Hungarian Scholar Tamas Matura on China-CEE cooperation
Q: In your view, what progress has been achieved by the 16+1 platform?
A:The 16+1 cooperation has attracted attention and created suspicions ever since it was born in 2011. Many questions and eyebrows have been raised around Europe about the true nature of the project, the intentions of the Chinese side and its potential impact on the integrity of the Union. We have to admit that Beijing and its Central and Eastern European (CEE) partners could have done more to make things crystal clear and understandable. We had to learn how important communication was, to make the EU understand that 16+1 was not a threat to the integrity of Europe.
Two years later President Xi Jinping introduced a new, comprehensive initiative, the One Belt – One Road project, or OBOR as we know it nowadays. This latter idea is even more complex than 16+1 itself. Dozens of conferences and hundreds of articles attempt to find out and to articulate the meaning and substance of the new silk road project on a global scale. Is it possible at all to get a better understanding of a complex idea through the lens of another even vaguer one? I believe it is.
When Beijing introduced the outlines of the cooperation between the Middle Kingdom and its sixteen Central and Eastern European partners in 2011-2012, most observers believed that China had a well prepared and detailed plan in the background. Since this supposed plan has never been published or even talked about, Western EU member states (and some Eastern ones as well) developed concerns regarding the true intentions of China. Was it to divide and rule Europe? Behind closed doors some diplomats even talked about a Chinese built “new Berlin Wall”.
Meanwhile CEE countries have been trying hard to figure out what Beijing wants or needs and to fit into the ‘plan’. We had to learn that the Chinese way of thinking and communication is different from the Western style, where announcement of major initiatives or projects are usually preceded by months or years of articulating a detailed plan, blueprint or roadmap. Beijing follows the well-known East Asian tradition of inductive thinking, while the West tries to understand it through its deductive traditions.
It means that countries with different tradition are suspicious about China’s intention, because they think there might be a secret plan behind the curtain. Through the 16+1 cooperation we have learned that the only way is to create and shape our cooperation together with China, and to think together with Chinese colleagues about the future and details of our common project. It was rather a opportunistic idea at a strategic level.
Chinese IR scholars and decision makers realised the crisis induced financial vacuum and development opportunities in the CEE region, and grabbed the chance. The leadership embraced the idea, borrowed some experience from China’s involvement in the developing world, announced the initiative, dedicated a nice amount of money (EUR 10 billion), and watched what the whole thing started to evolve into. Their approach has been modified underway according to the newly gained experiences.
When it comes to OBOR, the pattern is very similar. Chinese experts realised the strategic opportunity (or rather necessity) to integrate Eurasia and to tackle the challenge imposed by TPP/TTIP. Xi Jinping embraced the idea, announced the idea of Silk Road Economic Belt in September and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road in October, 2013, pledged USD 40 billion, and analysed the reactions. Chinese scholars and officials travel around Europe and Asia to ask for ideas and recommendations from their local peers. It is a common story nowadays that European experts do not understand why the Chinese are asking them how to build OBOR while it is a Chinese plan. Because, like in the case of 16+1 Beijing follows the well-known East Asian tradition of inductive thinking, while the West tries to understand it through its deductive traditions. China follows the same method on the level of think tank cooperation as well. Dozens of forums have been created (e.g. two association of think tank of the Silk Road, China-CEE Think Tank Association), equipped with a proper budget, regular conferences, but most non-Chinese participants do not see the purpose or substance, yet. The Chinese are expecting us to create ideas and content together, and this is not a problem, but a chance for us all!
Q: What should be done to accomplish more?
A:I believe time plays a significant role, we have to patient. The cooperation between the two sides started a mere five years ago in Budapest, thus businessmen need more time to facilitate fruitful relations. Governments have done a lot to make business circles aware of mutual opportunities, the legal and political framework has been well established, and gates are open. Now it is up to entrepreneurs, tourists, students and scholars to walk through the gate.
Chinese investment pattern is changing constantly. While energy and raw materials have been the most attractive to invest in, mostly by Chinese state owned enterprises, the tide is turning, more and more medium sized private companies discover opportunities abroad, thus the outflow of Chinese FDI is growing rapidly. Both CEE countries and China will inevitably benefit through 16+1. Our job is to maintain the strong relationship between Beijing and its Central and Eastern European partners, therefore investment into the future of people to people contacts is utmost important.
Q: How can we integrate the Belt-road initiative with the 16+1?
