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China In Eurasia Briefing: How Beijing Lost Central And Eastern Europe


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been unable to secure a direct line with China's Xi Jinping (above) since Russia invaded his country in February.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

In another blow to Beijing's diplomatic standing in Europe, China's 16+1 format, a grouping where it sought to hold regular negotiations with Central and Eastern European countries and expand its influence across the region, continued to crumble as Estonia and Latvia left as members.

Finding Perspective: It was only 10 years ago that China first launched the framework with 16 Central and Eastern European countries amid high-expectations of investment and an openness across the region to working with Beijing.

The diplomatic grouping expanded to include Greece in 2019 and was renamed the 17+1. At the time, the group was received skeptically by both Washington and Brussels, who saw it as a Chinese strategy to throw its weight around the region and use its members -- 12 of which were part of the European Union -- as a type of Trojan horse for subtly exerting control over the bloc.

But those predictions have fallen short, as I previously explored here.

Lithuania was the first to leave the framework in 2021 and later found itself embroiled in a high-level diplomatic spat with Beijing over Taiwan that same year. Slovakia and the Czech Republic are still in the grouping, but they have also cooled from previously warm positions toward China, inviting Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu for visits to their parliaments last year and sending delegations of lawmakers to Taipei.

With Tallinn and Riga officially pulling out on August 11, the framework is down to 14 members. Out of those remaining countries, Hungary remains the most China-friendly government in the EU, with other receptive members in the Western Balkans, most notably Serbia.

Why It Matters: The move by the Baltic states highlights a new reality for Beijing in the region, where China's declaration of a "no limits" partnership with Moscow and backing of Russia following its invasion of Ukraine appears to have been the last straw for Tallinn and Riga.

During an interview on Estonia's public broadcaster ETV, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said that it simply "makes sense" to leave the framework and that part of the decision was informed by the fact that "China has not condemned the Russian Federation's war against Ukraine in clear terms."

Beijing has not commented on Estonia and Latvia's withdrawal, and a 2023 summit for the framework is still on the calendar, although the grouping is now far from the Chinese foothold it once represented.

Read More

● For a deeper look at how Latvia got to this point in its relationship with China, read this recent report by Martins Hirss for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

● Frank Juris and Dmitri Teperik also have a report looking at Estonia as part of the same series for CEPA.

Expert Corner: Russian Propaganda On Taiwan

Readers asked: "The trip by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan became a focal point of Russian propaganda, but just how much attention was actually given to China and Taiwan?"

To find out more, I asked Joseph Bodnar, an analyst at the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy:

"The Kremlin's messaging around Pelosi's visit to Taiwan was meant to simultaneously justify and distract from Russia's war in Ukraine. They used Pelosi's trip to paint the United States as an aggressive and reckless power and they framed China as a victim that was justified in safeguarding its interests. Those narratives complement Moscow's claims that the war in Ukraine was fueled by U.S. actions and launched to defend Russian interests.

"Russia's propaganda machine has zeroed in on Ukraine for almost a year now. It was remarkable to see its state media and diplomats shift their focus to Taiwan so abruptly and intensely [during Pelosi's visit]. For 48 hours, Taiwan was the second most mentioned country by Russian propagandists on Twitter, behind only Russia itself. Ukraine was bumped all the way down to fifth."

Do you have a question about China's growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I'll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Ukraine's China Ties Face Growing Scrutiny

Despite China proving to be Russia's most important partner since its invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv has refrained from criticizing Beijing and has followed a strategy of outreach, although that policy is coming under growing scrutiny, I reported here.

What It Means: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been unable to secure a direct line with China's Xi Jinping since Russia invaded his country in February. In an interview with the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, he said that he believed Beijing could use its political and economic influence over Moscow to help end the war.

As Yurii Poita of the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies told me, this is at odds with the prevailing attitudes among Ukraine's experts, which have a growing negative view of China. This highlights a disconnect between Ukrainian officials and other members of its foreign policy community.

"If Zelenskiy is reaching out via Chinese media, then it means that the diplomatic channels are likely not working and perhaps could even be worse than how they [appear]," Poita told me. "The government's relations with Beijing are likely frozen, and skepticism is rising in the [Ukrainian] expert community, where China is now mostly seen as offering tacit consent and even support for Russia's war."

Kyiv has tried to court China in the past and has a complicated history with Beijing that has sometimes been warm.

Throughout the war, China has refrained from criticizing Moscow and often backed its narrative of the conflict through its state-run media and diplomatically at international institutions.

