Slow, and rarely surely

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is patient and powerful. But that doesn’t make him invincible. The lesson of its activities in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is that it succeeds mainly because of Western weakness, rather than thanks to its own genius.

A new series of reports for the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) examines the influence of the CCP in a dozen countries in Central and Eastern Europe. At first glance, the picture is disconcertingly diverse. Chinese influence operations target large countries (Poland and Romania) and small ones (Montenegro, Estonia or North Macedonia). They favor economic means (as in Hungary and the Western Balkans), but also diplomatic or soft power (Poland). systematic (Serbia) and dilatory (Romania).

The main common factor is minimal use of effort unless, as in Lithuania, local decision makers violate party taboos on issues such as Tibet and Taiwan. The approach is fundamentally opportunistic. Chinese influencers take their risks where they see them, ranging from infrastructure projects to divide-and-conquer schemes. When something works, they start over. If they fail, they lose interest.

This is disappointing for those who would like to see the PECO region as a geopolitical crossroads, at the center of the sinister plans of a totalitarian superpower. But in truth, seen from Beijing, the CEE region is a backwater. “They would sacrifice all their interests in the region for a slightly better position in a large German federal state like North Rhine-Westphalia,” a government China watcher told me, requesting anonymity in order to speak frankly.

Chinese expertise in the region can be misleading. Individual diplomats can display an astonishing command of the local language: the fruits of specialization. But the CCP is baffled by local power dynamics or economic, cultural, historical and geographic differences in what seem incredibly small countries. Propaganda follows a generalized anti-Western line that more often falls flat than it works.

It is also easy to exaggerate the local reaction. Illiberal governments in the region can be just as opportunistic, using ties to China for domestic political purposes and as bargaining chips when haggling with Western policymakers in Brussels. True: Playing the “China card” has had some success during the socially stressed era of the covid-19 pandemic. But the relationship is deep. China features far more in official discourse in Belgrade and Budapest than Serbia and Hungary do in Beijing. Other places matter more.

The CCP’s flagship multilateral project, launched as 16+1 in 2012, is a stark example of this failure. Lithuania left the framework in 2021. Estonia and Latvia also just left, underscoring the CCP’s entrenched inability to practice multilateral diplomacy. Indeed, the CCP’s master plan of using infrastructure to strengthen political and economic ties is seriously compromised. Recent events in countries such as Kenya, Sri Lanka and Pakistan have exposed the flaws of the flagship Belt and Road Initiative. Far from supplanting Western-led loans and development aid, the result is overpriced projects with weak business justifications and fragile financing.

This is no reason to be complacent. China’s successes may be fragile, but they still reflect the gaps created by the West’s failure. The choppy pace of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, timidity in the face of stubborn Hungarian leaders, lack of solidarity with Lithuania over Taiwan, and neglect of Chinese language teaching in CEE universities were not the result of Chinese pressure. But they created conditions that the CCP could and did exploit. Chinese leaders may be in retreat now. But he is thinking long term. And we, most of the time, don’t.