In keeping with our mission, the Council on Geostrategy is interested in the rise of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Chinese engagement with the wider world. The PRC’s expansionist foreign policy knows few bounds; the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to shape the world and key regions in accordance with its interests. As the gateway to Western and Northern Europe, Central and Eastern Europe is one such region.
Just as we have focused on the PRC’s rise, we have also taken a fundamental interest in Central and Eastern Europe, a region critical to British interests given the United Kingdom’s (UK) ongoing commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the defence of Europe.
Given the change in attitude in recent years towards the PRC in Britain and many key allies and partners – including the United States (US), Australia and Japan – we thought it worthwhile to determine how perceptions of the PRC might be changing in Central and Eastern European countries.
Thus, during late 2022 and early 2023, we engaged with nine Central and Eastern European partners from Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Croatia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to help us undertake this inquiry. We are grateful for their assistance and support.
The resulting Study, the most extensive survey of its kind to date, draws on regional expertise to explain how Central and Eastern European political parties perceive the PRC, particularly since Xi Jinping became the General Secretary of the CCP in 2012.
– James Rogers
Director of Research, Council on Geostrategy
- Many no longer view the People’s Republic of China (PRC) predominantly as a partner. Under Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), it is viewed, increasingly, as a ‘systemic competitor’ or a ‘systemic rival’, as the CCP has become more assertive at home and abroad. Consequently, many nations, previously open to investment, trade and political engagement with the PRC, have already started to re-evaluate their economic and political relations with the country. But this is not an easy task; the PRC’s newfound economic power means it can no longer simply be ignored or excluded from global decision making.
- As the CCP views Western Europe as a strategic target for the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), with Central Europe acting as the gateway, Chinese engagement with the region has grown substantially over the past ten years. Individual governments in Central Europe have often embraced Chinese engagement, frequently perceiving it as a commercial opportunity.
- Austria’s stance on the PRC is currently set in the tacit cross-party consensus on the necessity to preserve stable and amicable relations with Beijing. This is reinforced by the limited scope of political debate and parliamentary scrutiny regarding the PRC and related issues. However, greater debate in the future is to be expected; at the end of 2020 the Federal Government initiated the process of developing a national ‘China Strategy’.
- Some Bulgarian politicians have displayed an affinity for the PRC, particularly when it comes to Bulgaria’s economic development. However, the country has failed to engage in any long-term business deals or political initiatives of significance with the PRC. And this looks unlikely to occur in the future, as the hardening of the EU’s stance towards the PRC constrains Sofia’s decision making; it is unlikely that Bulgaria will pursue an independent course when it comes to making policy in relation to the PRC.
- Politicians in the Croatian Parliament are silent when it comes to the PRC. Croatia has a tendency to keep its political relations closely aligned with that of its major partners (the EU, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US)), and is therefore hesitant to dramatically shift its own position. But it is clear that several parliamentarians are aware of the geopolitical risks associated with the PRC.
- In the Czech Republic, political perceptions of the PRC over the last ten years have evolved from being more embracing to more critical. Nevertheless, scrutiny of the PRC is primarily levied by select individuals or organisations. Petr Pavel, the incoming president, looks set to change the Czech Republic’s stance on Taiwan, which will affect its relationship with the PRC.
- In Hungary, matters relating to the PRC do not dominate either public or parliamentary discourse. When they are placed on the agenda, political perceptions are mainly determined by domestic political considerations and interests, rather than the implications of the PRC’s activity.
- Poland has responded firmly to the PRC’s failure to condemn Russia’s war against Ukraine has led to a sharp deterioration in how the CCP is perceived. Criticism of the CCP’s humanitarian abuses and the involvement of Huawei in the construction of Poland’s 5G network has received particular attention in the Polish Parliament, and led to the development of legislation.
- The PRC rarely animates Romanian parliamentarians; instead, they tend to stay close to the EU line. However, they are aware of and actively debate CCP activity within Romania, such as the role of Confucius Institutes linked to universities.
- The PRC is rarely a topic of Slovakian political discourse. Earlier attempts to establish connections with the PRC were not a result of a broad inter-parliamentary consensus, but were instead driven by a specific segment of Slovakia’s political spectrum. Slovakia’s position on the PRC is prone to dramatic shifts resulting from domestic political change.
- The PRC’s presence in Slovenia and the bilateral relationship between the two countries has gone largely unnoticed over the past decade in Slovenian politics. Nevertheless, a shift towards recognising the PRC as a global power by parliamentarians is noticeable.
- There are differing levels of parliamentary scrutiny regarding the PRC in Central Europe. There are also differences in how each nation perceives the PRC, its role in global affairs, and its activity within the selected nation. There are also, of course, similarities.
- In all Central European countries public perceptions of the PRC have changed for the worse over the past three years. This is mainly to do with the failure of the CCP to rebuke Russia’s renewed aggression towards Ukraine, as well as the CCP’s response to Covid-19. The former has also compounded existing doubts instilled in politicians regarding the CEE-China initiative.
- The amount of attention Central European parliamentarians pay to the PRC, including the impact of its outreach, has visibly increased. However, they should further invest in their capability to understand the CCP and its geopolitical objectives. This will enable them better to deflect attempts by the CCP to interfere in the political and economic systems of their countries; they will also be more ready to minimise risks where engagement might be desired. Indeed, how to deter, protect against, and engage and compete with the PRC – all at the same time – is a strategic challenge facing all.
Constructed around nine country-specific sections, this study explains how parliamentarians and political parties in Central Europe view and scrutinise the PRC and PRC-related activities. It also touches on the public’s perception of the PRC, insofar as this may animate the political decisions taken in democracies. Further, it provides a snapshot of how attitudes towards the CCP may be changing over time in the nine Central European countries.
To read the full Study, please download the PDF.
The research underpinning this study is completely independent. To produce the sections, the Council on Geostrategy sought out the assistance of institutions in each country with a strong track record of providing high-end research on topics pertaining to European and international affairs. For these reasons the Council on Geostrategy partnered with the following organisations:
- Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (Austria);
- Centre for the Study of Democracy (Bulgaria);
- Centre for Public Policy and Economic Analysis (Croatia);
- Institute of International Relations Prague (Czech Republic);
- Institute for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Hungary);
- Institute of New Europe (Poland);
- New Strategy Centre (Romania); and,
- Central European Institute for Asian Studies (Slovakia)
- The chapter on Slovenia was produced by an independent researcher.
These institutions were also chosen due to their country-specific experts whose focus also included the PRC.
About the editor
Patrick Triglavcanin is Senior Research Assistant at the Council on Geostrategy. He holds a BA in Sociolegal Studies from the University of Western Australia and a Postgraduate Diploma in International Relations and National Security (1st Class Hons.) from Curtin University. Patrick focuses on the geopolitics of the Indo-Pacific, particularly Australia, the PRC and Britain’s role in the region.
This publication should not be considered in any way to constitute advice. It is for knowledge and educational purposes only. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council on Geostrategy or the views of its Advisory Council.
No. GPS01 | ISBN: 978-1-914441-42-4