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Original illustration by Tse Yuet Ching of the Ludwig Wing of the Old Royal Palace at Prague Castle, site of the Second Prague Defenestration. 

09:53 am | 29. December 2020

Is China Out the Window in the CEE?

For a number of years, China seemed to be making inroads in Central and Eastern Europe, even drawing participation in an informal grouping of CEE nations. Lately, though, it seems that CEE states are fed up with unfulfilled promises, aggressive diplomacy and illiberal behavior.  

By Emilian Kavalski

In Europe, history has taught that things thrown out of windows can reverberate. The tossing of three Catholic representatives from the third-floor windows of the council room in Prague Castle in 1618 – an act that ultimately prompted the creation of a new word, “defenestration,” from the Latin fenestra, meaning “window” – had a powerful and lasting impact on politics in the wider European world. Inaugurating Bohemian resistance to the Habsburg emperor Ferdinand II, the event triggered one of history’s bloodiest and most defining conflicts, the Thirty Years War. When the human and economic devastation of that conflict finally resolved with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, this gave rise to ideas like state sovereignty and diplomacy. In a roundabout way, then, it is to Prague’s rude act of political resistance that we owe, in the simplest version of the story, the framework of modern international relations. 

Looking at geopolitics on the continent today concerning China, it is difficult not to think of that fateful event four centuries ago in Prague. The implications of the 2019 decision by the Prague City Council to chuck its sister city arrangements with the city of Beijing, over what city leaders saw as objectionable language in the sister city agreement, seem to have rippled right across Central and Eastern Europe, where countries are now more boldly questioning the costs – political, economic and security-related – of engagement with China. Was this yet another defenestration in Prague, prompting more widespread acts of defiance against an increasingly assertive power from the East?

Though the reasons for the shifting tide are of course complicated, a number of factors seem to have precipitated changing attitudes in the region – and these have, like the internal discontents that earlier had Catholic representatives tossed out the window, been brewing for some time. In this article, I look particularly at two intersecting key factors – first, the failure of China to follow through on its grand trade and investment promises; and second, growing awareness, particularly in light of China’s conduct domestically and internationally, of the illiberal nature of the Chinese regime.

Out the Window

The fracas in the Czech capital began in February 2019, shortly after the election as mayor of Zdeněk Hřib, a member of the liberal Pirate Party. Hřib quickly declared his intention to pursue the removal of an article in Prague’s sister city agreement with Beijing that demanded the city respect the “One China” principle, taking a firm position for PRC sovereignty and against the independence of Taiwan. The agreement had been witnessed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his March 2016 visit to the Czech Republic, coming in a period of warming relations between China and the Czech Republic under President Milos Zeman. Hřib demanded the removal of any political conditionality from the arrangement so that the capital could enter into sister-city relations with Taipei.

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Prague Mayor of Zdeněk Hřib pictured in 2019. Photo by David Sedlecky available at Wikimedia Commons under CC license.

China was furious. But the mayor was undeterred, ready it seemed to show them the window. In an interview with Taiwan’s Central News Agency on March 8, Hřib called himself a “fan of Taiwan,” which he had visited in his student days, and said he looked forward to visiting and learning more about smart cities. Meanwhile, Hřib clearly conveyed a sense of deep frustration with China over constantly disappointed expectations. “The previous city leadership favored a good political relationship with the People’s Republic of China and ignored the reality of human rights violations and freedoms over the desire for the economic advantages [of] a good relationship,” he said during a press conference in early March. “The visions of the previous leadership have not yet been fulfilled, not even the acquisition of a panda for Prague Zoo.”

As the March 10 anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising approached, local councils in Prague decided to revive a practice that had been suspended since 2014, as Zeman had sought closer ties with China – the flying of Tibetan flags to mark the day. Mayor Hřib insisted that a Tibetan flag would fly over City Hall for the anniversary, and moreover that he planned to meet with the visiting senior leader of the Tibetan government in exile, Lobsang Sangay.

Tensions culminated at the end of March, right in the midst of the mayor’s promised visit to Taipei, as Taiwan’s top representative in the Czech Republic was ejected from an economic conference in Prague organized by the Czech Ministry of Trade and Industry after a Chinese official lodged a protest. Commenting from Taiwan, Hřib revealed that he had faced similar pressure to remove the Taipei representative from a diplomatic event in Prague shortly after the new year, but had stood his ground. “I simply refused them,” he said of the Chinese. “It is not possible to throw out a guest I have invited.”

