Assault of China to the gates of Europe – ideological fears and pragmatic options

For several days mass-media‘s attention in Bucharest turned massively to something else than to the usual bickering between “coabitants” of convenience sheltered in various palaces in the capital of Romania. It is true that so many senior foreign officials together were not there from the NATO Summit in Romania in 2008. And if in 2008 the official who has won the most important success was Russian President Vladimir Putin, now “the man of the day” was Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.

Annual meeting of the Heads of Government of China, Central and Eastern Europe and the third edition of the Economic and Trade Forum China-Central and Eastern Europe held this year in Bucharest, after the first edition held in Budapest in 2011 and the second in Warsaw in 2012. An excellent opportunity not only to remember the good relations of friendship that connected Romania and China over time but also an important opportunity for the government of PM Ponta to do another concrete step from an agenda of good intentions (about which I wrote here after the visit of Prime Minister Ponta in Beijing/July 2013) to a truly viable partnership.

Although managed questionable in terms of communication (the event was in the media agenda only in the 11th hour before the start), the organizers were able to bring in Bucharest not only one of the political leaders of the planet (which came with a lot of dignitaries and no less than 300 business representatives), but more than 1,000 representatives of private and state companies from the 16 countries of Central and Eastern Europe: Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia, Albania, Latvia, Lithuania and the Republic of Macedonia. Trade and Economic Forum held on the sidelines of government leaders meeting focused on five major themes: energy, agriculture, tourism, IT and infrastructure, without omitting in the informal discussions also other topics of relevance to those involved.

The concerns of EU about “new Russia” – China

Throughout the three days, during which Chinese Premier visited Bucharest, I was witness an interesting array of reactions, from the emotional to the more or less justified ideologically, from fears tributary bygone era to the euphoria of daydreaming. Needless to mention that those who matter the most are the ones strictly pragmatic.

Simultaneously with the lavish receiving of Chinese premier in Romanian lands, the European Commission released a statement requesting the EU countries to remain united in negotiations with China, a signal that the media portrayed as a direct warning to the Romanian Prime Minister Ponta. An intentional (or not) misunderstanding. I think rather we are dealing with an attempt (is right a little too spontaneous and having a serious dose of hypocrisy) of leaders in Brussels to avoid the emergence a “new Russia” in the bilateral relations arena of EU members, knowing that Russia preferred all the time to deal directly with countries leaders when its interests were not able to overcome the opposition of leadership of the European Union. China also might apply this old but effective tactic of “Divide et impera” in relations with EU and the leaders in Brussels are aware that it could bury their last shred of authority. Moreover, commenting on the Summit in Bucharest, Thomas König, coordinator of program for relations with China at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), notice that lately “China has become very opportunistic.” “While Western Europe still faces with economic crisis, without being able to offer new opportunities for Eastern Europe, China has rapidly increased its presence in the region without us knowing exactly what are its the final objectives” he says. As such, it seems that the target of reminder wasn’t Romanian Prime Minister Ponta, but all 16 heads of government present in Bucharest. But I emphasize again that I find hypocritical and unjust attitude of the leaders of the EU leadership. Because among the top countries that have treated and treat with Russia over the head of the European Union (and probably will do the same with China – Germany has already demonstrated “that it can”!) are not newcomers to the community, but just “heavyweights” players from West of Europe. Those should be some kind of “model” for Easterners, less experienced and less connected to European standards.

     China's Premier Li Keqiang arrived Bucharest What may surprise is that this time China’s approach to fellowship with much noise and fanfare brass, which is somewhat unusual for Chinese diplomacy that is most often associated with the phrase “Keep quiet and do it”. Sure, we can noted that some of the noise associated with the Bucharest meeting was due to the organizers who wanted to adjudicate (perhaps too strongly, and even to the detriment of a pragmatic approach) great gain of rating. Thus beyond the euphoric and fraternal statements made in the numerous meetings with the press (that’s too much creates the impression of cheap and I do not remember any other top international meeting where the key figures to have double / triple exit to the ramp’s lights) nobody really understood: what strategy China is planning for the frontiers of Europe? What role could play in this strategy the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, or in other words, EU provincial relatives, poorer and less pretentious than Western counterparts? If we look at the current volume of trade between the EU and China, which reaches 500 billion, with the ambition to reach 1,000 billion in seven years, and then compare it with the statistics which show that Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania together imported from China totaling 31 billion euros ($ 42 billion) in 2012, while exports to China last year reached only 4.5 billion euros ($ 6 billion), we quickly finds that the Eastern market occupies only a small part of the commercial potential offered by the European economic bloc and offers a vast space for growth in the medium and long term.

Why has changed China “Dragon” with Tiger ?

