- Russia’s war against Ukraine and the worsening situation on NATO’s eastern flank have crystallized divisions
in Central Europe over policy toward China. They were already clear before February 24, 2022. The attack, however, clarified the roles that individual countries play. It led to the emergence of a group whose priority was to manifest loyalty to the guarantor of their security – the U.S. – rather than a barely potential business partner – China. It has made Beijing’s expectations of the region and the region’s expectations of Beijing more realistic.
- The full-scale invasion was the dotting of the i’s and crossing the t’s. Already the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired questions in the debate over relations with Beijing about the security of “supply chains” and the consequences of partial deglobalization. For some Central European countries, the announcement of locating production on their soil rather than in China – stemming from concerns about the continuity of said supply chains – has become a growth opportunity. Coronavirus also challenged the claim of China’s itself perpetual economic growth of 8 percent. Beijing, with its zero-COVID policy, has also made it clear that trade has its limits, and the rules that define it can be created according to the current needs of the leader, not the rules of the World Trade Organization.
- All this was compounded by the technological arms race between the U.S. and China, which had been looming a few years before the pandemic, and the need to choose alliances in this competition. For instance, with the development of 5G technology, which appeared to be a paradigm shift
in telecommunications and digitization.
- Much earlier than the pandemic, there was the question of China’s attitude to the change in the post-Cold War order that Russia made when it annexed Crimea in the spring of 2014. European and U.S. reaction to the move has been a strategic topic in Beijing and Taipei. The People’s Republic of China treated it as a litmus test on which to design a response to analogous steps against Taiwan. Central Europe’s position was, despite appearances, not homogeneous on this issue. At one extreme was Hungary, which entered into an open dispute with Ukraine over minority rights in Transcarpathia and openly portrayed the country as, as Prime Minister Victor Orbán put it in May 2018. – “a fallen state”, and called for a review of NATO’s policy toward Kiev (including a proposal to suspend the operation of the Ukraine-NATO Council and blocking the Alliance’s military cooperation with Kiev). At the other extreme was Poland, which treated the annexation as a prelude to full-scale war and embraced rhetoric that urged respect for public international law and thus questioned any unilateral border changes. Hungary, which was officially consistent with the West in its sanctions policy toward Russia – unofficially pursued the passportization of Transcarpathia (issuing passports to the Hungarian minority, which was associated in Kiev with the passportization of Crimea between 2004 and 2014 and seen as a step toward annexation) and did not get involved in holding Russia accountable. Romania’s attitude was also ambiguous after 2014. Bucharest’s official position was consistent with the rest of NATO and the EU. In reality, however, Romania saw Ukraine as a rival in the Black Sea region, with which it had a dispute with Kiev over Snake Island at the International Court of Justice in the 1990s. It was only settled in 2009. The island itself was given to Ukraine. Most of the gas and oil deposits around it to Romania. The events of that period have translated into Romania’s inadequate participation in aid to Ukraine after February 24, 2022. Nevertheless, Bucharest in the political sphere clarified its position and it was pro-Atlantic.
- Both China and Taiwan have been trying to sort out this puzzle of interests in Central Europe. It was clear that attitudes toward the most important change in the international arrangement after the collapse of the USSR would define not only the regional game, but the position of individual Central European states in broader global politics. This could not be left without consequences for cooperation with Beijing in particular.