China tried to apply “soft” pressure. In September 2019, China’s Ministry of Culture, for example, cancelled all tours planned by Czech orchestras in China, including the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Beijing’s refusal to relent on the “One China” clause in the sister city agreement forced Prague’s hand. In October 2019, the city finally cancelled its sister city arrangement with the Chinese capital. Three months later, on January 13, 2020, Hřib signed a new sister city agreement with Taipei during a visit by Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je. Beijing had been shown the window.

More than one year on from this defenestration in Prague, tensions appear only to have deepened, as though the actions of a single mayor have encouraged the airing of pent-up frustrations. =

In September 2020, the President of the Czech Senate Milos Vystrcil made the emblematic pronouncement, “I am Taiwanese,” on the floor of the Taiwanese parliament. His words consciously echoed the 1963 statement by US president John F. Kennedy, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” by which he signalled his support for West Berlin during the Cold War. Vystrcil stressed that Taiwan was a beacon of democracy, freedom, and human rights, which was being bullied and threatened with occupation by its larger, authoritarian neighbour across the Taiwan Strait – not unlike the way today’s states in Central and Eastern Europe had suffered during the Cold War at the hands of the Soviet Union.

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Screenshot of address by President of the Czech Senate Milos Vystrcil to the Taiwanese parliament in September.

And Czechia is now far from the only country in the CEE region to be speaking up more forcefully on China, and having second thoughts about its relations after a decade of apparently drawing closer. Back in May, the foreign minister of Lithuania, Linas Linkevicius, showed little reservation about wading into the sensitive issue of Taiwan, openly suggesting it be invited to a World Health Organization assembly on the global effort against COVID-19. On September 1, Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová voiced her support for the Czech Republic as China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, threatened retaliation over the Vystrcil’s visit to Taiwan, saying the country would “pay a high price.” In a tweet that quickly received more than 20,000 likes, Čaputová wrote that threats directed at one EU member “contradict the very essence of our partnership and as such are unacceptable.”

As the remarks from Linkevicius suggest, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a factor this year in worsening perceptions of China, and the PRC’s opportunistic “mask diplomacy” has added to frustrations in Europe, as Chinese diplomats and state media have worked to discredit EU member states and frame itself as a savior with a superior system, playing politics with generosity. But displeasure with China in much of the CEE predates the pandemic, and what we are seeing now is this displeasure translating into a greater willingness to speak openly.

Prague Mayor Zdeněk Hřib in fact plainly pointed to two core reasons for growing displeasure with China at the outset of what I have characterized as China’s defenestration in Prague. First, there is China’s perceived failure in the CEE to follow through on its economic promises, the mayor noting that the Czech Republic has not gotten so much as a panda for the Prague Zoo. Second, there is the demand from China, again in exchange for promises that never materialized, that CEE countries turn a blind eye to China’s human rights violations.

Both of these factors are worth exploring in greater detail.

Promise Fatigue

Over the past decade, China has moved actively to engage with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. China sought to increase its trade and geopolitical clout in the region with the 2012 creation of the cooperation format with CEE countries known by the shorthand “16+1” until the addition last year of Greece, whereupon it became the “17+1.” The “Twelve Measures” announced by China as it formed the grouping, with a “secretariat” directly within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was a grocery list of investment and trade-related promises. China would offer concessional loans, set up an investment cooperation fund, build at least one economic and technology zone in each participating country within five years, and so on. Deals that followed in the intervening years created the perception of growing regional dependence on China’s massive economy, and the sense that the CEE region was moving steadily into China’s orbit.

Yet, perceptions and reality rarely overlap. China’s failure to meet the stratospheric expectations generated by the lavish promises for large-scale investments has provided probably the main reason for the cold shoulder that many CEE capitals are turning to Beijing. Some of the problems appear to have been prompted by the lack of knowledge about the region in China. For instance, in 2009 China’s COVEC construction company won a tender to build a 50km section of a highway running from the German border to Warsaw.

China’s failure to meet the stratospheric expectations generated by the lavish promises for large-scale investments has provided probably the main reason for the cold shoulder that many CEE capitals are turning to Beijing.

