China Power

Searching for a Central and Eastern European Voice on EU China Policy

Recent Features

China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Searching for a Central and Eastern European Voice on EU China Policy

The CEE countries’ experience with China over the past decade can inform their contribution to the EU, and more widely, the European approach to Beijing

Searching for a Central and Eastern European Voice on EU China Policy
Credit: Depositphotos

Central and Eastern Europe has been one of the most interesting regions to follow in terms of the Chinese global presence. When China stepped up its engagement with the region via its 16+1 initiative in 2012, the debate in Europe soon after started to revolve around the notion of the region serving as a “Trojan horse” for China to enter the continent. Recently, the discourse has changed significantly, with many pointing to Lithuania and Czechia as the most hawkish European countries on China and representing a souring of the region’s views of Beijing.

Neither of the exaggerated narratives manages to paint an accurate picture of the diverse engagement of the CEE’s countries with China, which have followed different trajectories. 

In 2024, we can roughly observe three groupings of CEE countries in terms of their China policy. The first group includes Hungary and Serbia, the remaining “China loyalists” in the region, with whom China has been stepping up engagement across the board. The two countries’ leaders use strong ties with China as an important pillar of their foreign policy. The close ties will be cemented by the upcoming visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Budapest and Belgrade. 

There is a second group represented by the Baltics and Czechia, which currently have very little interest in developing any kind of cooperation with Beijing and mostly see China through a security lens. While the Baltics have already left the Chinese-led 16+1 format, Prague has been mulling it for some time. 

However, it is the third group that is the largest, including countries which now understand the tradeoffs of cooperation with China, but at the same time are still willing to develop chiefly economic ties and want to keep channels open. In this group, Poland is probably the most salient example. 

While Hungary and Serbia continue to be outliers that are more likely than not to undermine any common approach to Beijing, this does not apply to the whole region. Building upon a diverse picture of the region’s engagement with China, it is time to step out from the constraints of simplistic narratives and move to thinking about what can be done to use the region’s accumulated experience with dealing with China over the last decade and empower the CEE countries’ foreign policies. More specifically, it is crucial to understand how the CEE countries’ experience with China over the past decade can inform their contribution to the EU, and more widely, the European approach to Beijing.

A new study published by the China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) platform, and written by the authors of this article, seeks to present an answer to the question. It tackles the three European-wide issues pertaining to China where the CEE countries have left a significant footprint and where they can further contribute to shaping the European approach: the debate on strategic autonomy, Sino-Russian ties and Beijing’s position on the Ukraine war, and relations with Taiwan. 

China has been promoting globally its vision of a “cooperative multipolar world” as an alternative to the multilateral, rules-based order. In China’s world, the EU would be a pole, shaping its foreign policy independently and engaging with China in spite of U.S. opposition. The study dissects these Chinese ambitions to pinpoint that small and medium-sized states, like most European and especially CEE countries, would not be able to survive and thrive unless they can count on international law, organizations where their vote matters, and a strong EU to protect their interests. At the same time, China has also been trying to exploit differences and competition between European states for its business interests, reducing the EU’s global influence, which paradoxically undermines its goal of a multipolar world from within. This provides an additional argument to CEE countries to be wary of China’s global aims.

The war in Ukraine has seriously challenged the EU’s ambition to become a geopolitical actor, flagging internal divisions and exposing its dependence on the United States as a security provider. Amid the uncertainty ahead of the U.S. elections later this year, the EU is faced with difficult policy choices and challenges. The most pressing one is how to get “up to speed” in order to be able to protect its own interests and the security of its citizens in the broadest terms, from national security in light of potential Russian aggression or hybrid attacks, to the security of critical infrastructure, supply chains, key investments, etc. 

In such a context, the EU needs to be able to count on a broad alliance with like-minded countries that face the same challenges, and have both the need and desire to work together with the EU. While the United States is arguably the key and most powerful ally that most EU, and especially CEE, countries would not give up for the sake of strategic autonomy, the candidate countries for EU membership, primarily the Western Balkans, should also be included in relevant EU policies. That would on one hand strengthen the strategic autonomy of the European continent and build synergies with NATO, but also reduce the EU’s vulnerabilities and blind spots as these countries would not provide a foothold for China in a region that is strategically important and embedded in both the EU’s territory and policies.

Last but not least, closer relations with Taiwan, spearheaded by some CEE states like Lithuania and Czechia, offer valuable insights into the way cooperation with Taipei can be beneficial for both respective EU member states and the EU as a whole. 

On the one hand, this newfound interest in cooperation with Taiwan reflects the changing perception that support for like-minded partners, even geographically distant ones, is strategically and normatively beneficial for smaller and medium-sized democracies. Given their geographic closeness to Russia, CEE countries have a heightened sense of danger emanating from Moscow’s revisionism. They are also more inclined to link China-Russia strategic cooperation with a larger scheme to reframe the existing world order to the liking of Beijing and Moscow. This is seen as a potential threat, and cooperation with Taiwan illustrates how CEE countries want to show solidarity and learn from the experiences of the island nation. 

Moreover, there is a growing appetite for economic cooperation with Taiwan, especially in high-tech and emerging technologies, with the Taiwanese semiconductor industry seen as a valuable asset to capitalize on in terms of tangible projects, for example by attracting FDI from Taiwan. 

Simultaneously, CEE experiences also point toward some limitations in the way cooperation with Taiwan has been perceived. In some cases, the developmental trajectory of relations with Taipei has followed a similar path as cooperation with Beijing during its “honeymoon” phase a decade ago. In other words, expectations should be kept in check to avoid a “Taiwan fatigue,” if local expectations cannot be matched by real developments. If both CEE and the EU want to maintain a stable relationship with Taiwan, it should neither be instrumentalized nor idealized. 

It is high time to think bigger in terms of CEE countries’ China policies, and ask how they fit into the larger picture of European China policy. However, this is not just about getting a seat at the table, where CEE countries have often been ignored in the past, but proactively shaping the EU’s agenda. One example where the voice of the countries in the region has not been heard as much as it should have is the issue of electric vehicles (EVs), which is now on the top of the European agenda. 

With especially the V4 countries dependent on traditional automotive industries centered around Germany, the coming onslaught of Chinese EV imports and the resulting challenge to the European industry poses critical questions to the future of the countries’ economies. At the same time, the increasing Chinese investments in the EV sector in V4 countries, without signs of them bringing technology transfers, entail new challenges in terms of European technological autonomy. More broadly, the issue concerns the EU’s ability to maintain its competitiveness and put itself in the driver’s seat of ongoing geopolitical and geoeconomic changes. The voices from CEE need to be heard in this important debate.

Guest Author

Filip Šebok

Filip Šebok is a China research fellow at the Association for International Affairs (AMO), working on the China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) and MapInfluenCE projects dealing with the Chinese presence in the CEE region.

Guest Author

Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova

Dr. Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova is a research fellow at CHOICE and head of the Political Science Ph.D. program and China Studies Centre at Riga Stradins University. She is also head of the Asia Program at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, a member of CHERN and European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC).

Guest Author

Alicja Bachulska

Dr. Alicja Bachulska is a research fellow at CHOICE and policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) where she focuses on Chinese foreign policy and China-EU relations.

Guest Author

Ana Krstinovska

Dr. Ana Krstinovska is a research fellow at CHOICE, president of the North Macedonia-based think tank and consultancy ESTIMA, and a research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy ELIAMEP.