Analysis | Crouching Tiger, Hidden Agenda

China’s support for Russia is undoing decades of effort to build diplomatic ties in Central and Eastern Europe

Joseph Bebel

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in 2015. (Image: Kremlin on Wikimedia Commons)

As Russian atrocities grow in Ukraine, Beijing’s ability to feign neutrality in the conflict appears increasingly dubious. In early March 2022, following the invasion, Chinese President Xi Jingping took the time to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone; Xi has yet to speak directly with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodomyr Zelensky since the invasion. Around that same time, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared Russia as China’s “most important strategic partner” and described the two countries’ relationship as “ironclad.” China even abstained from the United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has yet to officially denounce Moscow’s actions.

As can be expected, U.S. and E.U. leaders have been highly critical of Beijing’s pro-Russia lean. In a hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman said the sanctions regime coordinated among U.S. allies against the Kremlin and its cronies should give Beijing “a pretty good understanding” of what will come if it provides material support to Russia in Ukraine. Additionally, during a virtual summit between E.U. and Chinese leaders, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen warned Xi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that any support given to Russia would lead to “major reputational damage for China” in Europe.

Yet, even before the E.U.-China virtual summit, China had already tarnished its reputation quite soundly in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). In the lead-up to the summit, Lithuanian Vice Foreign Minister Mantas Adomenas argued for canceling the summit, saying it was “time to show China that we mean business — that they cannot expect to occupy this ambiguous role” between Russia and the West any longer. Even before Russian forces crossed Ukraine’s borders, CEE countries became increasingly wary of China following the release of a joint statement between Beijing and Moscow announcing a renewed “no limits’’ strategic partnership. Furthermore, China’s continued ambiguity on Ukraine and refusal to condemn Russia’s aggression has some characterizing Beijing’s position on the war in Ukraine as “pro-Russia neutrality.”

While the war in Ukraine has spotlighted China’s deteriorating relations with Central and Eastern Europe, the potential partnership has been in sharp decline for some time. And Beijing cozying up to the Kremlin will only serve to permanently taint relations with the region.

Cozy Chinese-Russian relations

Before releasing the joint statement, Putin and Xi met on April 4, 2022, to discuss the tenets of a new era in Russian-Chinese cooperation. Overall, the two leaders agreed on a fundamental worldview that, among other things, seeks to halt the expansion of NATO and liberal democracy. Specifically, the two sides agreed that there is no “one-size-fits-all” model in establishing democracy and that the desire for other states to “impose their own democratic standards on others” undermines the true spirit of democracy — clearly a shot at U.S. and E.U. efforts to promote the spread of the liberal democratic model.

In truth, Beijing needs Russia to balance against U.S. power and influence in Central and Eastern Europe. However, China also does not want to embolden its Russian partner and risk further complicating delicate relations with the region. As one commentator put it, China prefers a “Russia weakened by war and sanctions but not chaotic and unstable.”

Indeed, Chinese prospects in Central and Eastern Europe will depend heavily on Beijing’s ability to balance Russia vis-a-vis the United States and European Union. China must keep the Kremlin at arm’s length if it hopes to renew an appetite for economic cooperation and rebuild trust among the CEE nations. Yet, the recent Russian-Chinese joint statement along with China’s apparent tilt toward Russia in Ukraine puts Beijing in a tough position: a growing strategic and economic relationship with Russia will most certainly push CEE countries closer toward the West for future economic cooperation and development.

Growing CEE disillusionment with Beijing

Only a decade ago, Chinese relations with Central and Eastern Europe were at an all-time high. China had just put forth the 16+1 mechanism, which grew to 17+1 with the addition of Greece in 2019, to promote increased cooperation between Beijing and the region on economic investment and infrastructure development. At the time, China was received with “open arms” as the region was struggling to attract Western investors. CEE countries were particularly excited by the prospect of developing infrastructure for a “north-south corridor of energy, transportation, and telecommunications” in the region.

