Since its launch in 2013, governments across Europe have made their interest in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) clear. At present, 17 EU member states are members of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). The 16+1 framework — established by China in Central, Eastern, and Southeast Europe — includes eleven EU-member states and five countries from the Western Balkans. Greece has officially applied to join as the seventeenth member of the framework.
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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.
In October, CSIS launched its Reconnecting Asia project, which seeks to track the various initiatives by China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and other growing Asian powers to reconnect Asia and Europe via old trade routes. These modern-day Silk Roads will use highways, railroads, ports, bridges, and pipelines to reduce the travel time between the two continents. The best known of these initiatives is China’s “One Belt, One Road” in Central Asia. This is an ambitious undertaking across 43 countries that encompasses 69 percent of the global population and 60 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP). The efforts to reconnect Asia with Europe will be one of the biggest forces shaping the next 30 years, bringing new markets, people, and resources into the fabric of the global geopolitical landscape. If successful, it will revolutionize logistics and create trillions of dollars in economic value through increased trade and economic activity.