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2021.06.02 17:45

Is Eastern Europe's love affair with China coming to an end?

Reid Standish, RFE/RL2021.06.02 17:45

From a frozen investment pact with the European Union to Lithuania’s withdrawal from China’s chosen format for engaging with Central and Eastern Europe, Beijing found itself in damage-control mode the past few weeks across much of the continent.

China’s ambitious trade and investment deal with the EU is on ice – and a thaw doesn’t look to be coming anytime soon.

The European Parliament passed a resolution on May 20 that would prevent a much-talked-about agreement from going into effect until China lifts sanctions it imposed on European lawmakers and institutions.

Read more: Lithuanian parliament passes resolution condemning ‘Uighur genocide’ in China

Those sanctions were a response to a long dispute over Beijing's treatment of its Uighur minority and other Muslims in Xinjiang Province and sanctions imposed on China by Brussels in March.

The decision to freeze the deal signals a harder line developing towards China in Europe. Germany will hold elections in September that could bring in a tougher foreign policy toward Beijing, with the same holding true for the Czech Republic in October.

The opposition in Hungary is also seeking to unseat Prime Minister Viktor Orban in 2022, which, if successful, could see a reversal of Budapest’s current pro-China stance.

Meanwhile, Lithuania cemented its departure from the “17+1,” a format launched by China to engage with Central and Eastern European countries, which Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told Politico was a divisive format. He urged other countries to join Vilnius in leaving.

Read more: Lithuania quits ‘divisive’ China 17+1 group

Why it matters

The region’s honeymoon with China may be long over, but that doesn’t mean that a divorce is in the cards.

On the one hand, the rising tensions with the EU are a far cry from the wedge that China managed to drive between Brussels and Washington while the bloc's relations were soured with the administration of US President Donald Trump.

And judging from Beijing’s official reactions to the moves, repairs in its increasingly shaky relationship won’t come soon.

After news broke that the deal was being held up, China blamed the EU, with a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman saying Brussels should focus “less on emotional outbursts and more on rational thinking”.

This was followed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi attacking the EU for the human rights sanctions. Speaking via video link at the Munich Security Conference about accusations of genocide being conducted in Xinjiang, Wang said that “our European friends know what genocide is”.

But beyond the harsh words, Beijing was also quick to show that its grand strategy wasn’t completely derailed in the region.

China organised a series of high-profile meetings with Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, and Slovenia, with both Croatia and Poland providing official endorsements of Chinese engagement in the region and Serbia inking a series of cooperation deals.

This excerpt was taken from the China In Eurasia briefing, a newsletter tracking China’s influence in Europe and Asia. It was originally published by RFE/RL, partners of LRT English.

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