Is China’s Summit Diplomacy in Central and Eastern Europe at a Dead End?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 22 Issue: 15

PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Head of European Affairs Wang Lutong and Slovakia’s Ambassador to China unveil a special postal envelope to commemorate a decade of China-CEE cooperation in April (source: FMPRC)


During a recent phone call between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Polish President Andrzej Duda, the former said that both sides should actively cooperate to organize activities for the 10th anniversary of China-Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) cooperation (中国—中东欧国家合作, Zhongguo — Zhong dongou guojia hezuo). Beijing’s readout of the meeting only briefly mentioned that both leaders exchanged opinions on “the Ukrainian crisis” (乌克兰危机, Wukelan weiji) (People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs [FMPRC], July 29). In contrast, according to the information provided by President Duda’s office, the conversation was dominated by the consequences of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, and China-CEE cooperation was not mentioned (, July 29; CHOICE, August 1). Earlier in June, People’s Republic of China’s (PRC)  Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized Poland’s leading role in launching China-CEE cooperation, and declared that ten years after its inception, this multilateral platform is “at a new starting point” in a video call with his Polish counterpart Zbigniew Rau (FMPRC), June 10). Indeed, the numeric term 16+1, is no longer used in the PRC’s  official pronouncements following Lithuania’s exit from the 17+1 format in 2021 (China Brief, January 28). At the same time, the Polish readout of the call did not mention the 16+1 at all, and called on “every nation which respects the norms of sovereignty and territorial integrity, to fiercely condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine” (, June 13). With this appeal, Minister Rau clearly communicated Poland’s dissatisfaction with China’s tacit support for Russia during its war of aggression against Ukraine.

The PRC’s concerns that its relations with CEE states have suffered due to its close ties to Moscow recently led the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) to dispatch a delegation, headed by 16+1 special representative Huo Yuzhen (霍玉珍) on a damage limitation mission to eight CEE countries. The delegation sought to explain “China’s position on the Ukraine crisis” and to discuss China-CEE cooperation. However, the delegation was not received by Poland’s MFA (FMPRC, May 18; Twitter, May 11). The aim of the Chinese delegation was also to assess the possible downgrading of the 16+1 summits to the foreign minister level and limiting their occurrence to once every three years.  However, the delegation appeared to make little headway. During talks with the Czech MFA, the delegation was “given the cold shoulder” and was informed that the government in Prague is  “concerned about China’s cooperation with Russia in the context of the war in Ukraine” (Asia Explained, May 24). This demonstrates how Chinese narratives confront a reality check on the ground.

Despite Warsaw’s frustration with Beijing’s enduring ties to Moscow, Poland has indicated it will not follow in Lithuania’s footsteps and leave the 16+1 dialogue mechanism. The Polish MFA commented recently that although Poland focuses predominantly on bilateral relations with the PRC, it will remain in the dialogue, but will only selectively engage with the format (Puls Biznesu, June 21). Behind this diplomatic formula, Poland has calculated that in the face of an imminent threat from Russia, close security ties with the U.S. and NATO must be prioritized. However, Poland also wants to keep other diplomatic channels open, partly for leverage in its relations with the European Union and the U.S. For its part, China perceives Poland as an important element in its regional outreach, both with the 16+1 and the EU. In fact, as was hinted by a diplomat from one of the Baltic states, Poland’s lack of interest in leaving the China-led format effectively hinders smaller CEE states which wish to exit the format (GMFUS, April 1, 2021). CEE states are wary of the political and economic price that a diplomatic row with China could bring, including China’s weaponizing of trade and supply chains. The months-long conflict with Lithuania reached its climax after the opening of a Taiwanese representative office, in Vilnius. China applied coercive measures targeting Lithuania’s economy, which effectively amounted to informal sanctions that also affected third parties (OSW, December 12, 2021). For the same reason, Estonia, which has openly voiced its dissatisfaction with the 16+1 format’s lack of results, has not yet decided to formally leave the China-led framework but has reduced its participation in the format’s activities instead (, December 23, 2021).

Sidestepping 16+1 realities

On April 26, the 16+1 format marked its tenth anniversary. However, instead of a formal summit and ambitious declarations that one might expect from Chinese policymakers on such an occasion, the anniversary was marked with  only a commemorative envelope issued by the Chinese post office, which was promoted on social media by Wang Lutong (王鲁彤), the head of European Affairs at MFA and Executive Secretary-General of the China-CEE Cooperation Secretariat (Twitter, April 26). The unveiling of a commemorative envelope was a central theme of the ceremony held some three months later in Beijing. On this occasion, Wang Lutong tried to persuade the representatives of CEE embassies in China, that a decade after its inception, the China-CEE cooperation had maintained good momentum exemplified by large projects, fruitful practical cooperation and the deepening of people-to-people contacts (FMPRC, July 15). The envelope itself speaks volumes about the depth of the crisis that China-led multilateral diplomacy faces in CEE. In addition, the anniversary attracted little attention from Chinese diplomats or state media.

