Then there’s the Tarnita-Lapustesti Hydropower Plant, a pumped-storage hydroelectricity plant, which was supposed to enhance the new reactors at Cernavoda. Then-Prime Minister Victor Ponta started a bidding process in 2015, but in 2018, Ponta admitted to me that the project is somewhat outdated and doesn’t deserve any further investments. It was actually shelved after the Ponta government fell in 2015, but it has been dusted off lately by the new government of Prime Minister Viorica Dancila—yet it needs a new bidding process before any work can start.
During the same 16+1 summit in 2013, another project was signed regarding a thermal power plant, Rovinari, with China Huadian Engineering. Only in the summer of 2017 did real negotiations start, but construction of the new units has yet to begun.
Things aren’t any better in the cases of Romania’s neighbors: Hungary and Serbia have been waiting for the construction of the Budapest-Belgrade railway since 2013. Initially envisioned as a high-speed railway, the Budapest-Belgrade line will be far slower than once imagined, with a maximum speed of about 100 miles per hour, a nearly 20 percent decrease. Since the project began it has been depicted as the crowning achievement of both the 16+1 and Belt and Road Initiative in Europe, but the delays in starting the construction cut its momentum and transformed it into a disaster for the Chinese initiative—which hasn’t been able to finish one large project in Europe.
Chinese private investment has been more successful, buying European companies such as Kuka, Daimler, Syngenta, Pirelli, and so on. But on the infrastructure level, China didn’t achieve its 16+1 or Belt and Road objectives. Even if some Chinese projects are completed in Serbia, Montenegro, and other Balkan countries, they lack the importance to sustain a success for the 16+1. Although the Pupin Bridge and the expansion of the Kostolac thermal power plant in Serbia, the highway in Montenegro, and the Port of Piraeus in Greece may polish the image of the Belt and Road Initiative in Europe, the 16+1 format seems to lack important promised projects.
Another example, though not at first government-led, is the work of CEFC China Energy, a private Chinese energy company from Shanghai that made investments in the Czech Republic, which were initially private. The Czech Republic now finds itself in a complicated situation. After the detention of CEFC’s CEO, Ye Jianming, his company ended up in the hands of the state, together with all its investments abroad. The Czech Republic is caught in an unusual situation: Many Czech companies are now owned by the Chinese state.
This gap between promises and delivery has affected the credibility of the 16+1 and of China’s status as a trustworthy investor in some of the Central and Eastern European countries. The yearly 16+1 summit has lost its shine, and a few prime ministers, like those of the biggest countries among the 16, Romania and Poland, have already started dropping the events from their schedule.
Ultimately, the failures of the 16+1 project may be overshadowed by much bigger concerns. As the contest between the United States and China heats up, the world is moving once more into divided blocs. The Huawei case was only the beginning of the new digital iron curtains falling across the world. And whatever their desire for Chinese money, the Central and Eastern European nations, if forced to choose between Washington and Beijing, will end up on the U.S. side—a choice made easier by the hollowness of earlier promises from China.
This article has been published by Andreea Brinza in Foreign Policy.