 

The success of COVEC’s bid was significant as it marked the first time a Chinese construction company had won a public competition in the EU. COVEC had by this time established a substantial portfolio of infrastructure projects in Africa, the Pacific, and Southeast Asia. Drawing on this experience, COVEC intended to import equipment and workforce from China to bring down the cost of the project. Its offer was less than half of the budget projected by the Polish government. However, by 2011 it was apparent that the company had seriously underestimated the impact EU road infrastructure standards and labour regulations would have on the cost of the project. As a result, the Polish government was eventually forced to revoke the contract and scramble for an alternative supplier. A similar lack of local experience led to the collapse in 2017 of a Great Wall Motors car manufacturing powerplant in Bulgaria. The signing of the joint venture in 2009 had been witnessed by the then Chinese vice president Xi Jinping.           

Apart from this lack of know-how, the main issue has been the extraordinary lack of Chinese investment in the region. At the outset of China-CEE cooperation Beijing promised to offer a 10 billion dollar direct credit line which would grow to 100 billion by 2015. These promises, however, were never fulfilled. Poland and Hungary, two of the largest CEE recipients of Chinese investment, were receiving something in the neighbourhood of 450 million dollars per year. Chinese foreign direct investment in the EU peaked at 43 billion dollars in 2016, and last year plummeted back to 2012 levels. This year, owing also to the impact of the pandemic, it is likely to be even lower. To provide perspective, the top source of FDI in the EU-28 is the United States, with more than one third (35.1 percent) of the inward investment in the EU-28 from the rest of the world in 2017; by contrast, China accounted for a 0.9 percent share of inward FDI positions in the EU-28 economy, according to official statistic from the EU.

At the same time, after years of “17+1” summits, it seems that policymakers in the CEE region have begun to suspect that China was more interested in cooperation photo-ops than in real and meaningful investments. The Czech Prime Minister Babiš spoke for many of his CEE counterparts when he shared his frustrations in April 2019, during the Dubrovnik summit of the then “16+1,” about hosting “masses of [Chinese] delegations over and over again” without any tangible results. This appears to have been a sentiment shared even by Czech President Milos Zeman, known as one of the most pro-Chinese CEE politicians, who in a moment of exasperation seemed to let his diplomatic guard down when he announced in January 2020 that he would not attend a “17+1” summit then planned for the following April in Beijing, citing a lack of Chinese investment in his country.

Zeman subsequently walked back his statement, but it nonetheless echoed the feelings of many CEE leaders who had sat through China-CEE cooperation summits and were now venting privately – according to the author’s own conversations and interviews with CEE representatives – about how Chinese organizers seemed keener to use the events to advance their careers back home than to develop substantive initiatives in the region.

In this respect, China now finds itself confronted with a growing expectations–capability gap – and this is true not just in the CEE region. The question remains: can it match the heightened expectations stemming from its growing economic clout with delivery on these expectations?

Pushing Back

The 2019 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong were the real bifurcation point for CEE states, resulting in a split between those CEE states ideationally committed to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law, and those seeking illiberal alternatives. Coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of pro-democracy protests in Beijing and other Chinese cities in 1989, the Hong Kong protests also triggered memories of the “velvet revolutions” in the CEE countries. Moreover, the employment by Hong Kong protesters of tactics developed by dissidents in Central and Eastern Europe – such as the Lennon Wall and the Baltic Wayresonated in the region.

Across the Baltic states, commemorations of 1989 involved support for the plight of Hong Kong. These also provoked negative Chinese reactions. In August 2019, for example, Chinese diplomats in Lithuania attacked a gathering for solidarity with Hong Kong. One month later, a group of self-styled “Chinese patriots” defaced the original Lennon Wall in Prague with graffiti celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. In December 2019, a Chinese tourist desecrated Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses pilgrimage site – a symbol of the country’s national independence – by destroying a cross placed there in support of the struggle of the people of Hong Kong. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius called the act a "shameful, disgraceful act of vandalism."=

Reaffirming the continuing significance of the legacy of 1989 to the identity of CEE states,  politicians from Albania, Bulgaria, Czechia, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania, and Poland were among the signatories of a protest letter in July against China’s introduction of a national security legislation in Hong Kong. At the same time, 11 of the 17 CEE countries, those that are EU member states, signed the UN joint statement in October criticizing China for human rights violations in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong. =

The COVID-19 pandemic has only solidified this split, and China has been deployed to justify distinct normative choices. Therefore, it is the contextual localization of China in domestic political debates – rather than what China necessarily does in the individual CEE states or globally – that informs CEE perceptions of China. This critical stance is not unique to the region and reflects a broader trend in Europe towards pushback against China. For some CEE states, such as Slovakia and the Czech Republic, this move is associated with a negative reaction to the crudeness of China’s so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy.” In a public announcement in April 2020, for example, the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs openly criticized disinformation stemming from China. For other CEE states, the frustration is primarily with China’s failure to meet its investment commitments. And for still others it is spurred by a normative commitment to the liberal values in a rules-based international order.

