China’s 17+1 mechanism with Central and Eastern European countries was always perceived as a Trojan horse inside the European Union, but it never became a game changer in Beijing’s foreign policy.
While the EU has seen it as a threat and overestimated its influence, for China, the 17+1 mechanism has been more of a forum that enables it to skip individual high-level visits to all 17 countries than a tool to gain power over the EU by creating a sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe.
Created in 2012 as a dialogue mechanism between China and 16 countries, the 17+1 grouping’s biggest achievement so far has been to evolve from an initial ministerial meeting to a presidential one and to add one member – Greece. But while China upgraded the 17+1 platform, in Europe, it has been downgraded with fewer countries interested in taking part in a zombie mechanism.
Lithuania’s decision to pull out of the 17+1 bloc for “practical purposes” is just the tip of the iceberg. In reality, the 17+1 mechanism and China’s involvement in the region have been marked by frustration, disillusionment and mistakes. This has led to some Central and Eastern European countries leveraging their China relations to display loyalty to the EU or the US, or as a topic of criticism for opposition parties.
As with many other Chinese initiatives, including the Belt and Road Initiative, the 17+1 mechanism is just a bilateral forum, with China acting as bandmaster. It never evolved into a multilateral platform in which all countries interact as equals and drive the agenda.
Moreover, China built its relations with Central and Eastern European countries by only focusing on the leaders in power, not on each country as a whole. Thus, changes in leadership determined the change in those countries’ perception of China and the 17+1, which culminated in six countries sending only ministers to the latest summit attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping.