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China In Eurasia Briefing: Where Chinese Influence Is Rising and Falling


Czech President Milos Zeman (left), Chinese President Xi Jinping (center), and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev (right) pose at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai.

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 Stanadish and here’s what I’m following right now.

Where Chinese Influence Is Rising And Falling

In another sign of the changing mood toward China across Europe, the Czech Republic is considering an exit from China’s “16+1” investment platform for Central and Eastern Europe.

Finding Perspective: A resolution calling for the country to quit the body has been passed by a parliamentary committee to the Czech foreign ministry and government and will then decide on whether to leave.

Launched in 2012 to include China and 16 European countries, the Chinese-led format was designed as a way to secure greater political and economic influence for Beijing and came to represent a prevailing view at the time that tighter ties with China could lead to a wave of investment and trade in former Communist Europe.

Czech President Milos Zeman helped champion this push to pull Prague closer to Beijing and even gave a lavish red-carpet welcome for Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2016. But a series of controversies over the years and a lack of investment into the region have seen the once-optimistic view in the Czech Republic and elsewhere shift.

The platform itself had even taken Greece as a member in 2019 to make it the “17+1.” But that proved to be the high-water mark for the bloc. Lithuania left in 2021 amid a diplomatic spat with Beijing, and many capitals in the region, including Prague, have begun to build up stronger ties with Taiwan in the past few years, which has further strained relations with China.

That reorientation has accelerated since Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala’s center-right government came to power in November 2021 and pledged to reaffirm Prague’s EU and NATO ties.

China’s pro-Russian positions amid the Ukraine war have also contributed to the souring mood toward Beijing and will be in focus as the Czech Republic takes up the EU presidency on July 1.

Why It Matters: Public opinion toward China is diverging across the world as tensions rise among big powers.

In Europe, surveys show that unfavorable views about the Chinese government have steadily risen since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, while in Central Asia -- where Beijing has invested heavily and plays a large role in the region -- polls also show a steady decrease in favorable views.

Across Africa, meanwhile, Chinese investments appear to have paved a way to greater influence, despite multiple controversies.

According to a new poll conducted by the Ichikowitz Family Foundation, 76 percent of 4,507 young Africans across 15 countries who were surveyed named China as a foreign power with a positive influence on their lives, compared with 72 percent for the United States.

Read More

● The Czech Republic could tailor its EU presidency to further focus on China. Filip Sebok, a research fellow at the Association for International Affairs in Prague, unpacks what that could look like.

Expert Corner: The European Parliament Turns to Xinjiang

Readers asked: “The European Parliament voted last week to call China's treatment of Uyghurs and other groups 'crimes against humanity and serious risk of genocide.' How significant is it, and what does it mean moving forward?”

To find out more, I asked Rikard Jozwiak, Europe editor at RFE/RL:

“It is worth stating right off the bat that the European Parliament is a foreign-policy pygmy and any resolution it passes in this field is non-binding on the powerful European Commission and the 27 EU member states. So, in that sense, there isn’t much political significance other than the purely symbolic.

“Nonetheless, there can be developments further down the road. Since MEPs really don’t have too much diplomatic skin in the game to begin with, it allows them to pass a much more outspoken text -- and this is where Chinese sensitivities come into play. Could it create a backlash from Beijing where more MEPs are sanctioned? In one way, the EP would relish such a recognition, and in return, one can probably conclude that the chamber will never give its consent to the currently frozen EU-China Comprehensive Agreement trade pact.

“The EP is also known for playing a ‘soothsaying’ role, where it often passes resolutions that seem fanciful at the time but then get implemented by the entire bloc a few years down the road as politics evolve. So, while I caution not to read too much into this for now, this isn’t the end of the road for this issue, either.”

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. New Opportunities

As Central Asian governments look to limit their reliance on Russia and grapple with the fallout from economic sanctions that the Kremlin's war has brought to the region, China is seeing new opportunities to expand its ties, as I reported here.

