Central and Eastern Europe become hawkish on China

The recent withdrawal of the Baltic countries from the ‘17+1’ format displays changing perceptions of China due to its ambiguity towards the war in Ukraine.
The recent withdrawal of the Baltic countries from the ‘17+1’ format displays changing perceptions of China due to its ambiguity towards the war in Ukraine.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine only confirmed Central and Eastern Europe’s views of Russia, it is also affecting their relations with China. Although the relationship was already complicated due to unfulfilled Chinese economic promises to CEE countries and growing indications of efforts to influence their domestic politics, China’s support for Russia is pushing Central and Eastern Europeans even further away.

This shift was highlighted, and formalized, recently by several countries in the region leaving the ‘17+1’ format, through which China cooperates with a group of countries from the region. The shifting attitudes towards China will also influence the relationship between the European Union as a whole and China.

A Trojan Horse that never was

When the format was launched in 2012 between 16 CEE countries at the time and China, the countries jumping on board expected a wave of Chinese investment and an opportunity to diversify mostly west-bound trade.

These hopes never fully materialized as Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in CEE has been generally lower compared to the rest of Europe and China never became an important export destination for any of the countries. The growing disillusionment and concern about Chinese security threats has led to some of the countries speaking up about the perceived perils of closer cooperation.

The first to withdraw from what had become ‘17+1’ by 2021 was Lithuania, which also took an interest in strengthening ties with Taiwan and allowed it to open a Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius. This triggered a breakdown in the bilateral relations with China. As a retaliatory response, China blocked Lithuanian imports and imports from other EU states containing inputs from Lithuania, leading the EU to launch an official dispute at the WTO.

War in Ukraine

Since the invasion started, CEE countries have been dealing with large numbers of Ukrainian refugees, organizing shipments of military equipment to Ukraine, and at the same time worrying whether they could be next on Russia’s list.

However, the concerns and security environment that these countries face seems to be almost entirely disregarded by China. On the sidelines of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, Xi and Putin signed the joint communiqué in which China backed Moscow’s demands to reverse NATO borders to the pre-1997 situation, completely disregarding CEE’s security interests.

China’s implicit support for Russia after the invasion has sowed deep mistrust of its respect for the sovereignty of other nations. The Chinese diplomatic apparatus clearly noticed this changing mood among CEE governments and sent a special envoy to eight capitals in April-May tasked with ‘ eliminating misunderstandings regarding Russia-Ukraine conflict’.

However, the trip was not particularly successful. The delegation failed to secure high-level meetings, with the most prominent case being the Polish minister of foreign affairs declining to meet Huo Yuzhen, the Chinese Special Councilor for CEEC cooperation. Given that Andrzej Duda, President of Poland, was the only head of an EU state who attended the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony just before the Russian invasion in February, the change in attitudes is clear.

Following the envoy’s visit to the Czech Republic, the Czech parliament’s foreign affairs committee unanimously approved a resolution calling for the country to quit the ‘16+1’ format and the government is expected to act upon it in the near future. Meanwhile, Latvia and Estonia recently jointly announced that they would no longer be participating in the cooperation framework, turning it into ‘14+1’.

This is not to say that this response has been uniform across the region. Hungary predictably remains a close ally of China in the EU and has also at times pushed back against sanctions on Russia. At the same time, in both Poland and the Czech Republic, there remains disagreement between the government and the president over China policy. As governments have changed in these countries, so has their China policy.

Tricky EU-China relations

From the start Brussels looked upon the ‘16+1’ formation with distrust, worrying that the initiative was part of a ‘divide and rule’ strategy conceived for Europe by China. By anchoring the EU members in the region into a deeper and more dependent relationship with China, they would make it harder for the bloc as a whole to agree to counter any unwanted Chinese practices. These fears turned out to be largely unwarranted as the countries mainly used it to their own benefit, although some countries have used China as a bargaining chip for discussions within the EU.

However, member states further souring on China will have an impact on the relationship between the EU and China, which had already worsened in recent years. Furthermore, the invasion of Ukraine has brought the US and EU closer together and reinvigorated NATO. CEE countries continue to rely on the US security guarantee, particularly in terms of protection from Russia, and the US-China competition will therefore continue to inform their China policy as well.

This is all not to say that the EU China policy is likely to become as combative as the US approach. The EU will continue to try to set its own course and avoid the type of ‘extreme competition’ with China that the US is engaged in. However, China’s dwindling list of European allies is likely to make more forceful European responses to China more likely.

Pepijn Bergsen, Research Fellow, Europe Programme and Valdonė Šniukaitė, Intern, Russia and Eurasia Programme.

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