Thirty years ago, when I travelled from Budapest to Pécs, a major cultural city in southwest Hungary, the journey took 3.5 hours by train. I took the same train ride recently, and it still took 3.5 hours. It is a sad example of the travel conditions between the major cities in Hungary, as well as in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) more generally. Much has happened in thirty years: the end of the Cold War, the enlargement of the European Union, and many rapid developments outside of Europe. Yet Eastern Europe’s transportation infrastructure remains essentially unchanged.
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Since the announcement of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, China’s High-Speed Rail ambitions have stretched from Southeast Asia to Europe and beyond. To many observers, these projects are indicative of China’s increasing presence on the international stage and its mounting clout in areas previously dominated by other powers. This is particularly true in Central and Eastern European (CEE) states, where Chinese trade and investment have been steadily increasing since the 2012 advent of its “16+1” format. This unique configuration brings together 11 EU-members and 5 Baltic states to promote trade and cooperation.
Nowhere else in Europe has China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) been met with quite such a warm embrace as in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). China’s large-scale financing of highways, railways, ports, and other infrastructure to better connect China to Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe has clearly struck a chord with CEE leaders.
China’s approach to Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) has changed dramatically in recent years. For the last three decades, the region was not high on China’s Europe agenda, which focused mainly on Western Europe. But in 2012, the 16+1 format was unveiled during Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s visit to Poland, signaling a new approach to the region. Since the announcement of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013, infrastructure has become a primary focus for the 16+1. China has both economic and political aims for this unusual grouping of countries, and its investments are raising concerns about transparency and accountability. For now, however, the risks are relatively manageable given the modest scope of investment.
This week, 16 Central and Eastern European (CEE) heads of state gather with Chinese officials in Hungary for the sixth meeting of the “16+1” format. Created in 2012, the “16+1” has gathered extensive attention in the EU, as a Chinese diplomatic initiative neither directed towards Brussels nor (officially) toward single member states.