China’s influence in the eastern EU was damaged by the war in Ukraine

Criticized by Western leaders for its neutral stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has tried to do damage control to countries in central and eastern Europe in recent days, but it could be – too late. very much, say euronews experts.

Huo Yuzhen, Beijing’s special representative for the China-Central and Eastern Europe Investment Cooperation Fund, visited eight countries in the region this week: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Poland .

Admittedly, the trip was aimed at enhancing cooperation between China and these European Union members, but it was done as Beijing continued to declare its neutrality in Russia’s war on Ukrainian territory.

The Chinese authorities have so far refused to condemn their Russian counterparts for their military intervention and have reaffirmed their commitment to a strong bilateral relationship. The establishment of sanctions against Russia is currently excluded.

According to U.S. intelligence, Moscow is seeking military and economic assistance from China. It urges Western countries – which impose five rounds of Russian sanctions for aggression – to warn them against doing so.

The war in Ukraine is an “existential question” for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe

Earlier this month, the 23rd EU-China summit at which Beijing hopes to remain on the pre-war agenda and thus bilateral relations and efforts to tackle climate change was overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, stressed that the events on the site represent “a decisive moment not only for our continent, but also for our relations with the rest of the world.” He added that as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China “has a special responsibility” and that any support for Russia’s ability to fight “could cause great damage to China’s reputation here in Europe.”

But that reputation has been damaged, Mareike Ohlberg, senior researcher for the German Marshall Fund’s Asia program in the United States, told euronews.

“The fact that China sided with Russia and blamed NATO is completely unacceptable to most Central and Eastern European countries,” he said. he said. “The Chinese government does not seem to understand, or does not want to understand, that Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is seen as an existential issue for most countries in the region,” he said. he added.

For the specialist, “There is little chance that China can at least superficially limit the damage by promising investment or access to China, but I think most of the relations between these countries will continue to be damaged.”

“Unless it decides to change its stance on the war in Ukraine, China can do little to compensate for the loss of confidence in the long term,” he said. he explained.

Over the past decade, China has strengthened its economic and political presence in Central and Eastern Europe through its Belt and Road Initiative with investments aimed at encouraging bilateral trade and local infrastructure development.

This approach has an influence on EU internal policy. Member states that have benefited from the investments have spoken out to soften Beijing’s criticism on some issues. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, for example, blocked EU statements in Hong Kong.

17+1, 16+1 … 27+1?

However, relations between China and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe had already collapsed before the Ukraine war. Thus, “Many countries are in the so -called 16 + 1 cooperation [ndlr : un groupe formé par Pékin en 2012 qui regroupe la Chine et 16 pays d’Europe centrale et orientale] saddened by the lack of tangible economic results and the slow implementation of this initiative, “ said Tamas Matura of Corvinus University in Budapest.

“China’s role during the Covid-19 pandemic and the changing Cold War outlook on Asia-West relations led to many policy changes in many Central and Eastern European countries. in the world. ‘about China,’ he pointed out. “Most of them,” he continued, “decided to strengthen political and security relations with their traditional partners such as the EU and the United States, “ as he.

Lithuania, on the other hand, had troubled relations with China last year: they withdrew from the group formed with China, lowering it from 17 + 1 to 16 + 1, while calling for a european . “more efficient than 27+1” in China to replace this format of cooperation. The Baltic country immediately allowed Taiwan to open a representative office in its capital – a de facto embassy – whose name included the word “Taiwan” and not the “Chinese Taipei” approved by Beijing, Beijing considered Taiwan is part of its territory. .

The dispute led Brussels to initiate proceedings against China at the World Trade Organization (WTO), with the EU accusing Beijing of engaging in ‘discriminatory trade practices’ against Lithuania by refusing to clear customs .

“Russia’s position, but also China’s is weak in the region”

According to Mareike Ohlberg of the German Marshall Fund in the United States, the best scenario for Chinese authorities regarding the travel of their representative is “to collect public statements from politicians that can be used by the Chinese government to show that the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and China are supposedly on the same page.”

But like Tamas Matura, he is skeptical of a favorable climate change for China in this part of Europe in the short term. The academic pointed out that EU unity was strengthened by the war at its door and that “therefore, not only Russia’s position, but also China’s is particularly weak in the region.”

“As Beijing cannot provide significant economic benefits to EU member states located in Central Europe, including before the pandemic and the war, I do not expect a huge increase in those. bilateral relations, “ warning of Tamas Matura.

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