This format was originally launched in 2012 and brings together what former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once infamously referred to as "New Europe" — meaning the post-communist states — and China, predating the official announcement of Beijing's One Belt One Road (OBOR) global vision of New Silk Road connectivity by one year. In the meantime, China has comprehensively expanded its relations with the 16 states of the region, offering loans and construction support for a variety of infrastructure projects that are expected to facilitate the Silk Road's expansion into Europe.
Although paling in numerical comparison to the aid provided by the EU to the region, most of which is already part of the bloc, China's support comes with no political strings attached, and there are concerns in Brussels that Beijing's backing of the relatively impoverished states of "New Europe" might embolden them to take a tougher negotiating stand towards the bloc. While this would undoubtedly enhance their national sovereignty vis-à-vis what many have characterized as an increasingly authoritarian and hyper-liberal decision-making center, it's precisely for this reason why the EU feels threatened. Moreover, it's noteworthy to point out that two of China's top partners in the 16+1 are Poland and Serbia, with the former being run by a "EuroRealist" party presently unafraid to challenge Brussels while the latter is an EU aspirant and a crucial transit state for China's vision.
This is relevant to keep in mind because the backbone of China's European Silk Road is a high-speed railway that it plans to build between the Hungarian and Serbian capitals, with the potential of expanding it all the way south to the Greek port of Piraeus that's run by the China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO) and possibly even northwards to Poland and the Baltics one day too. Serbia is therefore indispensable to China, while the Central and Eastern European powerhouse of Poland holds crucial importance because of its dual north-south and even east-west connectivity potential, though the latter vector will only be fully optimized if relations ever normalize with Russia.
Interestingly, while the US was fear mongering about speculative Russian influence in the region, it might turn out to be Chinese influence that's ultimately the most powerful multipolar force in Central and Eastern Europe nowadays.
Stevan Gajic, PhD in political science who works at the Institute of European Studies in Belgrade, and Bartosz Bekier, Politologist and editor-in-chief of Xportal.pl, joined the conversation.
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