China and EU jostle for geopolitical influence

As EU budgets buckle, China is undoubtedly attempting to up its influence in the Black Sea and Western Balkans, and a new Romanian presidency aims to prioritize the EU’s agenda

Romania has begun its presidency of the European Union (EU) and during this period of stewardship aims to put in motion some important initiatives. Amongst Romania's priorities are advancing the enlargement process of the EU in order to ensure more internal and external security, promoting more economic coordination with the accession candidate countries, and reaffirming the importance of the Black Sea on the EU agenda.

The six-month Romanian presidency runs from January to June, and EU officials gathered in Bucharest for an official opening ceremony on 10 January. The rotating presidency featuring one of the former Eastern Bloc countries (which only joined the EU in 2007) comes at a time when Brussels is concerned about fractured relationships within the EU and also the increasingly pervasive Chinese influence in the region via its Belt & Road initiative.

Relations between the EU and both Poland and Hungary are currently strained, and Brussels will be anxious to view the Romanian presidency as a success, in spite of recent criticism directed at the Bucharest government concerning corruption and the need to strengthen the rule of law.

Romania has prioritized using EU funds for major infrastructure projects, and so far has taken a fairly cautious approach to participation in the Belt & Road. But other EU countries such as Greece and Bulgaria have forged close ties with China. And outside of the EU, China is involved in major transport and energy projects in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

China prefers bilateral relationships to working via EU institutions, and its 16+1 initiative involves both EU and non-EU countries. Certain projects that run up against, or cross, the EU border, such as the planned Belgrade to Budapest railway, have met with undisguised hostility from Brussels.

Chinese entities already own Piraeus Port in Greece, and are investing in Varna Port in Bulgaria. And China backed transport infrastructure on the other side of the Black Sea in Georgia connects with the trans-Caspian corridor.

During its presidency Romania is likely to emphasize the need for more structural spending to improve connectivity and infrastructure across the Balkans and towards the Black Sea.

Last year the EU announced a package of six new flagship initiatives to support the transformation of the Western Balkans. The package includes an initiative to increase connectivity, with increased funding in the fields of transport, energy and the digital economy.

But EU budgets are under pressure, and there are plenty of opportunities for China to continue to project its influence across the Balkans and southern Europe.

During a news briefing on 9 January in Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said that cooperation at the local level between China and the 16 Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) yielded fruitful outcomes in 2018.

The year 2018 was designated as the Local Cooperation Year of the 16+1, and cooperation at the local level represents an important part of the relationship. According to Lu, more than 160 pairs of sister provinces/states and cities have been established between China and CEEC.

Local governments of the 16+1 countries actively participated in cooperation in various fields such as business park construction, science and technology, as well as in education and cultural exchanges.

Chinese officials were among the participants when the Belgrade Strategic Dialogue held a conference titled "Belt and Road Initiative in the Balkans" last December.

At that meeting one western diplomatic suggested that the Western Balkans may play a decisive role in future cooperation between China and the EU. The region is a transit zone between the east and west of Europe, and while the EU remains the most important economic partner of western Balkans countries, he argued in favour of a common set of rules between China and EU, to avoid potential conflicts of interests and parallel projects.

Meanwhile an academic paper recently took a look at the various Chinese initiatives around the Black Sea, including opening new markets for Chinese goods, strategic local industries, and providing loans for infrastructure projects.

The author suggested that the EU must make the "One Europe" principle the non-negotiable cornerstone for all dealings with China. In addition, Brussels needs to devote more attention and resources to the Black Sea region, carefully monitoring the 16+1 initiative and other proposals and presenting alternatives where feasible, including Georgia and Ukraine.

He noted that, instead of respecting the "One Europe" principle, China prefers to pursue bilateral ties with individual EU member states.

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