Beijing’s 17+1 Summit Flop; Britain fumes over Chinese spies

Edward Lucas


Hello, and welcome to China Influence Monitor, a weekly newsletter published by CEPA and Coda Story and edited by me, Edward Lucas. We track the westward footprint of China’s influence operations, and point you towards this week’s best (and worst) coverage. 

In this issue: Lithuania derails the 17+1 summit, Beijing bets on vaccines and Britain wakes up to spies and lies.

“The East is Red” is a popular Communist Party ballad. Make that “Red-faced,” after the failure of China’s  17+1 supposed showcase summit with central and east European leaders this week. 

What went wrong? 

First, the turnout. Six of the 17 countries defied instructions to send their prime minister or presidents to the Chinese-led forum. That was a personal snub to Xi Jinping, who hosted the (virtual) summit in person. The awkward squad comprised Estonia, Latvia, and (the ringleader) Lithuania, plus Romania, Slovenia and Bulgaria.

Second, Chinese arm-twisting did not deter the rebels. Lithuania’s ambassador (and her Estonian colleague) were hauled into the foreign ministry in Beijing at a quarter to midnight to receive (and ignore) a dressing-down. 

Third, the agenda was a shambles. The timing of the hurriedly convened summit was announced only early in the morning of the day itself: February 9. Rather than staying on message to praise China’s wisdom and leadership, several participants took the opportunity to grumble about market access or carbon emissions.

Fourth, results were flimsy. Xi said China would import $170 billion worth of goods and double the purchase of east European agricultural products over the next five years. But there was no mention of next year’s summit. A vague line-on-the-map infrastructure announcement of the “China-Europe Land-Sea Express Line,” linking the Chinese-owned port of Piraeus in Greece with the Hungarian capital Budapest, inspired nobody. The communique (link in Chinese) focussed mainly on the Western Balkans, and much of the rest was on scintillating lines such as: “Protocol…on the inspection, quarantine and veterinary hygiene requirements of Lithuanian wild marine aquatic products exported to China.”

Three reasons why we believe the summit failed:

  • The Beijing authorities’ genocidal human rights record and bullying foreign policy are unpopular. Inviting Alexander Lukashenko (Belarus has observer status in the forum) showed China’s tin ear to regional sensitivities. 
  • New EU rules make murky infrastructure project finance, the hallmark of the 17+1, much riskier.
  • U.S. pressure works. France and Germany may ignore Joe Biden’s message but it resonates in eastern Europe. All the 17+1 but Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro had joined or expressed support for the previous administration’s Clean Network initiative — in effect banning Huawei from 5G rollouts. 

Most of all, China has failed to deliver. As Andreea Brînză, a Romanian think tanker, noted in the Diplomat:

“All the appealing promises and proposals and the bombastic headlines of the first years…came back to haunt Beijing when most CEE countries failed to see consistent investment.”

Conclusion: China’s divide-and-rule tactics in Eastern Europe have hit a serious obstacle. As Brînză puts it: The 17+1 is a “zombie,” on a “lifeless march to nowhere.” China hasn’t given up though. Keep an eye on Xi Jinping’s newly announced (but no date set yet) visit to Serbia. China’s big card of vaccine diplomacy plays well there. It’s also a hit in Hungary (which plans to import the Sinopharm vaccine even without European Medicines Agency approval). The Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš says his country is interested too. 

Also worth watching: Countries wanting to highlight their Atlanticist credentials are mulling closer ties with Taiwan. Lithuania hopes to open a non-diplomatic mission there later this year. 

Britain’s Chinese takeaways 

China steals secrets, silences critics and attacks academic freedom at British universities, whose dependence on Chinese money has long been a scandal. Belatedly, Britain is waking up. Rows are raging. 

The authorities are investigating 200 academics for involvement (mostly unwitting, apparently) in Chinese military research. The problem: most science and engineering faculties are potential targets, and until very recently, the government was urging universities to cultivate ties with China. Unscrambling that will be hard.

The broadcasting regulator Ofcom last week withdrew CGTN’s license (after the not-very-shocking discovery that the station is controlled by the Chinese Communist Party). Further sanctions are likely for its breaches of editorial standards, including broadcasting a forced confession from a jailed British businessman, Peter Humphrey. 

News also broke that three Chinese citizens on journalism visas were expelled last year for espionage. 

China’s reaction? Surprisingly mild. Prime Minister Li Keqiang told a business audience that he hopes to put ties on a “firmer footing.” Officials blasted the BBC for pushing “fake news” but didn’t take further steps — yet.

What we’re reading:

Bethany Allen-Ebrahmian on the Beijing 2022 Olympics boycott (in short: athletes will go, but Western diplomats may stay away). 

We’ll be back in your inboxes next week.

Best regards