/ Eastern Europe – The Key to China’s BRI Policy

Three weeks ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi finished a week-long tour of three Eastern European countries: Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary. This is China’s latest move to address the problem of lacking total support from the European Union for the success of the Belt and Road Initiative. Since the launch of the BRI in 2013, Central and Eastern European countries have been much more supportive of the BRI than Western European countries have been. The development of the 17+1 platform has assisted China in achieving this support in Central and Eastern Europe. However, China still faces the problem of getting the European Union as a “comprehensive strategic partner” on board with the initiative. Chinese leaders hope that solidifying the support of key European Union member states in the East such as Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia will facilitate broader support from the European Union as a whole.

China’s policy of going through European Union member states in the East in order to convince European Union leaders in the West to join the initiative poses the potential threat of sharply dividing the European Union over the issue. Indeed, leaders of the European Union already disagree with each other about what the European Union’s stance should be on the BRI at a time when unity is crucial. The president-elect of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen has expressed skepticism and hesitation in teaming up with China on such an expansive project with unclear implications to national security. At the same time, just a few months ago, leaders of Italy chose to sign a memorandum of understanding with China for the BRI, defying the common western opinion about the initiative.

This situation puts countries in Central and Eastern Europe in the middle of what may become a very divisive argument in the European Union. If China is successful in convincing the European Union as a whole entity to join the Belt and Road Initiative, then the countries that have already joined the project will be in a favorable position. However, if the European continues to resist China’s efforts to have it join the BRI, then Central and Eastern European member states will be forced, in essence, to choose between China and the European Union.

As members of the 17+1 platform, Latvia and the Baltic States must be prepared to answer the challenging question, “Do the benefits from China’s Belt and Road Initiative outweigh the cost of departing from European Union policy?” In the long run, the Baltic States should see that aligning themselves closely with the European Union’s stance on the Belt and Road Initiative will be to their advantage.

Owen BatesIntern at LIIA