As it was mentioned before, the China–CEE cooperation has attracted a substantial amount of criticism and high levels of suspicions among Western members of the European Union. It is indeed true that the crisis of the EU and the subsequent financial vacuum in the CEE region offered potential business opportunities to China. Even though these opportunities are modest compared to the usual Chinese appetite, given its own domestic economic challenges, Beijing has to grab every possible chance to find business projects for the overcapacity of its companies and for its abundant financial assets.
The cooperation has to face some problems and major structural contradictions when it comes to the future and progress of the China–CEE cooperation. These structural issues may explain the relatively low number of successful businesses and projects. First of all, the difference in the size of the parties involved is obvious and cannot be changed. When China created the 16 + 1 cooperation, it invited all countries between the traditional ‘West’ and ‘East’ from the Baltic to the Balkans (Except Belarus, Ukraine, Kosovo and Moldova). China has established a framework to reduce transaction costs of cooperation with the countries of the so-called “New Europe” and with those to join the club in the upcoming decades. Since the CEE region represents altogether more than a hundred million people and a trillion-dollar economy it did make sense from the Chinese point of view to invite these countries to a table, and to forge major business plans across the region. Individual countries of the region cannot offer projects big enough to Chinese multinational companies, so Beijing expected the countries involved to cooperate and to put joint projects on the table. This expectation has never been met, however, as CEE countries rather compete than cooperate with each other.
Second, another fundamental issue is the divergent investment interests of the parties: while China is mostly looking for infrastructure investment opportunities (preferably through governmental public procurements), most CEE countries are more eager to attract greenfield investments to create jobs and industrial production. However, China has barely set up any new production facilities in the region; companies of the East Asian giant typically enter the CEE markets through acquisitions, or pursued infrastructure construction opportunities. Furthermore, Central and Eastern European member states of the EU are entitled to apply for non-refundable financial support for infrastructure development. Consequently, Chinese loans are not attractive, while any attempts to pay off Chinese construction companies from European funds might likely provoke political turbulences across the Union, as Croatia experienced it when a Chinese company won a tender to build Pelješac Bridge financed by the EU up to 85% of its cost. That is, both Beijing and the CEE countries seek for a different achievement, which is a fundamental problem, and cannot be sorted out in the short or medium run.