people cultural exchange.
In order to make the 16+1 more fruitful, both sides need to redouble their efforts and expand into more areas of cooperation. As is always the case, strengthening mutual understanding and mutual trust is imperative for any bilateral relationship, including China-CEECs relations. There are many ways of achieving this goal, and the academics can play a very important and constructive role.
At the Third China-CEECs Summit in Belgrade in December 2014, Premier Li Keqiang proposed the establishment of think tanks for academic research. One year later, addressing the Fourth Summit in Suzhou, Li said again that China supports the implementation of a 16+1 Think Tank Network and encourages more interactions among scholars of the two sides.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), China's largest think tank, houses thirty-nine research institutions, one of which is the Institute of European Studies. In this institute, there is a section on CEECs. Its researchers have been studying CEECs' political, economic and social issues and also international relations. They have extensive exchange with their counterparts in the CEECs and other parts of the world. Many publications have come forth over the years.
These days, my colleagues have been busy preparing for a grand event launching the establishment of the 16+1 Think Tank Network during mid-December in Beijing. The first conference of the network will be held after the inauguration. All the 16 CEECs will send delegates to Beijing for this gathering.
The 16+1 Think Tank Network, whose secretariat will be located at CASS, is expected to encourage both Chinese and CEEC scholars to make policy proposals for the development of bilateral relations between China and the CEECs. It has many goals to accomplish on its agenda. The most important task at present would be telling the world why China is interested in strengthening its relations with the CEECs.
China's motivation to set up the unique 16+1 cooperation mechanism is to deepen its relations with the CEECs. However, as eleven CEECs are members of the European Union, there are concerns about China's intentions, saying that China seeks to "divide and conquer" the European Union (EU) through the 16+1 mechanism.
This argument is groundless. Developing relations with the CEECs will not jeopardize the unity of the EU, just as the EU's connection with other countries would not necessarily damage the unity of a regional organization to which they belong. More specifically, the EU's close ties with Mexico or Canada has not "divided and conquered" the North American Free Trade Agreement, whose members include the United States and its two neighbors. As a matter of fact, in the age of globalization, any country can promote relations with other countries.
China's Belt and Road initiative will involve almost all the CEECs. That is to say, whether or not the initiative will be a successful win-win scenario will be determined by the progress of cooperation between the two sides. Before any tangible results are achieved, China needs to thoroughly understand the local conditions there, including all the possible "country risks." Therefore, another priority for the Think Tank Network is to find out where the synergy between the Belt and Road initiative and the CEECs' own development strategy can be located. Moreover, scholars also need to figure out what challenges and opportunities lay ahead.
Finally, the Think Tank Network must try to put forward specific policy options for deepening China-CEEC relations, not simply explaining what has already been said by the leaders of the two sides.
To make the Think Tank Network a success is by no means an easier task than setting up the 16+1 cooperation mechanism in the first place. There are few China experts in the CEEC's and there are few CEEC experts in China. Without a larger team of researchers, it won't be easy for the network to achieve greater progress.
However, well begun is half done. Let's applaud the birth of the 16+1 Think Tank Network.