The new model of transregional cooperation in a changing international order?

The grandiose “One Belt One Road” program announced by the President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping in 2013 has opened a new chapter in the history of Chinese foreign policy, which has been relatively inactive in recent decades. China’s becoming an international rule-setting actor is not a new phenomenon since this endeavour has already been present in the transregional institutional building of the latest decade. This paper compares the main characteristic features of two transregional mechanisms: the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the “16 + 1 Cooperation” established by the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries, arguing that China’s institution-building activity takes place according to a specific scheme that may become a model for even other regions in the future, too.

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the “16 + 1 Cooperation”: are they a new institutional paradigm?

At first glance, it is hard to imagine that the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) established in 2000 and the “16 + 1 Cooperation” set up by the CEE countries in 2012 would have anything in common since Africa and the Central-Eastern European region have entirely different historical, cultural, economic etc. backgrounds. Nevertheless, this paper argues that plenty of similarities can be revealed between the “16 + 1 Cooperation” and the FOCAC. Beyond this, my paper presumes that if a general pattern can be observed in China’s international institutional building – the Chinese leadership tends to refer to them as a mechanism rather than an institution or organisation –, it can imply a potential challenge for the institutions and organisations that were established after World War II and have western roots. It is hard to overestimate the significance of all this as the current institutional system is one of the key pillars of the international order that can be characterised with the quasi hegemon power of the United States of America.

The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation

One of the milestones of the dynamically developing China-Africa relations was the foundation of the FOCAC, which provided a new political and institutional framework to the China-Africa cooperation.[i] At the first FOCAC Summit held in 2000 the strategic partnership of China and 44 African governments was announced.[ii] During this China and the African countries decided to gather every three years (in China and an African country in rotation) in order to strengthen their relationship and discuss the further opportunities for cooperation. Thanks to the FOCAC meetings and China’s more and more generous offering, the relation between China and the African continent has become deeper and deeper. The “Eight Measures” and the “New Eight Measures” announced in 2006 and 2009 respectively laid down the main objectives of the platform.[iii] At the meetings, China promised to expand the commercial relations, provide preferential loans, access the Chinese duty-free market more and more broadly and remit the debts of the poorest African states. Besides, China set up “economic cooperation zones” on the model of its own Special Economic Zones, established the China-Africa Development Fund and promised to share its techological and scientific knowledge (e.g. in the fields of agriculture or green energy). China is financing more and more scholarships (for instance, at the FOCAC of 2015 with 30,000 people) and vocational training programs and cooperates in the field of healthcare (construction of hospitals, training of experts, supporting the fight against infectious diseases). Finally, China acknowledges that it is important to provide financial support to the African Union, too (including among others the financial support of building a conference centre, the provision of peace mission tools, etc.)[iv]

The “16 + 1 Cooperation”

During his official visit to Hungary in 2011, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao declared that China is committed to the development of the relations with the CEE countries, which requires the formation of a new mechanism.[v]  One year later in Warsaw, China and the CEE countries set up a political platform called “16 + 1 Cooperation”[vi] in order to coordinate and institutionalise the relation between China and the sixteen Central and Eastern European countries.[vii] The parties adopted the “Twelve Measures”, which determined the main objectives of the cooperation. Following this, the “16+1 Cooperation” heads of governments meetings are held on an annual basis.[viii] The most important result of the Bucharest Summit organised in November 2013 is the formation of the institutional coordinating body, the Secretariat operating in Beijing, and the adoption of the foundation of coordinating centres for the various fields of cooperation.[ix] At the Belgrade Summit the first such sectoral coordinating center was selected and several large-scale projects were announced (e.g. the reconstruction of the Budapest-Belgrade railway).[x] At the Hangzhou Summit held in November 2015 the operational order of the cooperation was finalised[xi] and the joint “Medium-Term Agenda” was adopted.[xii] At the Riga Summit held in November 2016, the Central and Eastern Europe Investment Cooperation Fund was established.[xiii]

The common features of the “16 + 1 Cooperation” and the FOCAC

Studying the common features of the two institutions, the first common aspect is that both the “16 + 1 Cooperation” and the FOCAC have the generally accepted criteria and basic characteristics related to the international organisations:[xiv]