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Screenshot of a public announcement in April 2020 from the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Prague’s decision to sever the sister-city agreement with Beijing seems to have taken China by surprise, and some experts have rightly seen the visit to the region by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last fall as an effort at “damage control.” The actions by the Czech capital marked a symbolic pivot in China’s relations with the CEE region.

For its part, China had hopes that the Czech Republic might provide an important gateway to greater involvement in Europe, and this romantic vision of the country was mirrored by a popular interest in Prague among traveling Chinese. Many Chinese know by heart the lyrics to the Mandopop hit “Prague Square,” as performed by the Taiwanese singer Jolin Tsai, and in recent years hundreds of thousands of Chinese tourists have flocked to the city to enjoy its romance – and to take wedding photos. By launching its China-CEE cooperation summit in October 2016 in its own city of romance, Suzhou, by all the regional heads of state and government, China perhaps hoped to begin a mutual love affair with CEE countries. But while the “17+1,” which brings together 17 CEE countries and China, is now a centerpiece of China’s relations with Europe, the romance has faded, and the grouping has become a significant bone of contention between Brussels and Beijing.

In fact, the “17+1” framework is one important reason why the EU, in its 2019 strategy paper, designated China a “systemic rival.” Shortly after the release of the paper, Johannes Hahn, then EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, went as far as to decry “17+1” participants as “Trojan horses” undermining European unity. The 2020 summit of the China-CEE cooperation was initially postponed because of the pandemic and has since been deferred indefinitely. There are no future summits on the horizon. But reinforcing the view that CEE states have grown weary of Chinese promises, and wary of its bullying, only Serbia, Hungary, and Greece among all 17 CEE states agreed to take part in China’s June 2020 videoconference on the Belt and Road Initiative.

While there are multiple contingent factors have led to the current freeze of the “17+1,” if not necessarily a complete breakdown, most CEE states have been mulling a freeze in their participation for quite some time. In this respect, while the pandemic has only accelerated the “social distancing” of CEE countries from China, at the heart of this distancing there seems to be a nascent values-based approach to relations with China. In particular, human rights and democratic accountability have become central to the framing of China-related issues. One of the most prominent recent examples has been Zuzana Caputova, a human rights lawyer and activist, who both during her election campaign and after her June 2019 inauguration as President of Slovakia, has remained vocal in her condemnation of China’s treatment of minorities and dissidents.

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The Illiberal Alternative

At the same time, the governments of countries such as Serbia and Hungary have used the pandemic as an opportunity to entrench authoritarian rule under the guise of emergency health measures. For these countries, China has provided a much-needed ideational alternative for the narrative framing of their independence from EU demands that they abide by the rule of law.

One of the first acts under the government of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, as the prime minister acquired new emergency powers amidst the pandemic, was to ensure that the details of the Budapest-Belgrade railway, a costly 2 billion euro project with Chinese financing, were kept classified. The fact that the project, which many have criticized as wasteful and corrupt, had nothing to do with the health crisis was brushed aside by parliamentary members from Orban’s ruling Fidesz party. In similar fashion, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić stated in the early stages of the pandemic: “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper. I have sent a special letter to the only ones who can help, and that is China.” As a result, the EU singled out Serbia and Hungary in its criticism of pandemic disinformation form China.

It seems that Chinese observers are also aware of this split among CEE countries. A Chinese report in December 2019 on investment in Central and Eastern Europe assessing political risk acknowledged that apart from Hungary and Serbia, the other CEE countries are not ideal targets for investment. The image of China has thus been drawn into domestic political debates about the national image that each of the CEE states wants to project. In this respect, it is not what China does (or intends to do), but how its agency has been localized domestically that frames CEE perceptions of Beijing.

