In the 2010s, many countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) were competing to become “China’s gateway to Europe.” Fast-forward to today, and nobody is trying to win that title. China lost the CEE region—not only because Beijing didn’t know how to properly manage its relations with the countries from the region, but, most important, because it built those relations largely on the backs of the leaders in power.
This contrasts with the traditional view of China’s diplomacy and way of building bilateral relations, which is supposed to emphasize a broad grooming of local elites that transcends domestic politics, enabling long-term influence even after shifts in power. In the CEE, however, it bet big on particular politicians—and the tumults of democracy largely knocked its favorites out of power.
For a long period, China’s strategy toward the CEE was to build very close ties with those politicians who had already shown a pro-Chinese stance. This approach had its zenith in the 2010s, soon after the establishment of a regional forum for cooperation with China, the 16+1 mechanism. But it also drew China into internal political debates in a region in which negative memories of communism are still raw and controversial. Now, the political landscape has changed to China’s disadvantage, and the recent election of Petr Pavel as the president of the Czech Republic is the latest shift in this direction.
In the past decade, China had a close and loyal friend in Prague, in the person of former President Milos Zeman. While it also tried to win over a few other elites, it didn’t manage to gain broad appeal. Now that Zeman has reached his term limit, China finds itself without any friends in power left but with a country growing increasingly critical of Beijing.
Political falls, of course, can go both ways. Zeman used to be a very close friend of China, so close that in 2015 he appointed Chinese businessman Ye Jianming as his honorary advisor on China. Ye was the chairman of CEFC China Energy, a company that had become, in a short period of time, the main Chinese investor in the Czech Republic, while also dangling the promise of future investments. However, not only did many of these project proposals never materialize, but in 2018 Ye was arrested in China and accused of corruption.
But this little setback didn’t discourage Zeman from his support of China. Although he once criticized China for not delivering on its promises to the Czech Republic, he continued to keep the country’s seat warm within the then-17+1 summit and even circumvented the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Czech government in his personal relation with Beijing.
Zeman might have been a friend, but Czech society moved in the opposite political direction, with pro-Western voters and politicians associating China with Zeman and other politicians seen as corrupt or controversial. Zeman has now been replaced by former Gen. Petr Pavel, who said in 2018 that China, together with Russia, posed a greater threat to the security of the Czech Republic than terrorism. Pavel, a former chairman of the NATO Military Committee, wasted no time after his election before speaking, in a phone call, to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, as Taiwan has come to be seen in quite a few CEE countries as a friend and counterweight to Beijing. With the Czech government already taking a critical stance toward China, Beijing lost what it once considered a friendly capital in the region, one that Chinese President Xi Jinping visited in 2016.
The same pattern has repeated in countries such as Romania and Greece. In Bucharest, Victor Ponta’s tenure as prime minister (2012-2015) saw Romania-China relations experiencing their best moment since the fall of communism, as was the relationship between China and Ponta himself. According to a source familiar with the matter, Ponta encouraged strong but less institutionalized relations between his administration and China, sometimes circumventing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
China was happy with this arrangement as long as Ponta’s actions suited its interests. And Ponta seemed to deliver. During the then-16+1 summit in 2013 in Bucharest, Romania signed a series of agreements with China valued at around $8.7 billion. Ponta also participated in all of the 16+1 summits he could and publicly lobbied in favor of China whenever Beijing was mentioned in a discussion. But Ponta’s left-wing party, the Social Democratic Party, was seen by many in the public as corrupt and overly associated with the former ruling Communist Party. His prime ministerial career ended after massive protests following a tragic nightclub fire.
This article has been previously published in Foreign Policy. You can read the full article on Foreign Policy’s website.