Doing business with a communist regime like the People’s Republic of China brings with it unexpected challenges and new diplomatic challenges, especially for a sui generis politico-economic union like the European Union (EU). As Chinese investment in Europe grows, so too does the authoritarian country’s influence on EU politics.
In April 2014, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a policy paper on the EU titled “Deepen the China–EU Comprehensive Strategic Partnership for Mutual Benefit and Win-Win Cooperation.” The document explains the importance of China’s commercial forays into Europe, emphasizing that the EU is China’s biggest trading partner and that both sides are committed to pursuing a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship. Indeed, last year, China’s investment in Europe hit a high of $23 billion, a figure composed mostly of investments by state-owned companies, but which also includes a significant contingent of small-scale investments by private sector investors. Chinese investment also flowed into the EU at the nadir of the European debt crisis, quadrupling from 2010 to 2012, and particularly targeting the ailing “periphery countries.” However, while the surge in China’s European investments is obvious, Chinese government data omits important information regarding activity by Chinese companies’ offshore subsidiaries as well as investments routed through Hong Kong, with the result that precise figures are difficult to come by.
There is also clear evidence that China wants to leverage its economic involvement in Europe for political ends. The 2013 iteration of the yearly EU-China summit produced a roadmap for relations stretching all the way to 2020. Xi Jinping also became the first Chinese leader to visit the EU institutions in Brussels in 2014.
Moreover, China associates extensive importance to its relations with the Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC). To the EU’s displeasure, a Summit for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries has been institutionalized as an annual meeting since 2012. Bejing’s expansion into Central Europe appears to be a systematic undertaking that follows campaigns of investment in other parts of the world. As the Central European countries’ economies became more reliant on Chinese investment, they may put a higher premium on optimizing their bilateral relations with the Chinese government, with local elites increasingly believing that maintaining friendly relations with China is required to sustain their economic growth.
This process can be seen in Xi Jinping’s visits to the Czech Republic in March and Poland in June of this year. Polish President Andrzej Duda visited China the year before to encourage stronger ties between Europe and China and commit his country to participating in China’s development initiatives in fields like connectivity and infrastructure. Xi’s return visit was designed to integrate this agreement more fully into Poland’s development plans and to promote Poland’s leading role in China-CEEC relations.
While both the CEEC and China attribute great importance to this relationship, it is positive for China but negative for the EU that the discussion of human rights never makes it on to the agenda. Xi’s Czech trip also demonstrated China’s insecurity when it comes to securing a positive image. Pro-Xi demonstrators, seemingly on the street to welcome their leader, were also actively working to suppress pro-Tibetan protestors, and tried to cover a picture showing the Dalai Lama with former Czech President Václav Havel, a former dissident who was also a vocal supporter of Chinese pro-democracy activists like Liu Xiaobo. This contaminated Xi’s image rather than improving it.
While Xi’s visit to the Czech Republic and Poland inevitably brought a “new start” in relations with Beijing, it also offered an insight into Xi’s own sense of insecurity and the limits of the communist ruler’s soft power. In both countries, Xi signed agreements for strategic economic and commercial deals which may be in place for years to come. However, the bitter aftertaste of dealing with an authoritarian regime is not going to dissolve any time soon.
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