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From Kyiv To Bucharest: Has Chinese Influence Peaked In Eastern Europe?

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In the early days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, some officials and analysts raised the possibility of China playing a mediating role or even pushing Moscow to the negotiating table to help end the conflict.

But after six months of war, few still hold that hope.

While Beijing has avoided providing weapons and overt economic assistance to Russia and claims it is neutral in the war, the Chinese media have also parroted Kremlin propagandaboosted its economy through Russian energy purchases, conducted military exercises with Russia, and provided diplomatic cover to Moscow at international bodies like the United Nations.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed in Central and Eastern Europe, where China’s moves throughout the war and the “no limits” partnership it declared with Russia in February have tarnished Beijing’s reputation and seen its favorable ratings fall.

In a sign of China’s diminished standing, Estonia and Latvia on August 11 left the so-called 16+1 format — a Beijing-led group meant to hold regular negotiations with Central and Eastern European countries and expand Chinese influence across the region.

The following week, a group of Ukrainian lawmakers called for a review of Kyiv’s ties with Beijing and announced the formation of a parliamentary caucus meant to promote closer ties with Taiwan and potentially open a representative office for Ukraine in Taipei.

“The reaction of the Taiwanese people and government to [Russia’s] full-scale invasion was very important to our country,” Inna Sovsun, the deputy head of Ukraine’s opposition Voice party who joined the pro-Taiwan parliamentary group, told RFE/RL. “As security issues have become very challenging for both Ukraine and Taiwan over the last months, [it’s] a good time to [take] the first steps in Ukraine-Taiwan friendship.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on February 4.

From Kyiv to Bucharest to Tallinn, countries in the region — many of whom have their own histories with Russian occupation and aggression — are now echoing that sentiment and looking to distance themselves from Beijing due to its stance over Moscow’s invasion.

After China’s ambassador in Moscow reiterated Beijing’s view that the United States is the main culprit for the war, Oleksandr Merezhko, the head of the Ukrainian parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, called for a review of Kyiv’s relations with China.

In Estonia, Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said China’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “was definitely a factor” in Estonia’s decision to pull out of the 16+1 group.

“It’s clear that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin tries to create alliances with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes all over the world,” Sovsun said. “The path of Ukraine is to develop together with democratic countries that respect international law and are ready to oppose the aggression of hostile countries.”

‘Long In The Making’

Before Moscow’s invasion, Ukraine sought to build strong economic ties with Beijing as it reoriented its economy away from Russia and sought to limit its dependence on the West, even signing a strategic partnership with China in 2013.

Throughout the war, Ukrainian officials have largely been muted about China’s close ties with Russia but occasionally expressed the hope that Beijing could use its influence over Moscow to help end the war, a position most recently expressed in early August by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during an interview with the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. Zelenskiy, however, has been unable to get a phone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Governments across Central and Eastern Europe have also shifted away from formerly China-friendly positions, although many began to change course prior to Russia’s invasion.

“[This] was long in the making,” a Baltic official who requested anonymity in order to speak openly, told RFE/RL. “For the Baltic states, it didn’t make sense to be [in the 16+1] anymore. [There] were no investments coming in and the reputational damage for dividing the European Union is bigger now.”

Originally launched in 2012 and received with enthusiasm across the region, the 16+1 was seen as a chance for local governments to attract Chinese investment and benefit from China’s rising global position. The group expanded to include Greece in 2019 and was renamed the 17+1, but that proved to be the high-water mark for the diplomatic format, which included 12 EU countries.

Relations between Brussels and Beijing have frayed in recent years over human rights issues involving abuses in Hong Kong and Chinese internment camps against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in its Xinjiang Province. Similarly, many Central and Eastern European governments were frustrated by the lack of Chinese investment in their countries and the growing view in Washington and Brussels that the format was designed by China to create political divisions within the EU.

Lithuania was the first to leave the framework in 2021 and later found itself embroiled in a high-level diplomatic spat with Beijing over Taiwan that same year. Slovakia and the Czech Republic are still in the grouping, but they have also distanced themselves from China and built up relations with Taiwan.

In April, Beijing looked to repair some of the damage done to its reputation in recent years by dispatching Huo Yuzhen, the Foreign Ministry’s special representative for China and Central and Eastern European cooperation. Huo traveled to eight countries during his tour in hopes of reviving the 16+1 but received a lukewarm reception and was even refused a meeting with Polish officials.

“With China exercising similar imperialist military tactics against Taiwan [as Moscow has toward Ukraine] and joining [military] drills with Russia, it’s also very easy now to argue to society and those businesses who were still hoping for economic gain [from China],” said the Baltic official.

While China’s partnership with Russia and policies throughout the war may be the breaking point for some officials in Ukraine, Ukrainian lawmaker Sovsun said she was advocating for a review of Kyiv’s partnership with China since before the war began and that “attempts [by Kyiv] to cooperate more with China in the last few years sent very confusing signals to our partners.”

She adds that the Taiwan caucus in parliament has taken some inspiration from Lithuania, with the Baltic country opening a representative office in Taiwan and deepening economic cooperation, especially on vital technologies such as 5G networks, semiconductors, and artificial intelligence — a path that Ukraine could follow.

“I think the caucus may become a bridge that will allow cooperation to start between Ukrainian and Taiwanese [lawmakers] at the official level,” Sovsun said.

The New Europe And China

While China’s political influence may have reached its zenith across much of Central and Eastern Europe, not all governments will necessarily be looking to follow the course of the Baltic states.

In Romania, a slew of investment deals and projects were signed with China between 2012 and 2015, but they have since been suspended or abandoned. The decision by Bucharest to drop projects such as a power-plant deal or to block Chinese participation in its 5G infrastructure came amid a U.S.-led campaign to limit its rollout across Europe.

Andrei Tiut, the program director at Global Focus Center, a Bucharest-based think tank, told RFE/RL that Chinese influence in the country has largely stalled due to “a combination of American pressure and perhaps insufficient or unclear benefits for Romania.” He adds that the war in Ukraine only “strengthened this perspective” by reminding politicians that Romania’s security is linked to being part of the West and a NATO member.

Unlike the Baltics, Romania has not left China’s regional format, but Tiut says there remains room for nuance for how Bucharest and other countries in the region will navigate their ties with China in the future.

“I don’t think that putting further distance between China is in any way a priority in Romania given the Ukraine war and some political disagreements within the [ruling government] coalition,” he said. “However, once the war is over and economic hardships remain, China may be able to present itself convincingly as a help in Romania’s development.”

A lot may hinge on global economic conditions over the coming years, particularly in the EU. While many governments are looking to limit their ties to China, others are deepening their links. According to a recent study by the German Economic Institute, the German economy has become more dependent on China in the first half of 2022, despite growing pressure for it to pivot away.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government continues to deepen its ties with China and signed the largest investment in Hungarian history on August 12 with the Chinese Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited (CATL), the world’s largest battery manufacturer. The $7.6 billion investment will set up CATL’s second plant in Europe, and the Hungarian government has classified the factory as a priority project that will create 9,000 jobs.

For countries like Romania, it will be watching closely what other governments in the region and beyond decide for how to chart their China ties.

“Should more countries start to consider shifting their positions [on] China, Romania may decide to be among those who choose to follow the example of the Baltics,” said Tiut.

Source : Radio Free Europe