China found influence in Europe’s west — not east

Andreea Brinza | 2 August 2023

Soon after its inception in 2012, China’s then 16+1 mechanism for cooperation with Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) was deemed by some observers as a divide et imperastrategy against the European Union.

But what a difference a decade makes, as it is, ironically, Western Europe that’s now putting the Continent’s unity on China to the test.

Regarded as small, in need of money, plagued by democratic issues and easy to influence, CEE countries were once seen as Beijing’s Trojan horse in Europe. And there were fears that a flood of Chinese investment would buy political influence, threatening the bloc’s cohesion when it comes to China — but that’s not how it happened.

Firstly, China didn’t deliver on its promises. With CEE countries only getting around 10 percent of promised investments between 2000-2022, China had a negligible economic footprint in most of these nations. But more importantly, most CEE countries weren’t politically involved with China — they were just looking for economic ties. And due to the region’s Communist past, large segments of CEE countries remained wary of such cooperation.

Furthermore, Beijing focused on building its bilateral relations via the leaders in power and select politicians. So, when China-friendly leaders left office, governments ended up pulling U-turns — a switch facilitated by few economic strings keeping them attached. And today, Hungary remains China’s only success story in the eastern half of the EU thanks to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government.

This wasn’t the case in Western Europe, however, where the fear of Chinese influence and European division initially focused on CEE ended up coming to life instead.

Of the €147.2 billion of Chinese investment made in the EU between 2000 and 2022, 62 percent went to Germany (€32 billion), France (€17 billion), the Netherlands (€13.7 billion), Italy (€16 billion) and Finland (€13 billion), in some cases creating, if not economic dependencies, then at least a desire to protect economic ties and a fear of retaliation from Beijing. And when it comes to investment or exports to China, the cleavage between the Continent’s west and east is even wider, adding to Western Europe’s desire to protect economic links.

This, in turn, has led to the reality that some of the governments that are most hawkish on China, and are pushing the EU toward a tougher stance, now come from CEE. Their concerns regarding the country were greatly amplified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s tacit support of Russia, shifting their view of Beijing mostly toward that of a systemic rival.


This article has been previously published in Politico. You can read the full article on Politico’s website.

Photo Credits:  Flickr/OlliL


Andreea Brinza

Andreea Brinza is a researcher and the Vice President of RISAP. Her interests are related to the geopolitics, geostrategy and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region and especially China. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.

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