Welcome to the first 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 this month:
The Cold Shoulder
China’s ambitions in Central and Eastern Europe took a hit when Beijing received a chilly reception from the region’s leaders at the 17+1 summit, with the meeting receiving its lowest-level representation ever, despite the forum being chaired for the first time by Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Finding Perspective: The February 9 virtual summit came after more than a year of delays and reconvening the 17 European countries -- 12 of which are European Union members -- was all about optics for Beijing, as I explored here in my article.
China tried to build off the momentum of signing an investment deal with the EU at the end of 2020 and was eager to show that the 17+1 format still had life in it, but instead the meeting highlighted the growing frustration in the region with Beijing.
Six countries -- Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovenia -- all sent ministers instead of a prime minister or president to meet with Xi, and the Lithuanian parliament is now considering leaving the format all together.
The 17+1 has been a forum for lofty promises of investment into the region from Beijing, but expectations have not been met for most members.
“The summit showed that ‘promise fatigue’ is perhaps stronger in [Central and Eastern Europe] than in Western Europe,” Martin Hala, the director of Sinopsis, a project that tracks China in Europe, told me. “There is a growing sense that the region has been played by Beijing.”
Why It Matters: What Europe’s role will be amid tensions between China and the United States is currently a focal point of policy discussions in both Beijing and Washington.
The 17+1 meeting showcased the growing skepticism that Beijing faces in Central and Eastern Europe, but issues about the EU’s position toward China are far from resolved. Instead, they are just more focused on how France and Germany will decide to navigate the U.S.-China rivalry.
-- Serbia is a notable exception to growing skepticism over China in the region. As my colleagues Iva Martinovic and Nemanja Stevanovic reported for RFE/RL’s Balkan Service, Belgrade and Beijing continue to grow closer when it comes to tech cooperation.
-- Germany is following its own middle path on China, as The New York Times reported recently.
-- France is also charting its own course for China. During a February 26 phone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Xi pitched that Paris should find ways to work with Beijing on Central and Eastern European issues.
Expert Corner: Coming Soon
Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia?
Tell me the burning questions on your mind -- from foreign policy to the spread of Chinese cinema -- and each month I’ll ask leading experts and policymakers to explain it.
Send your questions to StandishR@rferl.org or tweet at me. Looking forward to hearing from you!
Three More Stories From Eurasia
1. Kyrgyzstan’s Swelling Debt
Kyrgyzstan’s state debt is nearing $5 billion and approximately $1.8 billion is owed to the Export-Import Bank of China for a series of infrastructure projects over the last decade completed under the Belt and Road Initiative, the centerpiece of Chinese foreign policy.
I dug into this topic for RFE/RL (also available in Russian), looking at how the country has few avenues for debt relief and is considering some drastic steps. Providing mining concessions to Chinese companies or relinquishing management rights of infrastructure projects have all been floated by Kyrgyz lawmakers as possible (though maybe not probable) solutions.
The Big Picture: In the past, Beijing has not shown a willingness to write off debt.
How Kyrgyzstan resolves its debt impasse with China will be watched closely around the world as other countries facing the economic crunch of the pandemic deal with their own Chinese-owed debts.
2. Beijing’s Balkan Win
China’s “vaccine diplomacy” scored a big win in the Balkans, as I reported, providing Serbia with some 1.5 million doses of its Sinopharm injection and helping Belgrade secure the second-best vaccination rate in Europe (trailing only the United Kingdom).
Prestige And Diplomacy: Beijing is focused on building global influence by sending its injections to poorer countries -- filling a vacuum left by Western nations who have bought most of the available doses and are facing production delays for their homegrown vaccines.
It’s The Geopolitics, Stupid!: Vucic hasn’t just relied on Chinese vaccines. Serbia is also using Russia’s Sputnik V, the U.K.’s AstraZeneca, and the U.S.-German Pfizer-BioNTech injection.
For Belgrade, turning to Chinese vaccines isn’t just about relying on Beijing in a time of need, it’s also a tactic to leverage and provoke the EU to do more to help the region. Vucic already successfully used this playbook in the early days of the pandemic during a global shortage of medical equipment.
3. The Window To Xinjiang
As my colleagues at RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reported, February saw small but sustained protests outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city, over the detention of Muslims in China’s neighboring Xinjiang Province.
Estimates vary, but rights groups believe that more than 1 million Uyghurs -- as well as ethnic Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other groups -- have been held in camps in western China. Beijing has denied such claims, saying the camps are "vocational education and training centers.”
The View Next Door: Kazakhstan emerged as an unlikely spot of activism against the camps in Xinjiang, in large part because the country is home to ethnic Kazakhs who immigrated from China and many others who still have family links on both sides of the border.
The Kazakh government has clamped down hard on Xinjiang activism of late, with even small pickets being broken up by police, as RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reported.
Across The Supercontinent
Think Local: Zoya Simbirskaya, my colleague with RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service, reported that a Chinese company in Russia’s Chuvashia Republic wants a local official fired because he publicized their plans to bring in foreign workers and supplies without paying customs duties.
The Chuvash authorities denied to RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service that this qualifies as interference in local politics.
New Man In Minsk: Xie Xiaoyong, China’s new ambassador to Belarus, was sworn in at the beginning of February. He comes to Minsk at a time of upheaval, but Xie boasts an impressive resume as a Chinese diplomat in the former Soviet Union, working in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution and in Russia during its annexation of Crimea.
Pushing For Answers: Serbian activists are fighting for answers about the environmental impact of a Chinese tire plant north of Belgrade as ecological concerns over the factory continue, Zoran Glavonjic from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reported.
Borderlands: RFE/RL’s Tajik Service noted that Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Aslov has once again sent a diplomatic note to his counterparts in Beijing over “provocative” articles in Chinese media about the country having territorial claims on its small Central Asian neighbor. Similar episodes happened in Kazakhstan and Tajikistan last year and also sparked a backlash.
An Eye On China: A Russian man pleaded guilty to spying for China and was sentenced to eight years in prison on February 25. For many years, Russia’s FSB didn’t publicize espionage cases involving China, but that policy appears to have changed, with the Russian news agency TASS quoting a “law enforcement source” in its article.
Roll Up And Rollout: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban posed for a photo on February 28 as he took China’s Sinopharm vaccine, RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service reported. Hungary is the only EU country to approve the Chinese injection.
One Thing To Watch
China’s “two sessions” -- the annual meeting of its parliament -- will begin on March 5 and this year will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, slated for July. Expect a display of strength as Beijing prepares to flex its economic muscles abroad in a pandemic-ravaged world.
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