10th Webinar - China and Eastern Europe: Different Trajectories in Bilateral Relations

Updated: Jul 9, 2021

Report by Noemi Capelli

For our third webinar of the year, we had the pleasure to have Mirela Petkova presenting the Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries’ relations with China. Mirela is a Data Researcher for Energy Monitor at New Statesman Media Group, and a former Junior Researcher at the EU & Global Affairs Unit. The webinar was moderated by Pau Álvarez Aragonès, member and moderator of our Webinars Team.

To begin, Mirela started by providing a framework of the relations up to present through the 17+1 format. The system was launched before the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aiming to represent a gateway to the European market. In 2012, the format was welcomed with great enthusiasm in the CEE. However, since the launch, China has never clearly defined what the 17+1 is.

The cooperation has developed through almost ten years of diplomatic and political exchange. Nonetheless, this multipolar cooperation has proven to be quite insufficient to build a community identity. The interactions follow the path of bilateral relations between China and one specific country, with no significant growth in the economic exchange rate between the 17+1 countries. Mirela did not hesitate to define the 17+1 format as a talkshop rather than multilateral cooperation.

From this moment, Mirela presented the study cases of Serbia and the Czech Republic, two countries which received among the highest and the lowest investments from China respectively, resulting in differences in both the economic and the political approaches.

The first difference lies in the very nature of the countries. The Czech Republic is an EU Member State and Serbia is not. Serbia has experienced the difficult process of joining the EU, a membership that requires a certain strength of the national democratic institutions. According to Freedom House, the Czech Republic was able to maintain a stable level of democratic percentage in the last 5 years, whilst Serbia’s democratic percentage has declined, resulting in a “hybrid regime”.

The autocratic nature of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) generates the need for a multivectoral foreign policy that allows for a partnership with China in various areas, parallel to participation in the EU integration process. In fact, the Serbian ability to balance East and West allowed them to acquire 1.5 million vaccines from China.

On the other hand, Czech Republic relations with China started very well, but they deteriorated quickly when China failed to fulfil its promises of investments. The situation escalated with the removal of the sister agreement between the countries over China’s claims to Taiwan.

The divergence regarding policy towards China, concluded Mirela, is determined by the national identity of the two countries. The Czech Republic perceives itself as a prodemocratic, pro-human rights, pro-western country, which is subsequently reflected in its foreign policy. A similar reflection takes place in the case of Serbia, but based on its identification as a country balancing between different economic partners.

Finally, Mirela pointed out the negative reflections that analysts made on the CEE countries in the last decade, by defining them as Trojan horses facilitating the entrance of China to Europe, arguing that this narrative is false, as seen in the case of Czech Republic. Overall, the EU should make more efforts to include these countries in the dialogue with China to strengthen EU policies and back its member states when expressing criticism toward China. To better comprehend the China issue, Mirela expressed the hope that analysts will pay more attention to the national framework of every country in which China is operating.

If you are interested in the details of this webinar, you can watch it on our YouTube channel.

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