  • Both organisations were established through an agreement between sovereign governments, although it is true that in the case of FOCAC another organisation, the African Union is also member of the cooperation.
  • Both institutions have been set up based upon the common interests of the members, which mainly focus on the enhancement of communication efficiency and more efficient cooperation through the harmonisation of national policies.[xv]
  • Both institutions have established formal organs (for instance, in the case of the 16 + 1 the Secretariat, or in the case of the FOCAC the Follow-up Committee) and holds regular plenary sessions (China-CEEC Summit meetings are held every year, while the FOCAC Summit meetings are held every three years).[xvi]
  • A developmental process can be observed in the case of both organisations: an institutional framework required for the operation was established upon their foundation, which was filled with content afterwards.[xvii]

Therefore, both institutions clearly show that practically they can be considered international institutions. The fact that its judgement is still not evident would be understood only upon studying further common features.

The second common feature of the FOCAC and the “16 + 1 Cooperation” is loose institutionalisation. Although they have management bodies, they operate irregularly loosely. Both the FOCAC and the “16 + 1 Cooperation” show that the operational mechanism has three levels: 1.) the forum of state leaders, 2.) the level related to the key areas of expert’s consultation and the cooperation (e.g. infrastructure development, agriculture), 3.), and finally, the most important level is the central organ  fostering continuous relationship with the embassies of the relevant countries in Beijing (supervising the fulfilment of commitments, initiating the convocation of meetings, elaborating topic proposals), which is the Follow-up Committee for the FOCAC and the Secretariat for the “16 + 1 Cooperation”.[xviii] The states are involved in the work of the latter two organs on a voluntary basis, generally when they are interested in the work. Traditionally, loose institutionalising is the symbol of a loose organisation. On the contrary, this characteristic is essential for both international mechanisms as in this way states are involved only in projects that really motivate them. This increases the operability of the institution.

The decision-making mechanism of the FOCAC and “16+1 Cooperation”

The third feature of the two international platforms is the heterogeneity of the participating countries that can be perceived at two levels: within the CEE and the African regions as well as between China and the two regions. The participating countries have different historical and cultural backgrounds and are members of different international organisations and communities. For instance, the CEE countries belong to various language families; are multi-religious; have various level of economic development, eleven states are member states of the European Union (EU), while twelve of them are members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). Central and Eastern European countries show only a few similarities with China, too, the only thing in common is the Socialist past and the relatively undeveloped status within the world economy.[xix] The 51 African states of the FOCAC can be characterised with similar internal differences than the CEE region: the countries have at least such heterogenic historical, economic, ethnical and cultural backgrounds. Similarly, the difference from China is obvious; however, one of the key factors is that both the states of the African continent and China can be considered developing countries with bitter experience about the European colonisation.[xx] According to the general concept, homogeneity is an important precondition for the efficient operation of a multilateral organisation. On the contrary, no endeavour for greater homogeneity can be observed in the case of any mechanism. Obviously, the lack of this effort releases energy, so the participating states can devote more capacity to the cooperation.

The fourth common feature is that both multilateral institutions are asymmetric: the Chinese side is the engine of the relation.[xxi] It can be observed not only in the idea of establishing the institutions themselves but also in the above-mentioned operational mechanism. Nevertheless, it cannot be stated that the two platforms serve exclusively China’s interests. Both institutions consciously pay attention to the interests of smaller states, too, what is even more, in the preparatory processes they can even fulfil considerable roles regardless of their size, in case of appropriate activity. Furthermore, the CEE and the African countries are expected to realise in the future that both the “16 + 1 Cooperation” and the FOCAC can become a common platform that decreases the competition between the states of the region for the Chinese investments and are suitable to hold together the states of the region and form China’s policy on their own. However, we should acknowledge that China’s capacity is much higher than the countries of the two regions together; therefore, the asymmetric feature of the two multilateral mechanisms will not change significantly in the future either.

The fifth common feature of the two organisations is planning, which fundamentally determined the development of the two platforms.[xxii] At the summit meetings the short- and medium-term plans and actual objectives (e.g. the “Eight and Twelve Measures”) have still been adopted primarily based upon Chinese suggestions, and at the following meetings they are checked and supplemented with new objectives. Planning significantly increases the efficiency and improvement facilities of the two mechanisms.

