The People’s Republic of China is actively engaging Black Sea littoral states through various initiatives to open new markets for Chinese goods, facilitate the acquisition of valuable or strategic local industries, and offer loans for large development projects. These efforts go far beyond just building roads and bridges, with growing political influence operations intended to ultimately put the countries on a pro-Beijing axis. Although Chinese-funded projects often fail or come with strings attached, China has been able to present itself as a credible alternative when the European Union is unable or unwilling to provide financing.
If China is successful in its political efforts, EU unity in general and cohesion on China policy in particular will be difficult, if not outright impossible. To meet this challenge, the EU must make the “One Europe” principle the nonnegotiable cornerstone for all engagement with China. In addition, Brussels needs to devote more attention and resources to the Black Sea region, carefully monitoring the 16+1 initiative and other proposals and presenting alternatives where feasible, including Georgia and Ukraine. Lastly, there needs to be greater awareness of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to use economic investment as a vehicle for political influence.
Since 2012, China has hosted over 200 conferences, summits, camps, and unofficial gatherings for Central-Eastern European participants under the 16+1 initiative. Some of these events have been used by the Chinese Communist Party to identify and groom pro-Chinese voices within the political, business, and journalist community.
There are differences in approach to China between various Black Sea states. Romania has taken a cautious stance, prioritizing EU development funds. Bulgaria is actively encouraging stronger ties with Beijing, but with mixed economic success. In the case of Ukraine and Georgia, there are hopes that greater Chinese influence will be an additional counterweight to Russia.
Instead of respecting the “One Europe” principle, China prefers to pursue bilateral ties with individual EU member states.
China’s main economic interests in the Black Sea region are agriculture, information technology, aerospace, and port infrastructure.
Throughout the Black Sea region, there is limited knowledge, even at the elite level, about contemporary China and Chinese regional initiatives such as 16+1.
Opportunities exist for constructive Sino-EU engagement in the Black Sea region. More cooperation is needed between Black Sea states and China on tourism, the digital economy, renewable energy and green technology, and combating imported counterfeit and illicit goods.