Europe Divided Over Its Attitude to China

Until 1989, Europe was partitioned by the Berlin Wall. Now, it is divided by the Great Wall of China. CEE countries are looking at Beijing with caution, but Western European states are looking for business opportunities with China.

The Great Wall of Jinshan Mountains in the Cloud Sea
The Great Wall of Jinshan. Photo: iStock.com / bjdlzx

Everyone knew that David had no chance of winning anything against Goliath, yet he was not afraid to stand up against this mythical giant and ultimately defeat him. Can such a situation be repeated today in international relations? We are just now witnessing a very supposed attempt. With a population of less than 3 million, Lithuania has challenged China with a population of 1.4 billion.

China’s foreign ministry openly accuses Lithuania of violating the ”One China” policy – but Vilnius is not bothered by this, deepening its relations with Taiwan. It has just opened its trade office in Taipei, which has become the economic equivalent of a diplomatic post. David (Lithuania) has decided, even though Goliath (China) has flexed his muscles very hard, suggesting that such a political line will not go unanswered.

At some point, each of these countries will have to address for themselves the dichotomy outlined by Biden and choose between democracy and autocracy. Tertium non datur

Some countries do not prioritize their relations with Beijing; others openly oppose its aggressive foreign and economic policies. Indeed, most countries in the region approach China with a great deal of distance, aware that they may pay a high price for excessive rapprochement. Why this caution?

Against “no limits” partnership

Lithuania, which last year decided to withdraw from the 17+1 format (previously known as 16+1, an initiative bringing together China and 17 Central and Eastern European countries), is the clearest example of a very assertive stance towards Beijing. But it is not the only one. Take the Czech Republic, for example. This country lately has tightened its policy towards China – mainly by warming relations with Taiwan.

Two years ago, Prague’s mayor Zdeněk Hřib paid a visit to Taipei. During that visit, he famously said of himself: “I am a citizen of Taiwan” (thus alluding to John F. Kennedy’s famous quote to a divided Berlin in 1963, “Ich bin ein Berliner”). Shortly afterward, The President of the Czech Senate, Miloš Vystrčil, traveled to Taiwan together with a 90-member delegation of the Czech Parliament. In response, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned Czechs that they “will pay a heavy price” for this visit, as it violates the “One China” policy principle.

Despite this, the warming of diplomatic relations between Taiwan and Central European countries continued. Last year, a 66-strong delegation from the government headed by National Development Commission (NKR) Minister Kung Ming-hsin visited Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Lithuania in turn. Shortly after, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland were visited by the head of Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, Joseph Wu.

Europe-China format shrinking

In September this year, in turn, a Czech Senate delegation flew to Taipei once again. At the beginning of this year, the then Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Jansa, was openly discussing closer relations with Taiwan. At the same time, two remaining Baltic countries, Estonia and Latvia, withdrew from the 17+1 format. Thus, this initiative – intended to be large and cross-cutting – shrank to a 14+1 format. And this is not the end of the story, as speculation is circulating that other countries will also withdraw from it.

Which country will be next to withdraw from this format? Romania cannot be ruled out. This country has long hoped to build good relations with China and has even signed a contract with the government to cooperate on constructing a nuclear power plant. But in 2020, this contract was terminated.

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing,” wrote once C.S. Lewis, the author of the famous “The Chronicles of Narnia”. This phrase is very relevant to European politics

In 2021, the Romanian president did not attend the Beijing summit, despite being invited, and in turn, the government started to block access to the Romanian market for more Chinese companies. This a clear signal that, for Bucharest, relations with China had lost priority. But you may say the same about the rest of the countries in the region – with the exception of Hungary (and to some extent Austria), which nevertheless continues to bet strongly on close relations with Beijing.

Romanian officials clearly emphasize their commitment to EU and NATO cooperation – noting that these are even more important than the outbreak of war in Ukraine. The conflict, which began on 24 February 2022, is a key caesura for the entire CEE region that will determine their policies for years – if not decades – to come. This is why the declarations made by Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping just before the outbreak of war that their countries are united by a “no limits” partnership mean that any relationship with Beijing is today viewed in the countries forming the 3 Seas Initiative primarily through the prism of politics and security. And this is precisely why relations with China of the countries in the region have been so severely chilled.