The Details: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi wrapped up a visit to Kazakhstan on June 7 and the third annual China + Central Asia foreign ministers' meeting in Nur-Sultan on June 8.

At both gatherings, Wang expressed concern about the spillover effects from the Ukraine war and took veiled aim at the United States by urging Central Asian governments to stay out of geopolitical conflicts.

For Beijing, the uptick in activity is a chance to reaffirm its influence in the region, where it has become a type of reluctant hegemon.

Central Asian countries, meanwhile, are hoping that Chinese investment and trade can help plug the hole being left by global economic fallout from the Ukraine war, although there are major questions about how much more Beijing is willing to pour into the region.

It’s for those reasons that local governments are also trying to build up trade ties with other countries, especially Turkey, which has been on a renewed push in Central Asia since the war began.

2. Orban And Hungary’s Chinese Campus

More than a year after thousands of protesters took to Budapest to demonstrate against plans to use taxpayer money to build a $1.8 billion Chinese university in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government is sidelining the opposition and clearing a path for the controversial project, my colleague Akos Keller-Alant from RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service and I reported.

What It Means: The 2021 protests signaled a mounting public backlash against plans to host Shanghai's prestigious Fudan University in the capital and led to pledges from the government to hold a referendum on the issue.

But since Orban’s resounding April election win, his government is backtracking on that promise, with the Constitutional Court -- which is said to be stacked by Orban loyalists -- ruling on May 18 that the referendum was unconstitutional as it concerns an international agreement between Hungary and China.

The decision is part of a wider set of moves by the nationalist Orban that analysts say is designed to consolidate his hold on power and use the court to sideline the political opposition while clearing the way for the Chinese project in the process.

3. Montenegro’s Long Road

After eight years of delays, a highway project in Montenegro paid for by a massive $1 billion Chinese loan is nearing completion, but it still faces lingering questions about its future, my colleague Predrag Tomovic from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service and I reported.

What You Need To Know: Once hailed by China as a landmark deal within the Belt and Road Initiative, the highway has since become a cautionary tale that fused together the perils of poor-quality Chinese construction and cursory lending practices with endemic local corruption concerns in the Balkan country.

But that long chapter looks set to close, with Montenegrin Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic announcing in May that the first 41-kilometer section of the highway would open this summer.

The remaining 122 kilometers of the originally planned road are still unbuilt and its future uncertain. At the moment, the initial stretch of road fades out into the middle of a large, forested area, and no funds are currently available to continue building the remaining portion.

Across The Supercontinent

Shopping Spree: Russia earned $96.8 billion from fossil-fuel exports during the first 100 days of its war in Ukraine, according to a new report from the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air.

While the EU comprises 61 percent of exported fossil fuels, China overtook Germany as the biggest single-country buyer of Russian energy.

The Movable Picket: During Wang’s trip to Kazakhstan, protesters gathered outside the Chinese Embassy in the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, demanding the release of relatives they say are held in camps in Xinjiang, my colleague Saniash Toiken from RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service reported.

Beyond Putin and Xi: Despite drawing closer in many respects, distrust, criticism, and a quiet rivalry remain part of China and Russia’s complicated ties.

I reported on a recent Chinese hacking campaign targeting Russian military-development institutes and what it means for Beijing and Moscow’s relationship moving forward.

A Warning: Just Finance International, an NGO focused on the environment and human rights, published a report on June 13 detailing how a “weakening of law and transparency in Serbia has provided loopholes for large-scale infrastructure investments, including from China.”

One Thing To Watch

The geopolitical ripple effects from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are being felt across Asia and were on display at Singapore’s Shangri-La Dialogue that gathered 40 countries.

Speaking one day before an address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that generated some controversy to its illusions to Taiwan, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the Ukraine war should be a wake-up call for East Asia.

While he did not mention Beijing explicitly, China’s military buildup in the Pacific, as well as provocations from North Korea and growing cooperation in the region between Beijing and Moscow, all loomed behind Kishida’s comments.

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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