Localizing China Policy in the CEE countries

It needs to be stated at the outset that China is not merely a newcomer in the CEE region, but that both Asia and China have been far too distant geographically, historically, and ideationally to have meaningful resonance in the political, cultural, and (until very recently) economic imaginations of the CEE countries. Even during the Cold War, most of the CEE states sided with Moscow during the Sino-Soviet split. As a result, these countries had little to no contact with China during the communist period, a fact that continues to impact relationships with China even as Beijing has been keen to exploit an imagined shared past, as evidenced by a string of 70th anniversary diplomatic events in 2019 (counting back to the establishment of relations between the new PRC and former Eastern Bloc countries in 1949). In fact, mutual disinterest informed the better part of the first two decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In this respect, it is China’s attention to the CEE region in 2012 that has very much set the stage for its localization, referring in this context to the ways in which images and representations of an external other are internalized in the domestic discourse. China appears to have provided unique opportunities for creative foreign policy entrepreneurship, much of it around what the author has elsewhere termed “identity geopolitics.” Almost three decades after the end of the Cold War, China emerged for some CEE politicians as an alternative pivot for foreign policy.

Traditionally, the outlook of the CEE states has been subject to a complex triangulation between the USA (NATO), the EU, and Russia. In this respect, Beijing has offered an opportunity in recent years to upset the triangle in the articulation of international identities and interests in the CEE region. In this sense, China has become increasingly “local” as representations of China are adopted, adapted, and variously appropriated to fit the domestic political narratives of CEE states. Such localization appears to be the established pattern in many CEE countries when they interact with external actors. In other words, debates about others countries, such as the US, China or Russia, do not necessarily unfold on the basis of what these countries actually do, but on how these actors are perceived to fit the ideological commitments of different domestic political parties. In the case of Russia, for example, the division between “Russophobe” and “Russophile” camps in CEE countries generally reflects whether a political party or interest is descended from the former communist party or the anti-communist opposition.

Attitudes toward China follow a similar pattern. As a rule, governing parties have been more pragmatic and have tended to favour closer economic relations with China, while opposition parties and politicians have criticized instances of bonhomie with Beijing. In the cases of Prague’s severing of sister-city ties with Beijing and the Taiwanese trip of the Czech Senate president, for example, the political rifts – while perhaps exacerbated by China’s actions – are a reflection of domestic opposition politics. In both cases, representatives of the opposition have opted for what critics in China choose to call “China bashing” in order to score political points against the current Czech President and others who have been accused of cosying up to Beijing. Critics in the opposition often infer a slide toward illiberal politics and corruption from closeness with Beijing, their suspicions urged along by very real cases that raise questions about links between China and political and business elites. One prominent recent case in the Czech Republic concerned Petr Kellner, owner of the domestic credit company Home Credit, who was found in late 2019 to have paid a public relations firm to place articles favorable to China in local media.

The Coming Age of Decoupling

Like the rest of Europe, the majority of CEE countries have grown increasingly wary of China, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. For some, such as Poland and Bulgaria, this shift has been accelerated by the escalating conflict between the US and China, particularly over technology and security – what has been termed a “technology Cold War” between Washington and Beijing. In particular, the US has used the Three Seas Initiative (3SI) – covering the “Three Seas Region” comprising 12 EU states, chiefly from the CEE region and also members of China’s “17+1” grouping – to garner support for the so-called “Clean Network” initiative, which Chinese diplomats have panned as discriminatory and in fact a “dirty network.” Central to US concerns over Chinese technology has of course been the tech giant Huawei. As a result, all of the EU member states taking part in the “17+1” platform have indicated to date that they will be banning Huawei equipment from the construction of their 5G networks.

Huawei has fought back against bans in several CEE countries, including Poland and Romania, challenging their legality under EU law. China has stressed that these countries have succumbed to US pressure in issuing these bans. But this is in fact an overly simplistic explanation of such decisions, which have been based on real security concerns. In the case of Poland, for example, restrictions were prompted by a case of espionage against Huawei’s country director, who had previously worked as a Chinese diplomat in Poland. Media in Slovakia have also signalled concern over the security threats posed by Chinese telecommunication companies.

In the Czech Republic, as in other countries, concerns over China have been deepened by the aggressive conduct of Chinese diplomats. In December 2018, a bitter spat broke out between Czech Prime Andrej Babiš and Chinese Ambassador Zhang Jianmin after the latter claimed in a statement on Facebook that Babiš had privately admitted that a security warning about Huawei issued by the country’s cybersecurity agency had been misguided. Babiš flatly denied this, calling Zhang a “liar.” This was an earlier example of what would subsequently, in 2019, come to be known as “wolf-warrior diplomacy,” a more aggressive approach by Chinese diplomats through Facebook and Twitter that would only deepen threat perceptions in the CEE region and right across Europe.

