How China Lost the Hearts and Minds of Central and Eastern Europe

Andreea Brinza | 31 May 2022

Instead of celebrating 10 years of Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries, known as 16+1, in April 2022, China desperately dispatched its special representative for the forum on an eight-country tour to salvage a relationship worsened by the war in Ukraine.

Thanks to its own actions, China has alienated a group of countries that would otherwise have been natural partners, and has shown the world how easy it is to lose a region in 10 years.

Beijing’s first mistake was to come up with myriad promises that never materialized.

Back in 2012, when the 16+1 saga began, China was received with open arms and a lot of enthusiasm by Central and Eastern European (CEE) governments hoping to attract investment, especially in infrastructure.

But in just a few years, China’s reputation has turned 180 degrees, with more and more countries feeling disillusioned with Beijing’s failure to either honor its promises or implement them fast enough, with the Budapest-Belgrade railway project being a prime example.

China’s second mistake was to ignore European Union concerns that the 16+1 mechanism was just a divide and conquer tactic to gain influence within the EU’s less developed half.

To many EU policymakers, China’s 16+1 format seemed like a Trojan Horse. Consequently, they urged CEE countries to downgrade the format and instead participate in EU-wide 27+1 talks with Beijing and allow Brussels to speak with one voice. As the years passed, the EU’s fears proved valid as Hungary and Greece moved to block a series of EU joint statements targeting China.

Beijing’s next mistake was to ignore the Russian factor — the fear among some CEE countries of a possible Russian invasion, and which has now turned them into staunch U.S. allies.

The story goes like this: China ignored how feared Russia was in the region and how important U.S. security guarantees were for CEE countries. Unlike China, which offered empty economic promises, the U.S. could offer CEE countries meaningful security guarantees through NATO.

But perhaps China’s biggest mistake of all was its obliviousness to CEE disillusionment and its slow distancing from Beijing, which began just as U.S.-China relations started to deteriorate in 2017.

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

Photo Credits: Flickr/Latvian Foreign Ministry

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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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