No, China Has Not Bought Central and Eastern Europe
While some Central and Eastern European governments have taken pro-Beijing positions, their considerations are far more domestic than international.
In recent years, opprobrium over Beijing’s incursions on Central and Eastern Europe has reached a fevered pitch. China planned to buy the region “on the cheap, ” Forbes reported; it planned to influence the region “one business deal at a time,” noted the New York Times. The region is “in bed” with Beijing, happily taking its investments and loans, A. Wess Mitchell— a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs —opined last month.
The excess of attention on the region’s allegedly growing economic dependency on China has overshadowed the reality, in which a few well-positioned politicians and businesspeople have hijacked the relationship for personal gain. In truth, Central and Eastern Europe is far less economically dependent on China than perhaps any other region in the world—and especially compared to the rest of the European Union.
A common allegation from pundits is that Beijing is trying to divide and conquer Europe, as evidenced by its deal-making with Europe’s poorer countries. In 2012, China and post-communist governments of Central and Eastern Europe began holding annual summits. (Widely known as the 16+1, the platform expanded to 17+1 last year, with the addition of Greece.) Past summits were grand occasions for Beijing to highlight its economic promises of increasing trade and investments—a particularly attractive premise following the 2008 financial crisis.
But these promises rarely came to fruition. In fact, as time went on, leaders grew frustrated with how few economic opportunities came about from their cooperation with China. Rather than being a “gateway” for Chinese investment into Europe, as Czech President Milos Zeman boasted of his country, Beijing more often bypassed the region altogether—taking its investments straight into wealthier Western Europe. Four years after making that boast, Zeman was threatening to boycott this year’s 17+1 summit over the lack of Chinese investment in the Czech Republic.
For years now, the vast majority of Chinese investment into Europe has gone to Western, Northern, and Southern Europe, according to the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a German think tank. In 2017, 71 percent of Chinese investment in Europe went to the United Kingdom, France, and Germany alone, although that number dropped to 34 percent in 2019. But that year, only 3 percent of Chinese investment in Europe went to Eastern Europe, the think tank found, despite the region accounting for about a tenth of the EU’s GDP.
Meanwhile, products and services from Germany, the U.K., France, Italy, and the Netherlands made up 78 percent of the EU exports to China in 2018, according to the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, an independent think tank. Germany alone accounted for 45 percent of all EU exports to China in 2018 and it is, by far, the EU country most reliant on exports to China, comprising 7.07 percent of Germany’s overall export figures.
Some Central and Eastern European states have, at times, taken overly pro-Beijing steps. The Czech Republic’s Zeman was the only EU head of state present in Beijing for the military parade in 2015 and is famous for his China-friendly comments, such as when he suggested that his country is China’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in Europe. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic made his fondness even more explicit when he kissed the Chinese flag while receiving medical supplies from China in March, during the early days of Europe’s coronavirus crisis. He said at the time that “China is the only country that can help,” while calling Chinese President Xi Jinping his “friend and brother.”
More crucially, those friendly gestures have at times resembled overt signs of fealty. In 2017, both Hungary and Greece blocked separate efforts by the EU to condemn China for human rights violations. Both countries were among the few within the EU that opposed a strong position after the 2016 South China Sea arbitration.
But even here, these actions—held up as proof of Central and Eastern Europe’s suzerainty—fail to tell the full story. First, only a minority of states from Central and Eastern Europe ever indulged in such gestures. Second, these are highly symbolic public statements that are meant to attract attention—such as when receiving well-needed surgical masks during the coronavirus crisis. Furthermore, praise is often lavished on Beijing to signal dissatisfaction with Brussels. This is especially true for populist Euroskeptics in Central and Eastern Europe. When Serbia’s Vucic praised China in March, he also highlighted the lack of EU response.
The leaders who are the drivers of their countries’ relations with China tend to have strong personalities. In Western Europe, ties with China have become institutionalized over the decades of intense relations with Beijing. But in Central and Eastern Europe, relations with China started much later and often from scratch. Much of the Chinese influence in Central and Eastern Europe stems from personal relationships between the region’s politicians and Chinese officials or businesspeople. In the Czech Republic, for instance, the highly touted Chinese leverage is tied directly to Zeman—a divisive personality whose popularity derives from the more traditional, rural population, which is comparatively less fond of the EU and NATO.
While the president is not the head of the government in the Czech parliamentary system, his role as a formal head of state allows Zeman to receive presidential treatment—which China is more than happy to provide. Zeman has distinguished himself by becoming the first Czech president to establish such dynamic relations with China, while also signaling his position to the pro-Western sections of the Czech society.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary and Vucic in Serbia share similarities with the Czech case, where political and economic interests of the leaders are in the forefront of the countries’ engagements with China.
Meanwhile, politicians from Western European states have also been acquiescent toward Chinese leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has made 12 visits to Beijing since 2005, far more than almost any other European leader. Earlier this year, the new British government under Prime Minister Boris Johnson just managed to avert a full-blown diplomatic spat with the United States after reaffirming London’s commitment to allowing controversial Chinese tech giant Huawei to build parts of the U.K.’s 5G network.
In the past, Germany was criticized for preventing a united EU response to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea in 2014, because of Berlin’s reliance on oil and gas imports from Russia. It’s a similar story for China today. Noah Barkin, a senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, wrote in March that “the Merkel government’s reluctance to antagonize Beijing risks undermining the EU’s push for a common policy toward China and perpetuating a situation where member states look out for their own interests, often to the detriment of a common European front.”
Philippe Le Corre, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted last year that there was hope of “quasi-unanimity” between the French and German positions on China. For the first time, the EU’s “strategic outlook” on China in March 2019 referred to the country as a “systemic rival,” and French President Emmanuel Macron invited his German and European Commission counterparts to talks with Xi that were meant to be bilateral. In the intervening months, however, Germany and France instead “ploughed their own separate paths,” wrote Le Corre, proving that when it comes to China policy, “national interests still prevail.”
While it’s easy to focus in on Central and Eastern Europe, such attention misses the broader plot. The narrative of Central and Eastern Europe being bought up by China fits neatly with historical images of an Eastern Europe dominated by communism. In reality, it is the rest of Europe that is economically far more dependent on China and that has, too, put national interests above the common EU position. Pointing fingers at Central and Eastern Europe with the easily refutable claims of economic dependency distracts from the fact that Western European dealings with China have impacted the ability of the EU to form a common position. The intra-EU blame game can poison the relations among various European regions and is certainly not helping the EU in reaching unity on the issue.
David Hutt is a political journalist who was based in Cambodia between 2014 and 2019. He is the Southeast Asia columnist for the Diplomat.