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Peragovics Tamás: China in Central Europe: Out of Steam? című cikke megjelent a berlini ZOiS oldalán

Centre for East European and International Studies / Zentrum für Osteuropa- und internationale Studien
ZOiS Spotlight 12/2023

China in Central Europe: Out of Steam?

by Tamás Peragovics 
The presidents of Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland
– Katalin Novák, Miloš Zeman, Zuzana Čaputová and Andrzej Duda –
attend a meeting of the Visegrád Group in October 2022. 


Since the creation in 2012 of the framework of 16 Central and Eastern European countries plus China (16+1) and the launch of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) a year later, Beijing’s courting of the Visegrád Four (V4) countries has been a mainstay of policy discussions. Hungary was the first European country to sign up to the BRI in 2015. The Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia quickly followed suit the same year. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán lauded the dominating ‘wind from the east’ in global economic relations, and former Czech president Miloš Zeman sought to make his country into China’s ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’. Though the political fanfare was often out of sync with the reality of meagre investment and trade statistics, there were fears of China pocketing the region and turning the V4 into a Trojan horse.

The king is naked

Fast-forward to 2022, and the headlines were about China having lost Central and Eastern Europe. Worse, Beijing is losing the region to Taiwan. Except for Hungary, the V4 are recalibrating their approach to China, becoming less restrained in their criticism and embracing more strongly the Euro-Atlantic alliance. Sudden though it seems, the undoing of the China-V4 romance has been in the making for some time.

The key to understanding why and how Beijing’s charm offensive was broken is Lithuania. In 2021, foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said that relations with China brought ‘almost no benefits’ to the country and that the 17+1 (with Greece having joined in 2019) was divisive for Europe. Coming from a partner state that officially cooperated with China, the bluntness was unique.

Afterwards, Vilnius doubled down by withdrawing from the framework and recommended that other EU members do the same. Since then, the floodgates have opened. Though the Chinese government called it an ‘isolated incident’, Lithuania’s withdrawal paved the way for Estonia and Latvia to leave as well, reducing the framework to 14+1.

The primacy of geopolitics

The V4 countries are not quite out of the framework yet, but their political support for cooperating with China has been diminishing, and the Baltics’ flirtation with Taiwan is proving contagious. Granted the usual caveat of Hungary, this is a significant shift across the region. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the V4 are pivoting to a more firmly values-based foreign policy. This leaves Hungary’s balancing between East and West with fewer regional cheerleaders and ever more difficult to maintain.

Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki rocked the boat in April by comparing Ukraine with Taiwan, a well-known non-starter from the Chinese perspective. Warsaw also hardened its stance on the EU’s search for strategic autonomy – a dog whistle for more independence from the United States, particularly when it comes to China policy. Morawiecki scorned French president Emmanuel Macron for his visit to Beijing in April, calling it short-sighted and equating strategic autonomy with more dependence on China. As a logical consequence of Poland’s massive commitment to Ukraine, Warsaw is putting its relations with Beijing on the back burner.

A similar distancing is under way in the Czech Republic. In March 2023, the speaker of the lower house of the Czech parliament visited Taiwan with a sizable delegation and inked an agreement on arms cooperation – another red line for China. This came after the 2020 visit of the head of the Czech Senate, whose ‘I am Taiwanese’ speech in Taipei sparked much outrage in Beijing. Earlier this year, the new Czech president Petr Pavel accepted a courtesy call with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen and warned that China was ‘not friendly’ and did not want peace in Ukraine.

The picture is more mixed in Slovakia. Bilateral visits with Taiwan have been mushrooming, with Bratislava daring to host Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu in 2021. Slovakia reciprocated by sending deputy economy minister Karol Galek to Taiwan later that year. More recently, the Slovak representative to Taiwan called the country ‘a true friend’ to Slovakia. While this course of events seems to follow Lithuania’s path, Bratislava remains considerate of Chinese interests. In April 2023, the Slovak parliament speaker paid a four-day visit to Beijing at China’s invitation. In July 2022, Volvo, which is owned by the Chinese company Geely, announced a €1.2 billion investment in Košice.

From V4 to V3+1?

All of this makes Hungary the odd one out, and it is putting the V4 under stress. In March 2022, a meeting of the group was cancelled as the Poland and Czech defence ministers refused to talk to their Hungarian counterpart because of Budapest’s stance on Russia’s aggression. In November 2022, the remaining three countries did not even bother trying to bring Orbán into line, instead limiting their engagement to making the Hungarian government support Finland’s and Sweden’s accessions to NATO. Under the incumbent Czech presidency of the V4, the souring of relations is likely to continue.

And yet, Hungary banks on its pragmatism towards Beijing, however ideologically informed the stance has become. The reward, it seems, has been a gigantic investment by Chinese tech company CATL in Debrecen. While the rest of the V4 are not closed for business with China, Hungary’s overt defiance of the European mainstream is exceptional. Most recently, Orbán went against the grain by speaking positively of China’s peace plan for Ukraine. In March 2023, Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó threatened to block further EU aid for Ukraine unless a Hungarian bank close to the government was removed from Kyiv’s list of international sponsors of war.

How long the cooling of China-V4 relations will continue is difficult to foresee. What is clear is the reckoning that Russia’s aggression has forced on the region in terms of foreign policy orientations and the abyss that has opened between Hungary and the group’s other members over China policy. As long as Hungary treads what the other three see as a dangerous and irresponsible path, one can expect to see more of the same.

Dr Tamás Peragovics is a research fellow at the Institute of World Economics (Centre for Economic and Regional Studies) in Budapest, Hungary, and a part-time assistant professor at ELTE University’s International Relations Department. Currently, he is a visiting researcher at ZOiS in the framework of the De:link//Re:link project.