Chinese influence in Central and Eastern Europe
Confusion and failure also belie Western concerns. After a promising and uncontroversial start in 2012, the 16/17+1 initiative has drawn intense scrutiny from think tanks, policymakers and intelligence services. Amid growing chills in Sino-US and then Sino-European relations, it has raised concerns that China is seeking to divide Europe and weaken the transatlantic alliance by exerting influence in the CEE region.
The audit of Chinese efforts in the following pages can be seen as a litany of failures that dispels any other concerns about Chinese influence in the Central and Eastern European region. It is clear that the Chinese Communist Party leadership does not understand the economic, cultural, historical and geographical differences within the so-called CEE region. Nor does it have experience in the world of successful multilateral diplomacy. The history of the CEE region only underlines this. In short, the party’s bespoke country-by-country approach fails far more than it succeeds, and it has also failed to create a regional approach.
But a different analytical framework supports a less complacent conclusion. China is taking an opportunistic and patient approach. It does not work towards a specific goal, nor does it assume that the region is a financial, diplomatic or soft power priority. Its approach varies from country to country precisely because it tests the waters. Some things work. Other things don’t. Beijing’s decision-makers observe, listen and learn.
The main approach is to “fill in the gaps”. When an opportunity arises (for example in the supply of vaccines and other materials related to COVID-19), the Chinese government offers them. If a tempting investment opportunity arises, she seizes it. If an infrastructure project offers significant and political benefits, China steps in. If there is domestic anti-Westernism, China endorses it and seeks to amplify it. Recoil is limited. In some countries, a robust civil society and independent media are engaging in groundbreaking research and investigative journalism to expose China’s growing influence. In Hungary and Serbia, illiberal governments are happy to use Chinese support to bolster their domestic political capital and as leverage in relations with the EU and the US.
None of this is guaranteed to work soon or last forever. But some of them might pay off at some point. From China’s point of view, this is already a reasonable return on a limited investment of time and money.
The real point of this gap-filling strategy is that these gaps exist because of the failures of other international institutions and governments (such as the EU, US, and International Monetary Fund). Basically, China is making progress where Western countries and institutions are failing, for example by capitalizing on Western Balkan disillusionment with the choppy pace of EU enlargement. If Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania were already in the EU, or about to join, China would probably have fewer opportunities to exert influence ( although Germany, a central EU country, is an excellent example of successful Chinese influence operations). If Western pressure had already curbed Victor Orbán’s dogged foreign policy, the Hungarian leader would be much less likely to flirt with the Chinese (and Russian) governments. If other Western countries took a more robust approach to Taiwan, Lithuania would be less exposed (the fact that economic coercion against Lithuania went unpunished is seen as a major success in Beijing). If existing academic institutions taught Chinese language, culture and history properly, there would be no room for Confucius Institutes.