The decade of “the China-CEE cooperation mechanism” was marked, albeit without much fanfare, by the People’s Daily in an article penned by the PRC’s Ambassador to Bulgaria, 董晓军 (Dong Xiaojun), who noted that the China-CEE format had found itself at a new starting point, “despite facing complex external challenges” (People’s Daily, April 26). Clearly, such statements are an attempt to sidestep reality. China’s tacit support for Russia is viewed negatively in most CEE countries, especially those on NATO’s eastern flank. Moreover, four months after the outbreak of war, Chinese diplomats have consistently amplified Russian propaganda, replicating the Kremlin’s narrative that the primary reason for the Ukraine war is NATO’s eastward expansion (FMPRC, May 6; People’s Daily, May 7; People’s Daily, May 7). In June, Minister Wang Yi referred to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov with the affectionate term, “old friend” (老朋友, lao pengyou), suggesting that China’s attitude is not likely to change any time soon (FMPRC, June 1).

In his April 26 People’s Daily piece, Ambassador Dong also emphasized the potential for increased agricultural cooperation between China and the CEE region, citing Bulgaria as China’s exemplary partner in this area. In particular, Dong hailed the Luban workshop (鲁班工坊, Luban gongfang)that was opened last year at the Agricultural University of Plovdiv. The Luban workshop is a vocational college whose aim is to train local populations across the Global South in various technical areas in line with Chinese standards, which was established partially in response to local partners’ insistence on Chinese projects employing more local workers. However, setting up a worldwide network of Luban workshops to upskill thousands of locals to work on Chinese overseas projects is primarily aimed at globalizing Chinese technology and strengthening economic and people-to-people connections between China and the Global South, an area critical in its rivalry with the US (The Diplomat, November 11, 2021; China Brief, November 5, 2021). Opening the Luban workshop in Bulgaria, a country firmly embedded in Western economic and security structures, is paradoxically an implication of Chinese efforts, as CEE is generally perceived by Chinese policymakers as a (semi-) peripheral area of Europe, and thus more aligned to the Global South cooperation model (南南合作, nannan hezuo)  (, November 27, 2015). This, in turn, has led to the implementation of financial mechanisms (mostly credit lines) that are predominantly attractive and accessible for the non-EU countries of the Western Balkans, but rather unsuited for the needs of the EU countries that belong to the 16+1.

However, when it comes to Chinese efforts behind the 16+1, economic engagement was never a priority. Apart from a huge trade gap between China and the majority of CEE countries, direct investments have hardly materialized, which has led to disappointment across the region. The 16+1 platform’s first decade demonstrates that from China’s perspective, the forum is primarily a tool for elite and public engagement: enhancing ties with CEE leaders through summit diplomacy and those between local populations through people-to-people diplomacy. [1] China has also sought to use the format as a bargaining chip in its relations with the EU and the organization’s most powerful countries – Germany and France (Xinhua, February 25, 2021; Sinopsis, July 20, 2018;, June 1, 2018). China’s appeal to CEE countries through summit diplomacy has faded considerably in recent years, which is in part due to Beijing’s failure to deliver on its economic promises to the region. The PRC authorities had placed the 16+1 secretariat under the structure of its foreign ministry, thus – at least institutionally – casting itself as chief architect of the format’s agenda (China-CEEC, June 27). The last decade has shown that China’s capacity to meet its multilateral commitments has, to say the least, been limited. This inactivity accords with the general practice of China-led platforms across the Global South, be it in the 16+1 or FOCAC forums, which is to over-promise and underdeliver on the economic front. The operations of these formats show China’s disinterest in engaging in actual sectoral integration of the participating states. On the contrary, China has been mostly maintaining an asymmetry, stemming from the network of bilateral relations under a multilateral guise.

The Elephant in the Room

The 16+1 summits primarily fulfilled a relational role serving to strengthen China’s connections with respective CEE leaders and deepen its network of bilateral relations. However, this year, China-CEE cooperation all but disappeared from the rhetoric of Chinese diplomacy, even in communications with the most pro-Chinese CEE leaders, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, respectively, who were both  returned to office in early April elections. In a congratulatory telegram to President Vučić, President Xi Jinping emphasized his excellent working relations and friendship with the Serbian leader and touted the high level of political trust between the two countries (FMPRC, April 5). However, Xi did not mention the 16+1, although he did refer to the joint promotion of his concept of “common destiny of humankind” (人类命运共同体, renlei mingyun gongtong ti) that is umbrella concept for the implementation of the Chinese vision of the world order. Similarly, in the case of Prime Minister Orbán’s electoral victory, the 16+1 was not included either in the congratulatory message sent by Prime Minister Li Keqiang or during the foreign ministers’ call between Wang Yi and Péter Szijjártó (People’s Daily, April 4; People’s Daily, April 5). Importantly, FM Wang praised Hungary for “maintaining an independent attitude” and “choosing its own path of development”, which can be interpreted as China’s support for Viktor Orbán’s “neutrality” towards Russian aggression in Ukraine.

