SHANGHAI -- Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday pledged to strengthen cooperation with 17 Central and Eastern European, or CEE, countries, underscoring Beijing's determination to counter the new U.S. administration diplomatically.
Xi's proposals range from COVID-19 vaccine sales and agriculture imports to investments through the Belt Road Initiative, along with establishing educational institutions in former Soviet socialist economies. He promised to import $170 billion worth of commodities from the region over the next five years.
"China's continued development and opening up will inject strong momentum to the recovery and growth of the world economy," Xi said via video link, adding that this would also widen opportunities for cooperation with the European grouping.
The CEE framework, created in 2012 at Beijing's urging, has held annual meetings and in 2019 expanded its membership to include Greece. That was also the year it upgraded to a formal "17+1 Summit" format.
This week's online meeting, which was originally scheduled to be held in Beijing last April, marked the first time for Xi to participate, replacing Premier Li Keqiang.
Xi's appearance at the summit comes after U.S. President Joe Biden unveiled a new foreign policy that seeks to strengthen democratic alliances. In a policy speech last week, Biden called China the "most serious competitor" his country faces, and said Washington is ready to rise to the challenge.
Not every CEE country's top leader took part, in an apparent snub of Beijing's growing ambitions for global influence. Estonia was apparently represented by its foreign minister, while Lithuania reportedly said neither its president nor prime minister would attend.
Both countries, along with nine other CEE members, also belong to the European Union. This has led some critics to regard the 17+1 Summits as Beijing's strategy for driving a wedge between the EU's richer and poorer economies.
Sven Sakkov, Estonia's ambassador to Finland, said the 17+1 format undermined a common China policy at the EU level.
"Estonia and other like-minded states should leave the 17+1 format with China in the name of a more united EU-China policy," Sakkov was quoted as saying by ERR News, Estonia's public broadcaster. He added that member states should not forget Beijing's human rights violations against ethnic Uighurs, in Hong Kong and elsewhere.
The grouping's trade with China grew by 8.4% to $103.45 billion last year, faster than the 4.9% logged with the EU. China-Europe freight trains helped build the momentum, making a record 12,406 trips in 2020, up from 8,225 in 2019.
Beijing is also eager to meet demand for COVID-19 vaccines, Xi said, noting that 1 million doses had been shipped to Serbia while sales deals were closed with Hungary.
On investment, Xi said both sides have benefited from BRI cooperation. Chinese companies invested $3.14 billion in 2020 in infrastructure projects that include the Budapest-Belgrade railway and the Peljesac Bridge in Croatia.
China will also assist Fudan University, one of Shanghai's top schools, in building a campus in Hungary to promote people-to-people cooperation, Xi said.