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China In Eurasia Briefing: This Isn't A Cold War, But It's Getting Close

China's top foreign policy official, Wang Yi (left), and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet in Moscow on February 22.
China's top foreign policy official, Wang Yi (left), and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet in Moscow on February 22.

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.

Not A Cold War, But Close

Top foreign policy officials from the United States and China spent most of the last weekend at the Munich Security Conference stressing that their governments were not seeking a new Cold War, but amid tense rhetoric and accusations, a chill across much of the world is already being felt.

Finding Perspective: The Munich gathering is Europe's premier foreign policy conference and has long been a mainstay for leading officials from the West and elsewhere to hobnob and take the pulse of the current world order.

This year's diagnosis was far from optimistic. While the West showed that it is perhaps more united now than in recent years and that support for Ukraine is entrenched -- a message reinforced by U.S. President Joe Biden's unannounced visit to Kyiv -- it's hard to shake the sense that the West remains more out of step than ever with the rest of the world and that the damage done by Russia's invasion of Ukraine can't be undone.

Rightly or wrongly, Beijing clearly believes the West is in decline and is now sensing an opportunity to shore up its rising global status.

LISTEN: Charles Dunst, author of Defeating The Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail In The Age Of The Strongman, joins host Reid Standish as they explore how China is looking to use its growing economic power in the future.

 China And The Fight Between Democracies And Autocracies
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In Munich, China was represented by top foreign policy official Wang Yi who projected a message of self-confidence and swagger to Western officials as he took aim at the United States and accused it of fueling the war in Ukraine.

Wang also said China would launch its own peace plan for ending the war and that it would underscore the need to uphold the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the UN Charter.

Those calls came as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China may be preparing to give weapons and ammunition to Russia, which would mark a significant escalation in the war and Beijing's relationship with Moscow.

China has brushed the accusations aside but not denied them, saying Beijing "will never accept U.S. finger-pointing or coercion on China-Russia relations."

In interviews with German and Italian newspapers following the accusations from Washington, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned that China supplying weapons would result in a "world war," and that he hoped Beijing would refrain from doing so after making a "practical assessment."

Why It Matters: The United States has few good cards to play with China and, given the fallout from the Chinese spy balloon incident, a stabilization of relations isn't on the horizon.

Still, it's unclear if Beijing is willing to cross this threshold and suffer the consequences for explicitly supplying Moscow with weapons.

In the meantime, China's mention of a peace plan was met skeptically by U.S. and European officials, who largely see it as a move about optics as Beijing continues to up its standing across the Global South, where Chinese calls to portray the West as warmongers and itself as a peacekeeper have a receptive audience.

"China wants to be seen as very strong and as a leader of the global south and a peace promoter," a senior European Union official told RFE/RL. "[And] no, Europe is not wooed."

Read More

● Another talking point from Munich was parallels between Russia's war in Ukraine and a future war between China and Taiwan. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg cautioned at the conference: "What is happening in Europe today could happen in Asia tomorrow."

● During a February 19 interview on NBC's Meet The Press, Blinken was asked by host Chuck Todd, "If it's not a Cold War, what is it?" in reference to competition with China. His response: "It's complicated."

Expert Corner: China's Sanctions Skirting Power

Readers asked: "China and Russia's trading relationship is moving away from the dollar and more toward the yuan (renminbi). How does that affect the ability of Russia -- and similar countries -- to skirt Western sanctions?"

To find out more, I asked Agathe Demarais, global forecasting director at the Economist Intelligence Unit:

"Over the past decade, China, Russia, Iran, and other countries at odds with the United States have made de-dollarization a priority in a bid to circumvent U.S. sanctions. This strategy is especially visible when it comes to Russia and China. Since 2020, bilateral trade between the two countries is mostly denominated in [the] Russian ruble and Chinese renminbi. In addition, more than half of the foreign-exchange reserves of the Russian Central Bank are denominated in non-Western currencies (such as the renminbi), shielding them from sanctions-related freezes.

"This de-dollarization strategy is an important tool to circumvent sanctions, but de-dollarization alone would not be enough for rogue countries to completely bypass sanctions. This is why China, Russia, and others are busy building full-fledged non-Western financial channels that include alternatives to SWIFT (the Belgian co-operative that connects all banks with each other) and digital currencies. Taken together, de-dollarization, alternatives to SWIFT, and digital currencies will make it possible for countries to entirely bypass Western financial channels and therefore U.S. sanctions.

"This is a dangerous development, which will decrease Western leverage over Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran. Sanctioned countries will not be the only beneficiaries of these developments. Groups involved in illicit activities, such as nuclear proliferation or terror attacks, will also be able to skirt Western oversight of financial channels, helping them to finance illicit activities covertly."

For more, listen to Demarais's recent appearance on Talking China In Eurasia.

Do you have a question about China's growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at and I'll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Wang Yi's Europe Tour

Capping it off with a visit to Moscow, Wang completed a weeklong -- and by all accounts, successful -- diplomatic tour of Europe as Beijing tries to repair relations with Europe while still keeping Russia close.

