Increased Connectivity between China and Central and Eastern Europe: Mutual Interdependence or Asymmetric Vulnerability?

Astrid Pepermans

On his trip to Central-Asia in 2013, China's President, Xi Jinping announced the Chinese initiative of rebuilding the original Silk Road. China's so called One Belt One Road project covers a broad network of railways, pipelines, ports and roads that involves 64 countries (Hofman 2015; Farchy 2016). Among these 64 countries are the 16 Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC) with whom, in 2012, China already set up the 16+1 forum. Both the 16+1 forum and the OBOR project emphasize the enhancement of connectivity, cooperation and trade among China and the CEEC. Policymakers have persistently praised such initiatives as they will lead to a win-win situation, enhancing prosperity in all 17 participating countries. Due to this kind of rhetoric, the vulnerabilities and disadvantages that inevitably come with increased connectivity often remain rather unremarked. As Keohane and Nye mention (Keohane & Nye 1997, 7): "interdependent relationships will always involve costs, since interdependence restricts autonomy." This article conducts a proper assessment of what the repercussions of intensified connectivity - in this case between the 16 CEEC and China- are. To do this, it does not suffice to investigate what joint gains or losses projects like the 16+1 Cooperation and the OBOR bring along. Instead, this analysis focuses on the more pertinent and fundamental question of 'who gets what?'. By looking into the relative gains and losses of increased interdependence, a more accurate picture of the effects of mutual dependence can be reached. By evaluating recent Sino-CEEC trade figures and by scrutinizing several large-scale projects that have been launched within the OBOR 16+1 framework, this article suggests that projects like the OBOR are not a guarantee for balanced interdependence, as often claimed, but may even trigger increased asymmetries, henceforward opening the door for the use of power politics and economic blackmail

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