FocusOSA #3: China: Foreign Affairs

Intermarium project revived by Poland and Croatia has become a subject receiving a lot of attention in current debates. From the perspective of future relations and maritime cooperation two points should be discussed: China’s approach and an approach adopted by the United States. During the first Intermarium conference in Dubrovnik both powers sent their delegates. Liu Haixing, at that time Assistant of Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China, admitted that the relation between Croatia and China had been more frequent and more practical. The most important issue was to find synergy between the construction of “The Belt and Road” initiative and Croatia’s long-term development strategy, and  ‘create synergy between China’s “The Belt and Road” initiative, “16+1 cooperation ”with Croatia’s “Three Seas Initiative” and increase bilateral cooperation in economics and trade, infrastructural construction, global productivity and other fields’.

In February 2016, at a meeting in Zagreb with Croatian Prime Minister, Tihomir Oreskovic, representatives of the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission emphasised that China was interested in joining the “Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative” and “the Belt and Road” project. When in October 2016 Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks with Kitarovic in Beijing, the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative was also  supported. As it was pointed out the development of a north-south corridor in Europe, based on the ports of Adriatic and Baltic nations, was complementary to China’s Silk Road strategy. Following these remarks Vice Chairman of Chinese National Development and Reform Commission, Ning Jizhe (February 2017), mentioned the Chinese  government’s interest in boosting the container train traffic from China to the Baltic region and Northern Europe, and investing in both the Rail Baltica project and the port of Latvian capital city Riga. As discussed by Croatian Presidental Office the China-Europe Land-Sea Express Line, launched at the China+16 CEECs summit in Suzhou, corresponds broadly with the objectives of the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Initiative. Developing the seaport corridor based on the ports of Adriatic and Baltic countries is in line with the development of “the Belt and Road” and cooperation on industrial capacity.

Following Riga declaration, the topic of connectivity prevailed over that of trade. The main focus was on maritime issues. The Riga Declaration broadly presents the “Three Seas ABC” initiative announced at the Suzhou summit in 2015. It assumes the development of ports including those in the hinterland as well as logistic hubs, economic zones and transport corridors. An emphasis on maritime issues is placed by the Latvian side – the host country of the forum. But it could also be that the thus far modest results of land transport under the 16+1 and the Silk Road initiative led to a search for new areas of cooperation. The significance of maritime cooperation has been confirmed by the decision to establish a secretariat for maritime issues in Poland in 2017. This will be the third 16+1 mechanism in Poland, after the Business Council and the association of investment agencies. It is managed by the Ministry of Maritime Economy and Inland Navigation. The Secretariat was opened in October 2017 during the Second China-CEE Transport Cooperation Summit. During the Summit Polish PM, Beata Szydlo, supported all ongoing initiative with China. She also urged both sides to find  appropriate projects in inland navigation, intermodal logistics and port facilities. According to the Polish government’s estimations transshipment record set in 2016 by the Port of Gdansk, Gdynia, Szczecin-Swinoujcie at 18.5, 19.5 and 21.5 million handled tonnes respectively.

Moreover, in the document passed in June 2017, the Chinese government declared to support maritime connectivity through different types of channels. From the Intermarium project perspective two of them are worth mentioning: the first is the China-Indian Ocean-Africa- Mediterranean Sea Blue Economic Passage and the second leading to Europe via the Arctic Ocean. Although the second does not provoke controversies, the first that has crossed the South China Sea may give rise to further discussion on China’s territorial disputes. As mentioned by Joseph Babel from Europe Institute the above mentioned issues made China’s involvement in CEE maritime cooperation controversial.

From the Chinese perspective this initiative should be understood as the main economic corridor from South (Pireus) to North (Klaipeda, Gdansk), and play an important role in having an access to the European market. On the other hand, it might be used as leverage in power politics especially in the triangle between China, Russia and the United States.

From the above mentioned perspective the involvement of the United States should be observed with attention.  During the meeting with Croatian President the Vice President of the United States at that time, Joe Biden, supported the initiative particularly in terms of developing infrastructure. The most important support came from D. Trump’s visit to Warsaw at the beginning of July 2017. As proclaimed: ‘America will be your strongest ally and steadfast partner in this truly historic initiative’.  In his speech he only mentioned the energy security as a key added value of Intermarium project. From the American perspective the Intermarium project enhances the presence of NATO in the region. By strengthening the relations between Central European countries, America could exercise its “hard policy” of containment and play this card in its relations with Russia. An illustrative example here is relations between Poland and Romania. Romania responded to the Polish Intermarium project positively and by forming the Polish-Romanian initiative supported NATO policy during the Warsaw Summit. On the other hand, by promoting a pro-American bloc in the middle of Europe, the US can counterbalance the anti-American western Europe and gave new Trump’s administration new partners in “new Europe” as mentioned by T. Wright in Polico.eu article.

In conclusion,  the Three Seas Initiative should reduce the dependence on Russian energy, strengthen the development of infrastructure and develop economic ties in North-South directions. What might be considered a paradox, this initiative has been strongly supported by the United States and China. Washington tries to reach this part of Europe with its gas and oil, and counterbalance Russian influences in Europe by strengthening NATO pillar in the Eastern flank. China is also interested in connecting the north-south corridor to its own Silk Road initiative and find another corridor for its products to European market. This will secure its export-led economic growth and secure its position in the ongoing controversies with Germany. In other words, Central Europe becomes a very important, if not vital, area of triangle politics between China, Russia and the United States.