A:Based on my opinions, the answer is clear: the OBOR may give even more substance and content to the 16+1, but it depends on us all. Thanks to the inductive mind-set of our Chinese partners there is a huge chance to actively influence the future of the 16+1 and of OBOR as well. The EU and its Western and Eastern member states should embrace the idea of the Belt and Road initiative and should proactively seek opportunities to benefit the most out of it.
CEE countries are geographically predestined to be part of OBOR, and the looming project of connecting the port of Piraeus in Greece with Budapest through Macedonia and Serbia is one of the first examples of how OBOR and 16+1 may eventually merge together. Meanwhile China is considering to relocate some of its industrial or manufacturing capacities into foreign countries to rebalance its domestic economic structure and its foreign trade. Central and Eastern Europe is a region which might be able to attract such kind of Chinese investment, and transportation corridors of OBOR may offer a particularly good chance. Countries like Poland or Hungary are to develop proactive strategies to draw Chinese investors’ attention to the potential business opportunities provided by their EU and Schengen Area membership.
Brussels and Western members of the Union may realise that the 16+1 cooperation could help them with reaping the benefits of OBOR. Instead of seeing Chinese construction companies as competitors in the CEE region, European companies may find the way to join them in building new transportation systems in Central and Eastern Europe. Beijing is willing to provide financial support to major construction projects, while EU funds are about to fade out it the upcoming years. Budapest should not be the terminal station, and the railroad could continue its path to the north, until it reaches the Baltic see in Poland. The region desperately needs a north-south corridor, and China would be happy to finance it, while German, French, Austrian etc. companies could find their way to cooperate with their Chinese counterparts for the benefit of all.
The inductive approach of China provides ample opportunities to Western and Central and Eastern European countries as well. What we need is to understand how China thinks and to articulate the proper, proactive strategies to harvest the benefits.
Q: What should China to do to achieve stronger soft power in CEEC?
A:China has done a lot to increase the level of understanding of its development on a global level. The extensive network of Confucius Institutes is an important element of this endeavour. However, cultural institutes mostly attract those who are inherently interested in the Chinese culture. Thus Confucius Institutes cannot reach out to people who do not care about or do not like China, which is a fundamental problem.
It is important to communicate to fans of China, but it is essential to address the sceptical or the ignorant. As a potential solution I propose the establishment of a network of China Chairs, a system similar to the EU’s famous Jean Monnet Chairs. Chairs would be dedicated professorships, awarded by the Chinese side (e.g. by theAcademy of Social Sciences) to local professors in the CEE region or in all OBOR participating countries. The Chair would be entitled to introduce and propagate modern China and OBOR itself to future leaders of their respective countries. Therefore these Chairs shall be established at universities focusing on law, politics, economics and trade, or preferably international relations. China Road Chairs may have the opportunity to inform, communicate with and eventually to shape the mind-set and ideas of future politicians, bureaucrats or business people who might not have any contact with China otherwise.
At the same time China has another major untapped resource: the numerous Chinese students studying abroad. Certain private scholarships in the US request all students they support to organise public lectures on America in the given foreign country they study in. China could do the same, to ask Chinese students in the CEE region (or all around the world) to act as ‘little ambassadors’ (小大使), to introduce China to their local friends and classmates in an organised but still a relaxed way. Local China Chairs could help them in their efforts to make China more visible and more comprehensible to the next generation of leaders, entrepreneurs and opinion makers. The 16+1 cooperation offers a great opportunity to establish such a pilot project on a regional level, which may be introduced on a global level later.
Q: What is the general perception of China in your country?
A:Since Hungary introduced a visa free period for Chinese nationals in the late 1980`s the country has the privilege to host the largest Chinese community in the region. Affordable Chinese shops have played an important role in mitigating the shock of economic transition in the 1990`s, and generally speaking most Hungarians consider the Chinese as diligent, hardworking people, who always keep a low profile in public life. Some people even say that Hungarians are distant relatives of the Chinese, since our nation is the only one in the West where family names precede given names, exactly like in China.
The Middle Kingdom has a strong foothold in Hungary, the country hosts the largest amount of Chinese investment in the region, the first regional branch of Bank of China, of Huawei and ZTE, hence there is even a Chinese-Hungarian bilingual elementary and middle school serving both local and Chinese children.
However, most information about China comes from Western media and internet sources, which does help the people to develop a balanced view on China. Other countries of our region have much worse understanding of the policies of Beijing, therefore we shall introduce a regional level initiative to change the current situation. There is a lot more to do!
Dr.Tamas Matura is an Assistant Professor of international relations at Corvinus University of Budapest, and the founder of the Central and Eastern European Center for Asian Studies. (www.ceecas.org)