Relations between China and Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries have recently become a hot topic, for professionals as well as academics. Chinese presence in this region has been increasing rapidly and there are signs that it is going to grow in the future. Yet, without much previous contacts and knowledge, the CEE countries and China often find each other in the position of misperception. In the presented interview, prof. Kerry Brown talked with us during a conference at University of Ljubljana in Slovenia targeting relations between China and CEE about his understanding of this relation.
Kerry Brown is director of the China Studies Centre and professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney and Team Leader of European China Research and Advise Network (ECRAN). Apart from that, he is associated with various other renowned institutions including SOAS, LSE, and Cambridge University. In the past, he also worked as a British diplomat, and as a head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House, London. His expertise focuses on Chinese politics and culture, China’s private sector and China’s relations with the rest of East Asia. He publishes extensively in world journals and appears regularly in the international media.
There is a strategic partnership scheme which China opens with some of its major international partners. The European Union has the strategic partnership with China, but also some of its member countries have their separate ones, including Poland. What does it tell us?
The strategic partnership between EU and China was set up 10 years ago and it has specific goals. The bilateral ones are mostly about investments or trade relations, so they are trying to get more than they get from the EU-China strategic partnership; get more specific things for the countries’ economies from China. They try to tie closer to relations that China has with member states. Poland hasn’t had much investment from China, so they would probably want to attract more, which has been a bit problematic. And I presume also for other countries in Eastern Europe and Central Europe, basically it is the same thing, you want a good quality investment regime, that’s the core thing; you can tie the relations with China to the economic outcomes.
Do you think that when China decided to grant the strategic partnership to Poland, it is because they prefer them as a hub in the region of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)?
Poland is a big economy, it has been also a growing economy; it had a good growth in the last few years despite the crisis. So they would think of Poland as being a decent place to invest their money. Also it has been a very active EU new member state; it has a large population, so it is a natural place to choose. And they had quite a good historical links in the past, certainly in the 50s and 60s; even before the Chinese opening-up they had good relations.
Do you think the choice of Poland being the strategic partner shows that China decided to switch its focus in the region from Hungary, which was trying to serve as a bridge in the region and which also attracted more than half of all the Chinese investments in region?
China’s strategy is usually to want to have as many good relations as possible, so I don’t think they want to play other states against each other. And I imagine it gets more from economic relations with Poland than it would have gotten from Hungary. I have not heard of Hungary having a huge interest from China, it doesn’t have a high profile. So I think choosing Poland for strategic partnership is just a natural way, nothing particularly deliberate.
How important CEE countries are in terms of common EU foreign policy towards China, when it comes to decision making process within the EU?
CEE should have an equal voice. When it comes to Council vote, each member state has an equal voice, and they have a power of veto. So about the difficult issues, that’s why it is hard for EU to have a single position collectively on difficult issues such as human rights in China, Tibet or Taiwan. These things are very hard for the EU to come up with a consistent position, because some member states, like Malta in particular, are very pro-Chinese government positions, and some are very critical, particularly Czech Republic. So when it had presidency couple of years ago, Czech Republic was very critical about China’s human rights record. But of course, in terms of economic influence, at the end of the day, the bigger states, the bigger economies will have more active involvement and engagement with China, it is logical. I imagine that the dominance of Germany is clear now and Germany’s ability to direct the EU’s overall strategy is very big. But the whole project of EU is that it is at least not excessive, thus the members of CEE and Eastern Europe should have at least some kind of voice and it depends on their ability to convey that point.
What is a preferred platform for CEE when dealing with China? Should CEE countries prefer a direct relation with China or should they work as part of the common EU foreign policy?
When you have foreign policy, usually you want to have kind of everything, you want to achieve all that you can, so there is no reason why collectively the new member states can’t get more from China while being a member of the EU, because when you are thinking about how they negotiate about trade access, the problem for European companies is that they have a very poor trade access to Chinese market, they want more market access. So as the collective bargaining entity, the EU has much more weight than when the member states try to deal with it separately. So if China and the EU are managing to establish a free trade area in the future, that will be a great benefit for the member states. So I think from that point of view you have a balance between what your national interests are and what the advantages of being a part of multilateral organization are giving you. So in theory, you should be able to get the benefit from both.
There are critical voices saying that China is trying to build up a new dividing line in Europe, do you think this is correct?
They are obviously using a lot of their diplomatic tools to get alliances in Eastern Europe and Central Europe to support them at their political positions, which is natural. Then that’s something for EU to try to work against being divided. But at the end of the day, national states have freedom to decide what is in their national interest, so if China is offering them incentives, they may follow them as well. It is a constant problem; Chinese has been able to divide member states for many years, both in Western Europe and Eastern Europe.
How about Chinese motivations, why China is interested in the CEE?
