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Ivana Karásková: “CEE countries should present Chinese partners with a unified position”

We spoke with Ivana Karásková, founder of MapInfluenCE and of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe. In her new role as European China Policy Fellow at MERICS she talks about China’s influence in Central and Eastern Europe, the future of the 17+1 format and the impact this has on relations with the EU.

Questions by Janet Anderson, Freelance editor

What do Central and Eastern European countries hope to get from their relations with China?

Exports among Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries are mostly bound to Western Europe and therefore connected to the EU single market. Following the global financial crisis, CEE has striven to diversify its export and import routes towards the East, seeking greater access to the Chinese market and attracting foreign direct investment from China. The region has utilized the 17+1 format to upgrade diplomatic contacts with the Chinese side, arguing that while Western Europe easily attracts China’s attention, CEE countries need a platform to increase their visibility.

Are CEE countries forming a common strategy?

The relations between CEE and China are asymmetric, with China benefiting disproportionately from this arrangement. While not all 17 CEE countries would be able to work together on a unified strategy, there is less division of interests than may appear at first glance. To be sure, Hungary and Serbia have supported China on political issues a number of times, but they represent an exception rather than the rule. To offset the asymmetry, CEE should adopt an “ACT strategy” – adapt > counter > target – making full use of the multilateral character of the platform and, where possible, presenting Chinese partners with a unified position. For starters, they can hold regular 17+0 consultation meetings preceding summits with China. If China wants to retain its presence through the platform, it is more likely to accept the “multilateral condition” than to risk losing its influence altogether.

What are the biggest risks in this relationship, and can they be averted?

The biggest risks lie in CEE countries accepting opaque deals offered by China and deviating from stated EU values, norms and positions. It is crucial to promote transparency in public procurements and investment deals. For the “old Europe”, especially Germany and France, it is imperative to understand that a patronizing approach to CEE countries’ foreign policy can lead to a significant backlash and, in the end, be counterproductive.

The 17+1 framework is seen by some as a means for China to divide and conquer in Europe. How do you see it?

The 17+1 is certainly more active than previously thought. It helped institutionalize the region and provided a structure for China to deal with CEE countries. These countries do not realize that China is in the driver's seat. It is therefore important to closely monitor the platform and find avenues for utilizing it to serve primarily European interests.

Is the US or China seen to be a more important ally?

With some exceptions, CEE EU members are mostly US-oriented. China does not and will not play the role of the US as a key security guarantor to the region. However, it will continue to be an economic partner.

How do you see the relationships between these countries and China developing?

Since China’s “grand entry” to the region and establishment of the 17+1 in 2012, China has largely been seen as an economic opportunity. For a minority of politicians – such as Hungary’s Orbán, Czechia’s Zeman or Serbia’s Vučić – China has also been a political inspiration. In the past two years, however, a majority of CEE countries have become disillusioned as China’s economic promises have not fully materialized and security risks associated with Chinese companies have come to the fore. The future of the relationship with China depends on whether the security community (as well as the media, civil society organizations, and some MPs – mostly from opposition parties) prevails over proponents of economic pragmatism. It also depends on the US position to China after the upcoming presidential elections. 

This interview is part of the October 8, 2020 issue of MERICS China Briefing.