The Details: Wang visited France, Italy, Hungary, and Russia along with a stop at the Munich Security Conference where he also met with multiple European officials, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

While the visit might have been light on substance, it certainly showcased an active China on the world stage and one that European leaders are willing to engage with despite tensions over Beijing's support for Russia amid its war in Ukraine.

French President Emmanuel Macron is planning an upcoming trip to Beijing and agreed to attend this year's Belt and Road Forum in China. Both Rome and Berlin also signaled that they hope to continue building economic ties with China, with Scholz saying that the Germans opposed any form of economic decoupling, according to a Chinese readout.

Wang also received a warm welcome in Budapest, where Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto praised China's role on the world stage and the need for peace in Ukraine.

Despite the warm words and flattering photo ops, there's still not much indication that this has moved the needle in terms of how Europe as a whole is viewing China, especially as it stands by Russia's side.

2. Why The Czech Republic Is Rethinking Its China Ties

The Czech Republic has been souring on its relations with China and boosting ties with Taiwan in recent years, but with a new president elected Prague now believes it's well-positioned to lead other European capitals in breaking new ground in engaging with Taipei.

What You Need To Know: To find out more, I interviewed Petr Kolar, a former Czech diplomat who advises Czech President-elect Petr Pavel on foreign policy issues.

Pavel made headlines when he accepted a 15-minute phone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen on January 30, making him the first elected European head of state to speak directly with a Taiwanese leader.

Kolar told me that Pavel is looking to align his foreign policy views with the Czech Republic's postcommunist tradition of backing democracy and human rights globally -- adding that support for Taiwan should be seen as part of a broader paradigm shift in Europe shaped by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"We shouldn't let China do to Taiwan what Russia is doing to Ukraine," Kolar said.

In his view, robust engagement with Taiwan now from Europe can help deter a move from Beijing in the future. He added that now that the Czech parliament and the president's office are aligned on foreign policy issues, that Prague intends to be a leader on this issue and can now "influence or persuade" other EU governments to follow suit and step up their ties with Taipei.

During Pavel's call with Tsai, he vowed to also meet in person. Given that Taiwan is not officially recognized as a country, this creates some complications in how this could take place.

Kolar told me that a visit from Pavel to Taiwan is not in discussion, nor would an official visit from Tsai to Prague. But, as Kolar stressed, should Pavel and Tsai find themselves in the same location, such as at a conference or summit in the Czech Republic or elsewhere in Europe, then "there's no reason for him to not meet with her."

3. Hikvision Comes To Bulgaria's Capital

Surveillance cameras from China's Hikvision continued to be installed across Sofia's public transit system, but the Chinese company is now facing scrutiny in Bulgaria, my colleague Elitsa Simeonova from RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service reported.

What It Means: The use of CCTV cameras on public transit is commonplace across much of the world, but the controversy in the Bulgarian capital centers on the documented vulnerabilities surrounding the use of Hikvision cameras and concerns over a lack of oversight in their procurement.

Hikvision is the world's largest manufacturer of video-surveillance equipment but has also found itself sanctioned in the United States for links to the Chinese state and developing special technology to surveil and track Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang.

In the past few years, independent researchers have also documented multiple vulnerabilities within Hikvision systems that could allow the 4,500 cameras across Sofia's transit system to be accessed and potentially taken over by private or government-backed actors.

Activists and opposition lawmakers have been prodding Bulgarian authorities to ensure such vulnerabilities have been patched, but they have so far dodged detailed questions on the issue, including those posed by Elitsa in her reporting.

Across The Supercontinent

Reviving Ties: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi made a three-day visit to China on February 14 as part of an effort to reinvigorate ties between the two countries, including breathing life back into a 25-year cooperation agreement signed in 2021.

The visit didn't turn up much in deliverables and won't do much to dispel the feeling in Iran that economic engagement with China has not delivered.

Canceled: Erkin Tuniyaz, the governor of China's Xinjiang region, canceled his controversial trip to London, Paris, and Brussel after widespread concerns from lawmakers and activists.

One-Year Anniversary: What has China learned from one year of Russia's war in Ukraine? Evan Feigenbaum and Adam Szubin explain here in Foreign Affairs.

Back To Basics: Tajikistan has finally ended all border restrictions from the COVID-19 pandemic, including with China, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported.

One Thing To Watch

It's hard to go a week without seeing new warnings from Western officials about Chinese intent to take over Taiwan. Such concerns are not unwarranted, especially as Chinese officials -- including Wang in Munich -- do little to dispel such fears.

But Colin Kahl, the Pentagon's undersecretary of defense for policy, recently offered a more sober assessment. In a recent interview with Defense News, he said that he doesn't "see anything that indicates [an invasion of Taiwan] is imminent in the next couple of years" and that Beijing is far more likely to pursue avenues beyond military force, such as political and economic pressure, in any attempt to annex Taiwan.

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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About The Newsletter

China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.