China’s relations with the countries of Eastern Europe were generally strong, sustained during the communist and the sharing the same type of political ideology. And apart from some occasional meetings with the Dalai Lama and settle accounts among Chinese immigrants, news and discussions about China mainly aimed its economic success. More specifically, the Eastern European countries are less critical of the Chinese dictatorship, human rights violations, censorship of the press and the internet, etc. Both sides tend to give priority to the economic pragmatism, especially in the context of the economic crisis which has shown that globalism has its unattractive parts, in which each is on its own. Chinese Prime Minister loves … tigers. Certainly. Even if the usual symbol of China is the Dragon. “Romania can become a tiger of Europe” said in Bucharest the Chinese premier, one of the most powerful people on the planet (which prestigious Forbes magazine grants a worthy third place among the most influential people in the world). “I heard the Prime Minister Ponta presentation about the Romanian economy. I believe that Romania can and will become a tiger of Europe and, if all tigers will come together and collaborate, we will develop a huge market” said Premier of China to the opening of works of Economic and Trade Forum China -Central and Eastern Europe. Romania and China are as two tigers that if join their forces would modernize Europe” said Li Keqiang, changing known Chinese dragon with the economic tiger at the European border, trying to persuade and ensure equality of strategic partnership. Impeccable level of discourse would say. (Maybe Romanian should use the high Chinese official discourse as national autosuggestion formula!) And for implementing of modernization which seems to give some chills to the European leaders, Chinese Premier and the Government of Beijing offers a significant credit line of 10 billion euros in addition to the investments already announced and accomplished in this part of the world. “Also, we must into account the financing channels. Together with the member states of the European Union will make sure that, in lines drawn by EU regulations, we can successfully exploit the special credit line of 10 billion U.S. dollars” Li Keqiang said. Recall that during his visit in Poland in April this year, Wen Jiabao, China’s former prime minister, announced the establishment of a credit line of $ 10 billion to support Chinese investment in Central and Eastern Europe. At the same time, he announced plans to set up a secretariat for cooperation between China and countries in the region, highlighting an ambitious target of $ 100 billion in trade between China and Central and Eastern Europe by 2015.

At the meeting in Bucharest, Li Keqiang expressed the confidence for theChina's Premier Li Keqiang visit to Romania potential economic relations between China and those 16 countries of Central and Eastern Europe after the prime ministers of these countries have shown some excellent economic prospects of the region and the areas where they are interested in foreign investment. He concluded at the end of the Forum that Europe, and particularly the European Union is the largest trading partner of China in the moment, but  the trade with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe are only 10%, and the volume of foreign investment is lower, which means a great potential hence the interest of China to invest huge resources in the region. Of course, as has happened in other parts of the world where China has imposed its diplomacy & the most powerful argument – finances, also its presence in Europe has its critics. In an article published by Deutsche Welle are reminded that “China’s critics from the West or from Africa often argued that Chinese ample investments and loans have an important political stake, and the China’s interference in African politics would sometimes be very visible, as would have happened in Zambia in 2006, when Ambassador Li Baodong threatened that would be suspended all Chinese investment in copper mines if the opposition leader Michael Sata wins the elections”. Most likely it is a true. However looking the things pragmatically, Chinese companies do not differ from Western transnationals, whose policies are already well known Romanians and others countries from neighborhood. Most likely there is also some political and diplomatic pressure. Interests of Chinese investors (like all big investors of the world) is to make profit, the bigger using lower resources, in some cases to offset losses and modest gains from home, gains limited by the certain government policies of Beijing. Depends only on European business partners to show they are able to use their strengths to achieve the expected benefits in turn.

Cinderella and Prince of the East

Although far from having a coherent foreign policy strategy, the Romanian diplomacy being rather chaotic, reactive and speedy willing to unnecessary compromise and unjustified arrogance, depending from which of the West chancellors blows the wind, this time the government in Bucharest was unexpectedly very well oriented regarding the geo-economic space. Cinderella of Europe succeeded in obtaining the attention of the Prince of the East. A second economic power in the world has come to Bucharest with the “sweet promises” that it will provide the latest technology, including nuclear energy. If decades ago the Chinese were selling in Romania plush toys, porcelain items and cheap sneakers, now they would be craftsmen of a supersonic train, on hovercraft, and a superimposed highways, bunk beds or ultra-fast communication systems. At least it was clear from the statements of Prime Minister Ponta and the government ministers who have already proceeded to the signing of memorandum aimed at cooperation in the energy sector, including the expansion and nuclear power complex from Cernavoda. Things look not too bad. At least in theory. Even if some voices immediately found to minimize the amount of investments made ​​- 5 billion euro. True, some of the same voices who in summer cataloged the presence of Prime Ponta in Beijing as completely unnecessary. When China gives 10 billion for the entire region is already too little if Romania only get half? And if there is a fierce competition with Hungary, the Czech Republic or Poland ? Yes, it is very important that these projects do not remain some goals on paper, but that become the basis for a strategic partnership in the long term. Yes, it is very important to have a serious dose of determination and pragmatism, and a lower dose of corruption, otherwise the 5 billion will go down the drain like the European funds that Romania has not been able to access. Yes, attention of the Prince can be lost on the way to the altar! Also, yes, it is possible that the government in Bucharest to push to reduce relations with China, or more precisely rules it in terms dictated by Brussels, but I think it would be helpful if Romanian makers will show courage, will treat eternal “problem of the spine” and pursue national interests. The government in Bucharest cannot “betray” the interests of Europe if Romanian citizens will live better, or if Romania will have a modern infrastructure, or if will increase its energy independence. All this, of course, if logic of “old” Europe is not somehow affected by sclerosis

Instead of an epilogue

During the Bucharest Summit he did everything possible to be present daily on the television screens, he warned the Prime Minister on the issue of the next year’s budget, publicly challenged the government decision, he called an unexpected meeting of Supreme Defence Council of the Country (CSAT) which lasted just 15 minutes and has made a serious competition for Russian Deputy PM Rogozin regarding the rebellious and ”crazy” statements about Moldova Republic … in other words, he gave a successful demonstration of infantilism. But finally, the “problem child” of the Romanian policy, aka Traian Basescu was able to rejoin into the role of the President, has overcome his adversity against the Prime Minister Ponta and showed wise and objectivity: Summit with China is a chance for Romania and if the Government and technicians are well prepared and the projects that will be presented will be realistic and convincing, Romania could only win”.

Published by Cadran Politic, dec. 2013

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