China has shown “how easy it is to lose a region in 10 years”, says Andreea Brinza in Nikkei Asia. When Beijing’s representatives first turned up to central and eastern Europe in 2012, they were received with “open arms” by so-called CEE governments desperate for investment in their infrastructure. But in just a few years, “China’s reputation has turned 180 degrees”, with more and more countries disillusioned with Beijing’s failure to deliver on its shiny Belt and Road promises. One striking symbol of China’s reversing fortunes in the region: out of six countries that shipped Covid vaccines to Taiwan, four are in the CEE.
EU policymakers always saw this as a Trojan Horse – a “divide and conquer tactic” to gain influence with the bloc’s less developed eastern half and undermine Brussels. But what has really turned the tide is Russia. China failed to see how feared Moscow is by the nations it has been trying to influence, and how highly they value the security the US offers them through Nato. Instead of a friend, many in the CEE now see China as a Russian ally, and they have “signalled their dissatisfaction” clearly. Romania and the Czech Republic forfeited nuclear projects with China; the former also banned Chinese companies from bidding for infrastructure projects. After 10 years trying to woo the CEE, “China is in a worse position than when it started”.