In the second half of 2019, almost all Chinese embassies in the CEE region established both Facebook and Twitter accounts. The aim of these accounts was to actively promote the official Chinese view of developments in Hong Kong. As the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020, and China faced global criticism for its handling of the initial stages, this diplomatic activism through social media went into overdrive. Chinese embassies across the region posted actively about the medical “aid” provided to CEE countries – much of it in fact trade, not aid. One study from the European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC) released in April noted of the case of Hungary that "[it] is conspicuous that the text of official communiques of the Hungarian government, and thus most of the media coverage never used the verbs 'to buy' or 'to purchase' when it comes to medical equipment coming from China, and prices are never mentioned either."

Chinese embassies across the region posted actively about the medical “aid” provided to CEE countries – much of it in fact trade, not aid.

 

Meanwhile, senior diplomats like Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian attacked the US for its response, even suggesting that the virus might have originated there. As some scholars have noted, the content of this activism across social networks was not actually directed at domestic audiences in the CEE region or other EU countries, but rather audiences back home in China. As such, China’s “mask diplomacy” backfired in the sense that it confirmed the growing suspicion among CEE countries that Beijing “does not get” the region.

It is not surprising, given the abovementioned factors, that CEE countries have been at the forefront in Europe when it comes to decoupling from China. Consider the way, for example, that Bulgaria has proposed, in the wake of the pandemic and in the interests of EU solidarity and security, that a “small EU China” be created by relocating critical medical production now dependent upon China to CEE countries. Or how Romania revealed in May 2020 that it had cancelled a deal with a Chinese company to upgrade a nuclear power plant in the country, what had been one of the largest BRI investments in the region. Four months later, adding insult to injury, Romania announced that the contract would be pursued with help from the US, which is now committing eight billion dollars to the project.

Links with China, previously touted as a force for good and for “mutual benefit,” are now likely to be viewed as instances of over-dependence on Beijing, a sign of shifting tides in Central and Eastern Europe.

What Next?

But even as China-CEE relations cool off, it must be recognized that this reveals a more fundamental shift in attitudes in the region – demonstrating the willingness of CEE states to simultaneously challenge both China and the EU, albeit in different ways. On the one hand, a number of CEE countries appear prepared to challenge China’s red lines, including core issues such as Taiwan, Tibet, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. All of these form the core of the “One China” principle, which Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed again during his August trip to Europe. On the other hand, CEE states are pushing the self-avowedly “geopolitical” European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen to start acting showing real assertiveness – walking the walk rather than just talking the talk. In this process, the CEE states have also sought to break the Franco-German dominance over the EU’s China policy and stake their own claim on the China agenda setting.

In this respect, Prague’s severing of sister-city relations with Beijing is a reminder that the “One China” principle has ramifications far beyond the status of Taiwan. As the former Danish Prime Minister and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen argued recently in Die Zeit, the government in Beijing has aggressively been pushing a “revisionist” version of the “One China” principle, in which any relations by other states with Taiwan are viewed unfavorably, and the leadership in Beijing is “almost completely immune to criticism from abroad.” Chinese leaders have used this version of the “One China” principle, said Rasmussen, to justify abrogating its commitments to Hong Kong under the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement, and to defend the extensive repression of ethnic and religious minorities. Seen against this geopolitical backdrop, the active process of distancing from China in CEE states is meant to prod Brussels into action. “If Europe truly wants to be a geopolitical actor, it can no longer cultivate its relationship with Taiwan using the ‘fly under the radar’ approach,” Rasmussen wrote.

Historically speaking, each of Prague’s defenestrations have proven painful and tumultuous for all parties involved. The present tossing of China out the window in the foreign policy actions of various states in Central and Eastern Europe does not promise to be any different. It is part of a difficult but necessary reconfiguration of relationships, hopefully that can produce in sum more cooperative and equitable relations with China. For the time being, however, such an outcome is but a wishful thinking. Entrenched in their own positions, it seems that resentment and division are becoming the main characteristics of the interactions between Beijing and European capitals. For Europe at least, the current disenchantment with China in the CEE region is paradoxically helping the EU regain a consolidated “European voice” in its relations with Beijing. The uncertainty of this situation makes it difficult to anticipate what the future might hold, but it seems that confrontation rather than cooperation will remain the motif of Sino-European relations for some time to come.

 

29. December 2020
Author
Emilian Kavalski

Emilian Kavalski is Li Dak Sum Chair Professor in China-Eurasia Relations at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China.