In the weeks that followed, China-CEE cooperation was not mentioned in China’s high-level communication with officials from Slovenia, Greece, or Croatia (People’s Daily, June 6; People’s Daily, May 25;, May 13; FMPRC, May 13; FMPRC, May 13). China-CEE cooperation was also omitted in Wang Yi’s July call with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, where the former stated that “China is not a party to the Ukrainian crisis” but was in fact a constant promoter of peace talks. In response, FM Szijjártó said: “China has never been Europe’s rival, but a partner that brings cooperation opportunities” (FMPRC, July 17). This shows again that Beijing has been using the 16+1 forum as a balancing tool and now wants to use countries in CEE that are more sympathetic to China to amplify its narratives and improve its relations with the EU, which had been significantly constrained by the China-Russia back-to-back (背靠背, bei kao bei) partnership against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine.

In recent months, apart from the talks with Polish authorities, possibly the only two examples of bringing the 16+1 platform into official communication by the Chinese side can be found in Xi’s congratulatory telegrams to the newly elected presidents of Hungary and Albania, Katalin Novák and Bajram Begaj, respectively. In the former case, the Chinese readout mentioned “China-CEE cooperation” as one of the frameworks in which China and Hungary had implemented their strategic partnership (FMPRC, May 10), while  in the latter, “China-CEE cooperation” was brought up together with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a platform facilitating political trust and strengthening political communication between China and Albania (, July 24). Despite these examples, the 16+1 format is clearly put on the back burner for the sake of China-EU ties. When attending (online) the opening ceremony of the Chinese-built, EU-funded Pelješac Bridge in Croatia, Prime Minister Li Keqiang inferred that it “demonstrates China-Europe cooperation”, without a single reference to the “China-CEE” format (People’s Daily, July 28). However, in other contexts, China regularly advertises the bridge as one of the flagship projects of the 16+1 format.

What is Next for China-CEE Summitry?

The erosion of the 16+1 summitry and the increasing lack of interest among the majority of CEE countries in cooperating with China under the multilateral umbrella has been something of a trend for the past several years; 2018 was the first time it was publicly speculated about the possible phasing-out of the 16+1 summits (The Diplomat, July 13, 2018). Yet, quite unexpectedly, at the 2019 summit in Croatia, the format expanded to include a debt-stricken Greece, which demonstrated that what China has to offer to semi-peripheral areas of Europe remains attractive (The State Council of the PRC, April 14, 2019;, April 13, 2019),  However, this soon turned out to be an “escape forward” strategy. In 2020, the China-CEE annual summit did not take place for the first time, officially under the pretext of the pandemic with the latest summit held virtually in 2021 (Xinhuanet, February 9, 2021). Notably, the 2021 summit was hosted personally by President Xi Jinping for the first time instead of Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who had presided over previous summits. Despite China’s efforts to increase the prestige of the meeting, over a third of the countries downgraded their diplomatic representation and did not send their leaders to the summit. In Beijing, this was interpreted as a severe loss of face and tangible proof that relational ties with CEE have been substantially weakened. Later the same year, Greece refused China’s invitation to organize the next summit, citing a “lack of organizational experience” (Twitter, March 17, 2021).

A 2022 16+1 summit is unlikely, and future summits also remain in doubt, especially at the highest political level. Furthermore, future departures by CEE countries from the 16+1 cannot be ruled out. After Lithuania decided to leave the format, other countries, such as Estonia and more recently the Czech Republic, have started to openly signal their willingness to exit the 16+1 format; if not formally, then by either not attending 16+1 sectoral meetings, or downgrading their respective representations at any future summits. Either way, the 16+1 forum, as it stands, is effectively dead. Ten years after its inception, the dialogue mechanism is in deep crisis, and there is little likelihood that a 17 leader summit will be organized in the foreseeable future. This does not mean the end for the China-led platform, but rather that it has, for the moment, been put on the backburner.

Bartosz Kowalski is an assistant professor at the Department of Asian Studies of the University of Łódź, Poland, and researcher of its Center for Asian Affairs. His research focuses on China’s foreign policy, including relations between China and Central-Eastern Europe.


[1] See for example- Dominik Mierzejewski, Bartosz Kowalski & Jarosław Jura (2022) The Domestic Mechanisms of China’s Vertical Multilateralism: The FOCAC and the 16+1 Format Case Studies, Journal of Contemporary China, DOI: 10.1080/10670564.2022.2109842