Recent comments by Chinese officials may finally be starting a shift in Kyiv. After China's ambassador to Moscow reiterated Beijing's view that the United States is the main culprit for the war, Oleksandr Merezhko, the head of the Ukrainian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee called for a review of Kyiv's relations with China.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was also asked about this during an August 15 interview, where he seemed to hint at a shift in approach to China.

While Kuleba said that China "remains neutral" and Kyiv can accept its stance so long as it doesn't provide practical support for Russia, he was critical of how Chinese officials and propaganda channels have boosted Russian talking points and disinformation.

2. China And Taliban After One Year

As Taliban forces swept into Kabul last year, commentators and analysts quickly turned their attention to Beijing's tenuous relationship with the group and the possibility of China exploiting the country's massive mineral wealth. But how have those predictions fared?

What You Need To Know: I unpacked this with Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at London's Royal United Services Institute and the author of Sinostan: China's Inadvertent Empire. You can read our whole discussion here, but below are a few notable excerpts:

"The Chinese chomping at the bit to fill the space that was left by the United States and take advantage of exploiting Afghanistan's natural resources is something that we really haven't seen happen.

"China is very heavily invested in and has lots of personnel in Pakistan, and there are growing worries [in Beijing] about its future. Looking north to Central Asia, it's also been a very unstable year since the Taliban took over, and while those links to Afghanistan there are limited and quite different [than with Pakistan], it's part of a wider Chinese fear for regional instability that can get stirred further by Afghanistan.

"I think China's concerns all remain in place, but the problem the Chinese have is that they don't really have any other option except to engage with this government. It puts them in a bit of a bind in terms of having to continue to engage with [the Taliban] even though there's clearly no great amity or trust between the two sides."

3. Montenegro's Lessons Learned?

Montenegro finally opened the inaugural 41-kilometer stretch of its Chinese-funded and -built highway after years of delays and controversy, but what has it learned from its ordeal? My colleague Predrag Tomovic from RFE/RL's Balkan Service looked into that here.

The Details: The government in Podgorica is still pushing forward and trying to finish the other remaining parts of the highway, but with the first section coming over budget and totaling a whopping $1 billion, scrutiny remains high.

Montenegro's Ministry of Capital Investments is currently focused on completing the second portion of the highway, which is supposed to be 23.5 kilometers long. The ministry previously said it would have designs and feasibility studies available by June but has since pushed back its deadline.

The next question is funding. The massive Chinese loan from China's Export-Import Bank and the construction contract with the China Bridge and Road Corporation were only for the first 41 kilometers. Given the negative attention that followed that project, both sides may be looking to keep their distance.

Finance Minister Aleksandar Damjanovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that both the Hungarian and Serbian governments could look to provide financing and are interested in making sure the highway gets completed, as it could connect eventually to Belgrade and Budapest, although there are no concrete offers on the table.

Across The Supercontinent

Modern Slavery: In a new report, the United Nations special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery said that Uyghur, Kazakh, and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang were being used as forced labor in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing by Chinese authorities. You can read the report here.

Father And Daughter: My colleague Ramil Niyazov-Adyljyan from Siberia.Realities, a regional news outlet of RFE/RL's Russian Service, interviewed Jewher Ilham, the daughter of Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur intellectual who has been imprisoned in China since 2014, about her father's case and activism.

China's Spy Ship: After weeks of controversy and loud protestations from India, a Chinese ship that has advanced satellite-tracking capabilities was allowed to dock in Sri Lanka.

More Railway Progress: Eighty Chinese specialists arrived in Kyrgyzstan to conduct a feasibility study for the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.

The study is supposed to be finalized by September when Chinese and Kyrgyz officials are looking to tout the project at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit.

New Route: A freight rail line bringing goods from eastern China to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan opened earlier this month.

While small in the grand scheme, it is part of a recent trend of Beijing making more rail lines in Central Asia and expanding links to the region from other parts of China, rather than to Xinjiang in the west, which had been a focus for years.

One Thing To Watch

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has not left China since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but that could be ending soon.

The Guardian and Politico have reported that Xi's first visit could be to Saudi Arabia, where he would receive a lavish welcome in Riyadh meant to reaffirm deepening Saudi-Chinese ties and to contrast with U.S. President Joe Biden's recent low-key trip to the kingdom.

The Wall Street Journal, however, reported that Chinese officials are making plans for Xi to attend a series of high-profile summits in Southeast Asia in November, where he'd also meet face-to-face with Biden for the first time.

Neither trip has been officially confirmed, and the reports relied on anonymous officials for details, but the Saudi trip, should it come to pass, could reportedly be as early as this week.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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