The sixth common feature is the wide range of cooperation realised under the “16 + 1 Cooperation” and the FOCAC, including culture, sciences and technology, ecological and environmental etc. fields, but the most important field is definitely the economy.[xxiii] The main projection of economic relations is the financial cooperation (preferential loans or investments) and infrastructure support (e.g. the Budapest-Belgrade railway or the program financed by China-African Union to connect Africa’s largest urban centres). The organs and forums of economic cooperation are most active and significant, including the “China-CEEC Business Council” and the “China-Central and Eastern Europe Business Forum” under the “16 + 1 Cooperation”, and the “China-Africa Business Council” and the “China-Africa Business Conference” for the FOCAC. Focusing on the economic cooperation of the relation helps the organisation to be result-oriented.

The seventh common feature is that the “16 + 1 Cooperation” and the FOCAC are basically free of ideology. However, this pragmatic foreign policy does not mean that there are no principles that are laid down and considered important commonly.  The frequently quoted basic values of the OBOR fulfil an important role in both organisations; for instance, “harmony” and “inclusion” primarily refer to the observance of the different political systems of different countries. Another frequently quoted principle is the “mutual benefit”, which served the interests of both parties involved. However, that does not mean that both parties will necessarily be winners of the relation in the same proportion.

Finally, it is important to highlight that neither of the new mechanisms intends to clash the prevailing international order and its key international organisations such as the United Nations or the Bretton Woods institutions. The FOCAC offers a particular role to the African Union within the cooperation, primarily by inserting a mediator into the communication channel between the African countries and China.[xxiv] According to the medium-term schedule of the “16 + 1 Cooperation”, the organisation has to comply with the European Union legislation[xxv] (for instance, to bring the mechanism into conformity with the China-EU 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation[xxvi]). Their compliance with the prevailing international order is an important effort of the Chinese government since, according to the critics, these new institutions undermine the international order. Owing to such fears, the Chinese government does not identify the two mechanisms as organisations, arguing that they only supplement the existing institutions.


This paper has highlighted that, despite the cultural and historical differences of the two regions, the “16 + 1 Cooperation” and the FOCAC have a lot in common. All this leads us to the conclusion that these two institutions can be deemed as a new type of model that China promotes to facilitate transregional cooperation. At the level of international policy, it means that China, first in its history, represents both a regional and a real global perspective and seems to be able to fill the One Belt One Road initiative with viable institutions. Furthermore, the similarities between the two mechanisms show that China has a coherent world view and a cultural arsenal to operate the inter-state relations. In this respect, the non-western values and the norm-based international institutions can mean an alternative for the international policy in the long term. Nevertheless, the Chinese government makes a lot of effort so that the new mechanisms do not mean a challenge for the prevailing institutional structure and consciously endeavours to integrate the new mechanisms into the prevailing order. Resolving this discrepancy is expected to imply further difficulties and tensions. Finally, the dilemma is expected to be decided  by the fact whether the flexible, ideology-free and result-oriented institutions supported by China will comply better with the new expectations generated by the globalisation than the traditional institutions of the prevailing international order.


[i] IAN Taylor: The Forum on China- Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), Routledge Global Institutions, 2012.; HE Wenping: China-Africa relations moving into an era of rapid Development. Africa Institute of South Africa, Inside AISA, (Pretoria), 3-4., 2006. 3-6.

[ii] Jiang Zemin: China and Africa-Usher in the New Century Together. The 1st Ministerial Conference FOCAC Archives, 10 October 2000.

[iii] Follow-up Actions to the Fourth Ministerial Conference: China Will Start immediately to Carry on New Eight Measures of the Cooperation with Africa, November 12, 2009,

[iv] WEN Jiabao: Let Us Build on Our Past Achievements and Promote China-Africa Friendly Cooperation on All Fronts. The 2nd Ministerial Conference, FOCAC Archives, 15. December 15, 2003. ; HU Jintao: Opening Ceremony of the Beijing Summit of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The 3rd Ministerial Conference, FOCAC Archives, 4 November 2006.; WEN Jiabao: Building the New Type of China-Africa Strategic Partnership. The 4th Ministerial Conference, FOCAC Archives 8 November 2009.; HU Jintao: Open Up New Prospects for A New Type of China-Africa Strategic Partnership. The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, FOCAC Archives, 19 July 2012. ; XI Jinping: Working Together to Write a New Chapter In China-Africa Cooperation, Johannesburg Summit & The 6th Ministerial Conference, FOCAC Archives, 5 December 2015.

