Since a year ago which the Covid-19 hit and spread across the planet, China has played a crucial role as the main exporter in supplying medical goods such as facial masks and disinfectants around the world. According to data from the UN commercial institutes (2020), about 44% of masks exports has been from China in 2020, next being Germany with 7%, and the US with 6%, which have a lesser role in exports. With regard to China’s precedent in using trade for securing foreign policy goals, donation of Beijing’s medical equipment to other countries is known as the Mask Diplomacy, because officials and politicians from many countries in the EU, Central and Eastern parts of the green continent have felt it and is considered as a purchase campaign of Chinese infiltration, seeking to divide the EU. Today a new similar scenario under the new magic keyword “vaccine” is being played. Hungary was the sole EU member which decided not to wait for verification of the vaccine by the European Medicines Agency and started negotiations for securing COVID vaccines from Russia and China. In the past May, president Xi stated that China was seeking to use the vaccine to boost its status over the world. “Health Silk Road” along with wining the Covid-19 vaccine is a top priority for Beijing in 2021. Also, president Xi wants to present online the Chinese vaccine to the participants of the 17+1 on February 8,2021. The overall question regarding China’s relations with Central and Eastern European countries boils down to two categories:
1-What is China’s main tool for expanding influence in the region?
2- Does continuation of Beijing’s moves mean intensification of great power competition in the region?
Beijing uses the 17+1 meeting with Central and Eastern European states to counter the EU regulations and exploit the tensions between Eastern and Western Europe. China’s ability in financing construction of highways, railways, power plants and other infrastructure projects shows that China has targeted these countries’ fundamental needs. While 16 countries in Central and Eastern Europe including Hungary, Romania, Poland, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Albany, Macedonia, Monte Negro, Czech republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia participated in the last session in Budapest, it is obvious that China enjoys good and successful cooperation with these countries and is trying to broaden this cooperation.
The statistics presented indicate that the Chinese companies, financed by government-owned banks since 2012, have approximately invested $15 billion in infrastructure and related industries in Central and Eastern European states. According to the report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Serbia is in robust partnership and cooperation with China and is expected to receive $1.9 billion of Chinese investment in its infrastructure. In Hungary, there is rapport between Budapest and Beijing and China has committed to invest $1.5 billion in the country. Also, the Czech Republic has signed an agreement worth of $3 billion, which in the words of the country’s president, this type of cooperation is a gateway for China’s entrance to the European Union. Also there is comprehensive and good relations between Beijing and Warsaw, so that the trade between the two sides over the last ten years has had a steady 10% growth and reached over $25 billion at the end of 2019. In addition, cooperation between 36 provinces of the two countries has been established, and 1500 Chinese students in Poland and 1400 Polish students in China are busy studying and in 2017 more than 180 thousand Chinese tourists visited this country.
The 9th 17+1 meeting of Central and Eastern European states which was due to be held before the corona pandemic and was postponed in the first half of 2020 is expected to be held online on February 8,2021 to break the impasse in holding the meeting and serve as a new sign of strengthening ties between China and Central and Eastern European states. Generally, China’s main goal is achieving global investment through trade. At present, the main trade routes are in the seas and under the US control. With this step, Beijing is trying to realize a substitute land trade route to Europe, Asia and even Africa as “The Silk Road” or the “One belt, One Road” initiative; something which could be the key to China achieving global hegemony and consequently make china dominant in a vast territory in Eurasia, or in another word, the pivotal and central region of the world.
Trans-regional collaboration between China and Eastern Europe, the so-called “17+1” initiative, was kick started in April of 2012 in Poland; where China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, and 16 representatives from Central Europe including 11 EU members held a meeting. Wen promised investment and construction of infrastructure to strengthen the regional economy. China stresses its connection to Europe and sees railways, ports, and foreign direct investment as a basis for gaining balanced development and social cohesion in Europe. When in 2019, Greece joined in as the 17th member, it boosted the political importance of 17+1 more than ever. Investment and trade in the relations between China and Europe have had a rarely seen growth over the last decade. For example, the total Chinese investments in the UK, Germany, Italy and France are presently over 100 billion euros and have reached 8 billion euros in Eastern Europe, the most important of which being 1.2 billion in Romania (5.4% of the total amount),2.5 billion in Hungary and 1.5 billion in Poland.
Although China has a long record of attempts at expanding influence in the region, the country, over the last decade, has embarked on a limitless campaign of expanding influence in Eastern Europe; something which worries the West. In the capitals of important European states there is a concern that Beijing is relishing the opportunity to create a rift in the EU and draw Eastern European states into its orbit. From the European viewpoint, Beijing, Moscow, Washington and even Ankara have adopted influence approaches to pursue their own political and strategic goals, which in the future can make Europe faced with unpredictable challenges, and dependence of East Europe’s economy to that of the Far East can in practice jeopardize Europe’s integrity , and as a result lead to disintegration and contradiction in European countries’ policies. Although traditionally Turkey and Russia have been two influential powers and actors in Central and Eastern Europe, since early 21st century, China too, emboldened by the passive European Union’ behavior , has fully powerfully stepped in the region. Therefore, said in a sentence, the acting formula in the strategic Eastern and Central Europe in Europe’s style is the slogan of Eastward Expansion, for Russia is with the tool of energy and primary materials, for Turkey with soft power, for China, with economy and investment, and for the US with the defense and security tools.
Ali Eghbali Zarch, Senior Expert of European Studies
(The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)