If you ask three experts from the United States, China, and Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) about China-CEE relations, you will receive three different answers. While the Chinese might say that relations are very good and the American might say that the Central and Eastern Europe region is in bed with China, the expert based in the CEE region will probably say that China-CEE relations are largely a disappointment.
Writing about China-CEE relations, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State A. Wess Mitchell argued that the Central and Eastern Europe region is very dependent on China, which has influence over the governments in the region. This view is frequently heard in Western capitals, but far from the truth on the ground.
First of all, Central and Eastern Europe is not a monolith, but a disparate group of over a dozen countries with different backgrounds. Treating it as a bloc is incorrect. China made this mistake eight years ago when it created the then-16+1 mechanism with 16 CEE countries (when referring to the CEE region, I will only refer to these countries, excluding Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus). The region was perceived by China as favorable terrain to export its technology, know-how, money, loans, and workforce in order to fill the investment void in the region and win influence. Back then, China didn’t think about the peculiarities of each country and definitely didn’t take into account the Russian factor.
Among the CEE countries, some — like Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia — are staunch U.S. allies; some, like Bulgaria or Croatia, are more flexible; and there are pro-China governments in Serbia or Hungary. One important difference is that Baltic countries are very passionate about human rights, while others, like Serbia or Hungary, are less interested in this topic.
The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia are among the few countries around the world that have a parliamentary support group for Tibet. Recently, not only did 50 members of parliament and 100 public figures from Lithuania call on the country’s president to support Taiwan’s involvement in World Health Organization activities, but the Lithuanian foreign minister even asked WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to invite Taiwan as an observer.
When the United States or the EU fear China’s influence in the CEE, it is because they assume “small,” “weak” countries will no longer have the courage to oppose or criticize a great power. Yet, a “small” country — and even a city like Prague — proved the contrary. This is in fact possible because, apart from this blunder of treating all CEE countries as a bloc, there is a bigger sophism: the CEE region’s dependency on China.
If there are three countries in the region that may look more friendly toward China — the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Serbia — each one has very different stories behind their ties to China and none is, in fact, dependent on China. Serbia may be the only CEE country it is fair to accuse of being “in bed with China.” In Hungary’s case, part of the rhetorical affiliation to China can be explained by Viktor Orbán’s attempts to gain more leverage inside the European Union. In 2018, he warned that if the EU doesn’t offer Hungary more funds for infrastructure, his government will turn to China. But in concrete terms, Hungary has attracted less than $1 billion in Chinese investments since 2012, when the 16+1 mechanism was inaugurated.
This article has been published by Andreea Brînză, Vice President of RISAP, in the The Diplomat. You can read the full article in The Diplomat.