[v] “Full text of Chinese Premier’s speech at China-Central and Eastern European Countries Economic and Trade

Forum”, Xinhua, June 26, 2011. URL: Accessed: January 15, 2017).

[vi] The 16 Central and Eastern European countries: Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

[vii] SIMURINA, Jurica: China’s Approach to the CEE-16, Europe China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN) Short Term Policy Brief 85. January 2014.

[viii] “China’s Twelve Measures for Promoting Friendly Cooperation with Central and Eastern European Countries”, Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries, January 26, 2015.

[ix] “The Bucharest Guidelines for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries”, Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries 26 January, 2015.

[x] “The Belgrade Guidelines for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries”, Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries 26 January, 2015.

[xi] “The Suzhou Guidelines for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, November 24, 2015.

[xii] “The Medium-Term Agenda for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries”, Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries, 24 November 2015. (The Medium-Term Agenda, 2015.)

[xiii] “The Riga Guidelines for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries”, The State Council of the People’s Republic of China, 6 November 2016.

[xiv] CLAUDE, Inis L.: Swords Into Plowshares: The Problems and Progress of International Organization, Random House, 1956. Wallace, Michael – Singer, J. David: “Intergovernmental Organization in the Global System, 1815-1964: A. Quantitative Description”, International Organization, 24. (2), 1970. 239-287. Ruggie, John Gerard: “Multilateralism: the anatomy of an institution” International Organization, 46. (3) 1992. 561-598.; Duffield, John S.: “What Are International Institutions?”  International Studies Review 9. (1) 2007. 1-22.

[xv] LI Anshan, et al.: The Forum on China-Africa Cooperation: From a Sustainable Perspective, (World Wide Fund for Nature, 2012. 5.

[xvi] KONG Tianping: “16+1 Cooperation Framework: Genesis, Characteristics and Prospect”, China-CEEC Think Tanks Network, December 3, 2015. (Accessed: April 11, 2017.) (Kong, 2015)

[xvii] KUSAI Sándor: A New Look at Some Lessons of Prospects for the 16+1 Cooperation, In: Chen Xin (ed): How Hungary Perceives the Belt and Road Initiative and China-CEEC Cooperation, National Think Tank 2017 (1), China Social Sciences Press, 2017. 39-42.

[xviii] LI , 2012. 14-15. ; Kong, 2015.

[xix] LIU Zuokui: The Pragmatic Cooperation between China and CEE: Characteristics, Problems and Policy Suggestions Working Paper Series on European Studies of Institute of European Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, 7. (6), 2013. 5-6.

[xx] CHUKA Enuka: The Forum On China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC): A Framework for China’s Re-Engagement with Africa in the 21st Century, Journal E-Bangi, 6, Number 2, 220-231, 2011. 221-222.

KOWALSKI, Bartosz: “China’s foreign policy towards Central and Eastern Europe: The “16+1” format in the South–South cooperation perspective. Cases of the Czech Republic and Hungary”, Cambridge Journal Eurasian Studies, 1. April 2017. 7.

[xxi] LIU, 2013. 4.

[xxii] Kong, 2015.

[xxiii] KUSAI, 2017. 6-8.

[xxiv] LI, 2012. 15-16.

[xxv] “The Medium-Term Agenda”, 2015.

[xxvi] EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Cooperation, European External Action Service, November 23, 2013.

Viktor Eszterhai is a senior analyst at the Pallas Athene Innovation and Geopolitical Foundation (PAIGEO). He completed his Ph.D. in History at Eötvös Loránd University in 2018. Between 2014 and 2015 he was a senior scholar at Tsinghua University, Department of International Relations and in 2017 he was visiting scholar at Fudan Development Institute. His research topics are the Chinese characteristics in foreign policy; China and Central and Eastern European relations; non-western international relations theory.

Eszterhai Viktor

Viktor Eszterhai is a senior analyst at the Pallas Athene Innovation and Geopolitical Foundation (PAIGEO). He completed his Ph.D. in History at Eötvös Loránd University in 2018. Between 2014 and 2015 he was a senior scholar at Tsinghua University, Department of International Relations and in 2017 he was visiting scholar at Fudan Development Institute. His research topics are the Chinese characteristics in foreign policy; China and Central and Eastern European relations; non-western international relations theory.

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