Analysing international policy processes and Lithuania’s role in them
Review Nov 25, 2021

China’s Interaction with Central and Eastern Europe: Relationships at Crossroads?

Key highlights:

  • China’s interaction with CEE region and the objectives of its model of cooperation it formulated were premised not only on economic diversification but also on increasing Beijing’s political (normative) influence. The ineffectiveness of the mechanism for interacting with Central and Eastern Europe was attributable to the fact that China’s region-formation in the region revolved around historical and ideological considerations (a region with a socialist past) and a peculiar perception of the region as easily manipulable. Against the backdrop of Xi’s more assertive foreign policy, China’s region-formation strategy and efforts to expand political and economic influence have turned against it, with several CEE countries becoming some of the most vocal critics of China in the West.
  • Contrary to what is often said in the West, the claim that China is “buying up” the region is not factually correct. China’s economic footprint in the region is rather minimal, with the exception of its greater dependence on imports and – in the case of the Western Balkans – loans. Although CEE countries have declared their support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), many of them have zero BRI projects implemented.
  • Lithuania’s position on China has set a precedent that is rather unpleasant for larger countries. However, Lithuania’s criticism towards Chins also reflects the disappointment shared among increasing number of CEE countries regarding the progress of cooperation and the increase of Beijing’s influence.
  • There is no doubt that the format for China-CEE cooperation is undergoing an existential crisis. It is likely that some countries within the format may follow Lithuania’s lead; at the same time, however, one may observe China getting more actively engaged in dialogues with other CEE countries and making effort to gain more foothold in the region.
  • The EU’s policy on China of the last few decades has revolved around economic pragmatism. However, more and more EU Member States have recently been expressing concern about China’s growing influence and global ambitions. The EU’s policy on China is beginning to change, several CEE countries are playing an increasingly important role in this resetting of bilateral relations. However, China continues to make active efforts to strengthen its relations with EU Member States – especially Hungary and Greece and, in part, Poland, – which signals that the formation of a more unified EU policy on China is rather unlikely.
  • The issue of Taiwan is gaining new relevance and importance in the West. The enthusiasm of EU Member States to maintain closer ties with Taipei is reflected in the increased frequency of meetings with Taiwanese representatives. This transformation inside the EU is undoubtedly being driven by the CEE region, especially Lithuania, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. However, discussions on Taiwan often step outside the bounds of economic cooperation, this particular area is becoming an increasingly important point of friction between the EU and China.

Associate Expert of RESC China Research Program, PhD student at VU Institute of International Relations and Political Science. Raigirdas holds a bachelor’s degree in Asian and Pacific Studies (Chinese Studies) from Lancashire Central University (UK). After studying, he went to China, where he spent five years studying and working. Raigirdas completed a year-long intensive Chinese language and culture course at the Sichuan University (Confucius Institute Scholarship). In 2020, he graduated from Sichuan University (China) with a Master’s degree in International Relations in Chinese. Raigirdas interests: sinology, Chinese foreign and domestic policy, history of the PRC, relations and conflicts between East Asian countries.