Geopolitical dichotomy

“In the battle between democracy and autocracy, democracies are rising to the moment, and the world is clearly choosing the side of peace and security,” said Joe Biden just after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. One would assume that this way of thinking should be evident to all NATO and EU member states. But it is not. In countries that are not in close proximity to Russia and Ukraine, the attitude towards the two countries in a combined “no limits” partnership is much more relative.

We learned this from an interview given to CNN Portugal (the Lisbon-based sister station of the American CNN) in November by Boris Johnson, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (he held this post until September). In it, he stressed that just before the war, Germany, France, and Italy were not interested in helping Ukraine, pointing out that the most favorable solution would have been the rapid fall of Kyiv. “This thing was a huge shock … we could see the Russian battalion tactical groups amassing, but different countries had very different perspectives. The German view was at one stage that if it were going to happen, which would be a disaster, then it would be better for the whole thing to be over quickly and for Ukraine to fold,” said Johnson in the interview.

But he underlined that quickly after the invasion, all these countries changed their minds. “What happened was everybody, Germans, French, Italians, everybody, Joe Biden, saw that there was simply no option. Because you couldn’t negotiate with this guy (Putin). That’s the key point,” said Johnson, adding that “the EU has done brilliantly” since that time.

Hitting close to home

The German side commented on the interview given by Boris Johnson, saying that he had a “unique relationship with the truth.” But closely observing German and French policy towards Russia after the invasion, it is difficult to free oneself from the conviction that there was at least a grain of truth in Johnson’s remarks. Yes, Berlin and Paris are providing far-reaching assistance to Ukraine – but at the same time, both capitals are making sure that they have open channels of communication with Russia at all times, and their leaders regularly talk to Putin, even though the purpose of these conversations is not actually apparent.

But even more surprising – and worrying – is their policy towards China, a country linked by a close alliance with Russia. When Biden spoke of dividing the world into democracies and autocracies, he saw Moscow and (and perhaps, especially) Beijing in the second category. But it does not look obvious for many Western European countries. Especially for Germany. Chancellor In October, Olaf Scholz paid a visit to Beijing accompanied by representatives of German business – as if Berlin had not learned any lessons from many years of close economic cooperation with Russia, which was only stopped by the war in Ukraine.

At the same time, the German government approved the sale of a 25 percent stake in the Port of Hamburg (Olaf Sholz used to be the mayor of this city) to the Chinese conglomerate Cosco. Washington expressed concern about this transaction, but Berlin was not deterred. Instead, Beijing reacted, accusing the Americans of interfering in the relationship between “two sovereign countries.” This is the clearest sign that Germany still believes in its “Wandel durch Handel” (Change through trade) policy, though this strategy went bankrupt in the case of Russia.

From Narnia to China

Germany is not the only one deciding to play the Chinese game independently. The Netherlands opposes the American ban on chip equipment sales to China – in exchange, Chinese President Xi Jinping invited Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte to visit Beijing next year. Chinese companies already possess stakes in the Port of Rotterdam. On the sidelines of the recent G20 meeting in Bali, Xi talked to Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Both leaders agreed that their countries need closer cooperation, and Spain is ready to facilitate China’s investment in Spain. The Greek government is also seeking possibilities for closer cooperation with China, especially in such areas as energy, finance, transportation, and the digital economy.

“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing,” wrote once C.S. Lewis, the author of the famous “The Chronicles of Narnia”. This phrase is very relevant to European politics. Central European countries hear the roar of cannons and see smoke over burning Ukrainian towns – and their politics are determined by these experiences. In Western European countries, on the other hand, there is clearly still the illusion that a war taking place far from their borders can only have a limited impact on their reality. There’s an apparent contradiction between the two parts of Europe. Before 1989 they were divided by Berlin Wall; right now, they are divided by the Great Wall of China.

This power game is not only a security issue – but it’s also part of a political game at the highest level. Because at some point, each of these countries will have to address for themselves the dichotomy outlined by Biden and choose between democracy and autocracy. Tertium non datur (no third possibility is given). As always, in geopolitics, everybody will have to make a choice. The later it is made, the higher the cost will be.

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