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International relations

Eastern Europe ends love fest with China amid Beijing-EU rift

Xi rushes to win back Slovenia, Lithuania and others as US makes rival overtures

Top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, right, and Foreign Minister Wang Yi: Beijing has stepped up overtures to central and eastern Europe as ties cool.   © Reuters

VIENNA/BEIJING -- Enthusiasm for China has cooled in much of central and eastern Europe, leaving Beijing alarmed as human rights concerns and stalled investments push disillusioned partners toward the U.S.

Politburo member Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat, met with Slovenian President Borut Pahor on Wednesday during a visit to the country. The two called for stronger relations between China and the European Union and for regular Brussels-Beijing dialogues, according to the president's office. Yang traveled to Croatia the following day to speak with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic.

Also on Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by phone with Montenegrin counterpart Milo Djukanovic. Xi offered to provide "as much assistance as [China's] capacity allows" to help Montenegro tackle the coronavirus pandemic, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing said.

China's charm counteroffensive is part of a scramble to regain influence in what had been a relatively friendly part of Europe as relations fray between Beijing and Brussels. The European Parliament voted last week to freeze ratification of an investment agreement with China amid friction over Beijing's alleged human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region.

With Slovenia set to assume the EU presidency in July, Yang's visit to Ljubljana suggests that Beijing is keen to bring the country onto its side to help move the deal forward again.

But the relationship between the two countries is fraught. Slovenia last August signed a declaration on fifth-generation wireless security that essentially would block Chinese company Huawei Technologies from its 5G network. Ljubljana also shut out Chinese companies from bidding on a rail project, according to local media.

Other central and eastern European nations are distancing themselves as well. Lithuania said last week it has withdrawn from China's 17+1 economic cooperation framework with countries in the region.

"There is no such thing as 17+1 anymore, as for practical purposes Lithuania is out," Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis said.

The forum, which launched in 2012 as the 16+1, has held summits each year aside from 2020, when the meeting was suspended due to the pandemic. This year's virtual gathering in February had record-low attendance by leaders, with six members including Latvia and Bulgaria sending foreign ministers instead. Xi himself tried to persuade the heads of state to attend, with little luck.

A highway project in Montenegro, financed mostly with loans from China, faces major delays.   © Reuters

A lack of progress on promised Chinese investments into many countries contributes to the frustration. State-owned China General Nuclear Power had agreed to invest in and expand a nuclear plant in Romania, but after the plan stalled for several years, Bucharest scrapped the deal in 2020 and inked an agreement with the U.S. instead.

Data from the American Enterprise Institute shows wide variation in Chinese spending among countries in the region. Chinese investment and construction between 2012 and 2020 totaled $110 million in Latvia and $860 million in the Czech Republic, but $3.6 billion in Hungary, which is more sympathetic to Beijing.

Central and eastern European countries also have expressed concern about the alleged rights violations against the Uyghurs and Beijing's crackdown in Hong Kong. The Lithuanian parliament on May 20 passed a resolution describing China's treatment of Uyghurs as "genocide."

The countries appear to be shifting focus to Washington. President Joe Biden this month attended a preparatory meeting for the upcoming NATO summit. The nine central and eastern European nations that hosted the meeting expressed high hopes for American military capabilities.

Beijing previously homed in on those areas, hoping that non-EU members and authoritarian governments, like in Hungary, may be more open to Chinese advances. The region has served as a strategic link to the rest of Europe, and is a key participant in China's Belt and Road infrastructure-building initiative.

Xi now faces mounting pressure to reevaluate China's strategy toward the region, but it is unclear how Beijing can reverse the soured relations.

"Central and eastern European countries will continue to distance themselves from China," said Atsuko Higashino, associate professor at Japan's University of Tsukuba and an expert on the region.

"The 17+1 mechanism is at a crossroads," she said.

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