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How China's Ukraine stance may be final straw for eastern EU countries

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By Alice Tidey
EU and Chinese flags are seen at the Europa building in Brussels, Dec. 17, 2019.
EU and Chinese flags are seen at the Europa building in Brussels, Dec. 17, 2019.   -   Copyright  John Thys/Pool Photo via AP

Criticised by Western leaders for its neutral stance over Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, China sought to limit the damage with central and eastern Europan nations this week but it might already be too late, experts have told Euronews.

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

Ostensibly, the trip was to promote further cooperation but it also came as Beijing continues to claim neutrality over the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Beijing has so far refused to condemn Moscow for its military aggression and reaffirmed its commitment to a solid bilateral relationship. Sanctions are for now also out of the equation.

US intelligence claims Russia has asked China for military and economic assistance, prompting Western countries — which have slapped five rounds of sanctions on Russia for the invasion — to issue warnings against doing so.

War in Ukraine is an 'existential issue' for central and eastern European countries

An EU-China summit earlier this month, where Beijing had hoped to stick to the planned pre-war agenda focusing on bilateral relations and efforts to tackle climate change, was overshadowed by Ukraine with Brussels chief Ursula von der Leyen stressing the events in Ukraine “is not only a defining moment for our continent, but it is also a defining moment for our relationship with the rest of the world".

She added that as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China “has a very special responsibility” and that any support to Russia’s ability to wage war “would lead to a major reputational damage for China here in Europe.”

The reputational damage appears to have started.

“China’s siding with Russia and blaming NATO is absolutely unacceptable for most of Central and Eastern Europe,” Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow in the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Euronews.

“The Chinese government doesn’t seem to understand, or doesn’t want to understand, that Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is seen as an existential issue for most countries in the region,” she added.

For the analyst, “there’s a small chance that China can limit the damage at least superficially by promising investment or access to China, but I think most of the relationships with countries in the region will continue to deteriorate.”

“Short of decisively changing its position on the war in Ukraine, there is little that China can do to make up for the loss of trust in the long run,” she explained.

China has increased its economic and political footprint in the central and eastern European region over the past decade through its Belt and Road Initiative with investments to boost bilateral trade and local infrastructure.

This has had some influence on internal EU politics with some member states that have benefited from investments using their voices to water down criticism of Beijing on certain issues. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for instance, blocked EU statements about Hong Kong.

Yet, the relationship was already under strain before the war.

17+1, 16+1 ... 27+1?

"Many countries of the so-called 16+1 cooperation complained about the lack of tangible economic results and the slow progress of the initiative," Tamas Matura from the Corvinus University of Budapest, explained to Euronews.

"China’s role in the COVID-19 pandemic and the return of Cold War mentality in East-West relations has triggered substantial changes in the China policies of many CEE countries, and most of them decided to reinforce political and security ties to their traditional partners like the EU and the US. The only EU member state that still sticks to its pro-China policy in Hungary, while countries like Lithuania and the Czech Republic have distanced themselves from Beijing," he said.

Lithuania has had a particularly turbulent relationship with China over the past year after Vilnius withdrew from the China-CEEC calling for a "more efficient 27+1" EU position on China to replace the then-existing "17+1" format. The Baltic country then allowed Taiwan to open a so-called representative office, a de-facto embassy, in its capital with "Taiwan" in the name rather than the Beijing-approved "Chinese Taipei". Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory.

The row led to Brussels launching a case against China at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) with the bloc accusing Beijing of engaging in "discriminatory practices" against Lithuania by refusing to clear customs for goods imported from the Baltic country.

For Ohlberg, a best-case scenario for Beijing regarding its representative's trip was "to collect some public statements from politicians that the Chinese government can then use to show that CEE countries and China are supposedly on the same page."

But just like Madura, she was sceptical about a reversal of fortune for China in the region.

The academic emphasised that the EU's unity was strengthened by the war on his doorstep and that "as a result, not only Russia’s but China’s positions as well will get weaker in the region."

"Since Beijing has been unable to offer any meaningful economic advantages to the EU members of Central Europe even before the pandemic and the war, I do not expect any major improvement in bilateral relations," Matura forecast.