In or out of the 14+1 format, Romania’s short-lived romance with China is over

Andreea Brinza | 29 June 2023

A historic moment comparable to Romania’s entry into the EU and NATO. Those were the words that then-Prime Minister Victor Ponta used to describe the hosting of what was then the 16+1 summit in Bucharest in 2013. 

Fast forward to 2023 and it becomes clear there was no “historic moment,” as the interest to engage with China disappeared without much trace. As Romania is the EU’s sixth largest member state, understanding what happened over the past decade can uncover broader shifts underway in China-EU relations.

Origins of the China Pivot

While Victor Ponta is generally seen as the most significant contemporary promoter of stronger relations between Romania and China, his predecessor, Emil Boc, also played the Chinese card. The Boc government approached Chinese companies for a possible investment in the Cernavodă nuclear power plant, which would later become a key Chinese project under Ponta. Romania was also an enthusiastic early participant in the China-CEE cooperation mechanism, with right-wing governments negotiating Romania’s hosting of the 2013 summit later organized by the left-wing Ponta government. 

But it was Ponta who was the real driver behind improving relations with China, aiming to transform Romania into its “closer friend.” Personal affiliations and interests played an important role –  Ponta visited China numerous times during his career and in 2006, he even got married in Beijing. After ascending to a leadership role in the government, he turned out to be maverick, frequently circumventing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and engaging directly with Beijing. But the intensity of his personal involvement also meant that after his resignation following the tragedy of a deadly fire in a club in Bucharest in 2015, Romania’s relations with China have not been the same.

The numerous ‘revolving-door’ prime ministers who succeeded Ponta never engaged so much in promoting ties with China. On the contrary, some of them, like Sorin Grindeanu (2017) or Florin Cîțu (2021), were very reluctant to deal with Beijing. 

Only Viorica Dăncilă (2018-2019), from the same left-wing party as Ponta, tried to pick up where Ponta left off in terms of the China policy. But her actions were in vain, as the political landscape (presidential elections in 2019 and the EU and the US recommendations) did not allow for the emergence of a new momentum for improving Romania-China relations. On the contrary, caught in the whirl of the presidential campaign, in 2019, Dăncilă signed an MoU with the US regarding civil nuclear power cooperation, which would later set the stage for the process of canceling the Chinese involvement in Cernavodă nuclear power plant, which she had tried to revive just months earlier.

Skeptical Shift

If 2013 marked a positive milestone in Romania-China relations, then 2019 brought about a significant shift in the opposite direction. Not only did Romania sign an MoU with the US regarding civil nuclear power cooperation, but also took the lead as the first country in the world to subscribe to an MoU designed to ban Huawei’s involvement in its 5G network, signaling a firm position in the emerging US-China conflict.

Thus, Romania showed that the initial enthusiasm regarding China was exaggerated and mostly due to the persona of Ponta. Bucharest understood that the project MoUs signed in 2013 with China were not so easy to negotiate or implement, and if it had had to choose between those project promises and the West, it would always opt for the latter, rather than waiting for Godot.  

And Romania did prove to be a staunch ally. Not only did it ban Huawei from its 5G network and force telecom providers to remove the Chinese tech giant’s equipment from their existing networks in a few years, or cancel the Chinese involvement in the Cernavodă Nuclear Power Plant, but it also restricted Chinese companies from taking part in public tenders, especially in infrastructure, downgraded its participation in the China-CEE summit in 2021 to a ministerial level, and implemented a tough screening mechanism for non-EU investment. 

At the parliamentary level, things went even further, such as a proposed bill intending to force public universities to close their Confucius Institutes by threatening to cut all their government funding, or closer engagement with Taiwan by some MPs.

Despite all these actions, at the government level, Romania has never engaged in direct criticism of China or its behavior, even when it came to the subject of human rights. At the same time, neither did China exercise any type of wolf warrior diplomacy in Romania. Interestingly, the deterioration of relations had no discernible effect on the Chinese ambassadors to Romania, who have a tendency of ascending to higher positions after leaving Bucharest, with the last three ambassadors promoted either to CEE envoys or assistant ministers of foreign affairs. Thus, Bucharest and Beijing successfully managed to avoid diplomatic conflict that has plagued the ties between China and Lithuania or the Czech Republic.

But while the Romanian government officially continues to claim that relations with China remain a priority, in fact, they are on auto-pilot. Over the past four years, Romania has not made any active steps to improve ties with China, with most government moves being restrictions. This approach is a consequence of both the larger geopolitical trend of blocks of power forming around the US and China, and Romania taking the US side, but also disappointment with China’s economic promises and the economic benefits of relations for Romania. 

Most of this disappointment concerned projects proposed at the China-CEE summit in 2013, which was meant to start a new era of relations. According to an answer received by the author from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, over the years, Romania conducted an assessment of the format multiple times, concluding that it “did not see any concrete or substantial outcomes coming from this platform.” For Romania, the mechanism was supposed to be “a cooperation platform led only by an economic drive, which should not have political or ideological tones and should be used beside [the bilateral] Romania-China relations, which remain a priority for Bucharest.” Also, the ministry argued that the government prefers to prioritize engaging with China on a bilateral basis and on the EU level, instead of within the China-CEE format, as many fields included in the format pertain to EU competences. All these factors are highlighted by the recent nomination of the new Romanian ambassador to China, an economic official from outside the Foreign Ministry, who had extensive experience from his posting at the Romanian representation to the EU in Brussels, but lacks any experience regarding China.


This article has been published on the website of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE). You can read the full article on the CHOICE website.

Photo Credits:  Flickr/ Partidul Social Democrat


Andreea Brinza

Andreea Brinza is a researcher and the Vice President of RISAP. Her interests are related to the geopolitics, geostrategy and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region and especially China. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.

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