In 2016, 12 CEE countries adopted a joint declaration in Dubrovnik, Croatia, promising increased regional cooperation to “promote economic development and increased competitiveness” for the “three seas” region — the three seas being the Adriatic, Baltic, and Black Seas. Known now as the Three Seas Initiative (3SI), Beijing has promoted 3SI within the context of the 17+1 arrangement. That same year, China signed the Riga Declaration with CEE countries affirming that 3SI (referred to as “Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea Seaport Cooperation) promotes “greater synergy” in deepening the cooperation already taking place within the then-16+1 agreement.

Since then, CEE regional openness to Chinese influence has grown quite cold for a number of reasons. To begin with, infrastructure projects in the region have achieved little progress, and economic investments have been far lower than what was promised. The Budapest-Belgrade Railway, initially lauded as the “flagship project” of the 16+1 arrangement, has instead made little progress and been plagued by a corrupt bidding process and continual postponement of construction.

Additionally, similar to concerns of “debt traps” for countries signing onto China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Central and Eastern Europe has grown incredibly cautious with accepting Chinese money. The heightened unease is closely connected to Montenegro’s experience with accepting a $1 billion loan from China to build a much-needed highway. As a result of the loan’s terms, Montenegro’s national debt ballooned to 103 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It only narrowly escaped crushing its national economy by reaching agreements with U.S. and E.U. banks to hedge repayment of the debt.

Beyond valid economic and investment concerns, ideological cleavages between China and CEE countries have grown considerably. To illustrate, Lithuania has recently become the poster child for increased regional opposition to Chinese influence, instead calling for more formal CEE cooperation with the European Union and United States. In May 2021, Lithuania dropped out of the 17+1 arrangement, with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis quipping that it was “high time for the E.U. to move from a dividing 16+1 format to a more uniting and therefore much more efficient 27+1,” adding that “The E.U. is strongest when all 27 member states act together along with E.U. institutions.” ​​

Lithuania further irked its Chinese counterparts when on November 18, 2021, it allowed Taiwan to establish an official embassy in Vilnius. Beijing called the move an “extremely egregious act” and vowed to limit cooperation with Lithuania in key areas. However, Lithuania is not the only CEE country to open its doors to Taiwan. At the end of last year, Slovakia and the Czech Republic (along with Lithuania) welcomed Taiwanese officials to discuss possible future cooperation. The United States has also offered Vilnius, and the larger region, support in withstanding Chinese pressure.

Poland, which has been a leader in the 3SI format and strong proponent of Chinese investment and economic cooperation, has tried to limit Chinese-Russian cooperation. In fact, following Xi and Putin’s meeting in early February, Polish President Andrzej Duda visited Beijing in an attempt to inform Xi of Europe’s perspective on Russia and the threat it poses to European security; unfortunately, Duda’s words may have fallen on deaf ears. For the time being, it seems Chinese authorities value good relations with Moscow more than those with CEE countries.

Even with the region growing cold toward China, two stubborn holdouts remain: Hungary and Serbia. On May 2, 2022, the Hungarian government announced plans to go ahead with establishing a Fudan University campus in Budapest by 2024. The deal would make it the first Chinese university campus in the European Union. In Serbia, weakening of legal regulations for Chinese investments has stoked fears that Beijing’s growing influence in Belgrade will lead to more corruption and rule of law issues in Serbia.

Warm relations with Hungary and Serbia means China will continue to wield some, albeit weak, influence in Central and Eastern Europe. Even so, these slim openings will certainly not change the growing regional aversion to Chinese economic cooperation and investment in the short term.

Conclusion

In 2019, China officially overtook Russia as Ukraine’s largest trading partner. As such, Ukraine had been in serious talks to join the 16+1 initiative and become a future partner in 3SI projects. However, the geopolitical realities of the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine has completely changed that landscape. If China continues to strengthen its strategic partnership with Russia, Beijing’s prospects for exerting influence in Central and Eastern Europe — including rebuilding Ukraine when the time comes — will grow increasingly precarious.

Joseph Bebel is a former Huntington Graduate Fellow with the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He is an editor and policy analyst completing a grant analyzing Chinese economic investment in Central and Eastern Europe for the Jamestown Foundation.

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