It is a good investment platform; it is easier to invest here probably than it is in Germany or France, especially for some assets. They have been buying some factories, investment vehicles. Politically, they have much more influence here in smaller countries than they would have in bigger countries. Political influence of China in Germany is less than the influence they could have in countries like Slovenia and Croatia, because Germany has other options. Germany is also the only member of the EU which has the trade surplus.
Are Chinese goals in CEE more political than economical, what is the relation between them?
It is hard to divide them; I think it is political and economic. People see that China has some kind of unified strategic objectives. But China is a complex actor, people who make foreign policy in China range across different ministries. I don’t think you can say that China has some kind of overarching strategic objective. But it certainly doesn’t want to be isolated, so it is happy if it has alliances where people are dependable and they are likely to be smaller states that are more reliant on China than bigger states that can sometimes be hard to dictate to.
How about non-EU member states, such as Serbia, which has been described as Chinese traditional partner in the region. What drives Chinese foreign policy towards these countries?
I don’t think China has great interest in Serbia, it has been kind of active in some investment in Serbia, but it is a very small amount. I don’t think that China wants anything except very reliable benign alliances to protect its interests, which are resource security, including food; and also protecting its export market.
Do you see a big difference in Chinese motivation when it comes to EU member states and non-member states?
In theory China has a bigger influence over the member states because it influences them collectively through the EU and also directly. Non-member states are small; they are not the main players that China probably wants to engage the most with. So although it would have friendly relations with the non-member states in Europe area, I don’t think we can overestimate how much China tries to dominate these places. Chinese has put a lot of diplomatic effort into building friendships with these countries and it is often a difficult task. Like what they are doing in Slovenia, there is a lot of misperception about China’s activities and behavior and China has not been very good at explaining that.
What about the future of relations between China and CEE? Will (former Prime Minister) Wen Jiabao’s plan announced in Warsaw in April, 2012 continue under the new Chinese leadership?
I think EU will not like a kind of Eastern European collection to have the separate relations with China, that’s against the spirit of the EU. That meeting in Poland was regarded with suspicions in Brussels, and there’s got to be a sense that while it is good to build up alliances for specific purposes, to try and have a parallel policy with China is profoundly divisive and it is not something which would be in everyone’s benefit in the end. The EU would say that as for trade access and some of the trade disputes, everyone should be standing unified, there shouldn’t be any division, because that is in everyone’s interest to collectively bargain, that’s why they joined the EU. That’s a big challenge for Brussels to say that there must be unity and to have a separate member states’ policies towards China is divisive in the end.
So will the Chinese continue with their policies after the leadership change?
The foreign policies won’t be disrupted, I think they just want to have a benign international environment for their domestic growth; their main challenges are domestic, not external. I think they want a strong relationship with the EU. It would be pragmatic if there would be a sort of free trade area, they would agree to that. They wouldn’t like to see Europeans and Americans to create a free trade area, to which then they couldn’t get access to. So that would be an important development for the next few years.
Do you have any knowledge about how China perceives CEE in general?
I think they perceive it with a benign view, they think the alliances here has been good ones, they think politically the relations are good, they have given a lot of time and attention diplomatically to the smaller countries. They think it is valuable and it gives them a lot in turn and that’s a good thing, and the new member states have a lot of things to develop in. As (former minister of foreign affairs, now state secretary) Yang Jiechi said, China has also been accused of being dominant, sometimes having agendas that are selfish, asymmetrical. If you have good policies, you can deal with that, if you are too passive, there is a possibility that China would become too dominant and you don’t want that. You have to have a balance.
Do you think there is any negative impact of communist legacies and transformation after 1989 in former socialist countries Europe, which obviously chose a different path of development than China did?
I think that China would look at what has happened here as much better than what happened in the Soviet Union which collapsed and then caused terrible problems, whereas Eastern Europe, and Poland particularly; had made the transition successful and balanced. I suppose that they wouldn’t think it is relevant to them but they would say that people have created a good sustainable system here. The Chinese problems are about their own sustainability and the thing is that you don’t want unsustainable practices to be happening here, if China wants to come and invest here.
You mentioned at the conference yesterday that in the future we should expect a drop in Chinese students at the Western universities. Does that apply to universities in CEE, which, obviously, have not attracted such huge numbers of Chinese students yet?
The numbers of Chinese students are so small in CEE, I think that there are six Chinese students at the university, which we were yesterday (University of Ljubljana), so it is nothing. Where you will see some changes, in America, Europe, UK, Australia, the numbers are so big that they are not sustainable. It is the same what happened to Japanese students, they peaked and then fell quite quickly, so we shouldn’t be reliant on that. But I don’t think it is an issue here, even if there is going to be hundred or two hundreds or more Chinese students coming to Slovenia, I think that is sustainable and possible. But they are looking for internationally accredited universities with English language training so that they can study, it is very unlikely that they would use local language.
Are you aware of the level of CEE expertise when it comes to China knowledge? Do you think they are far behind the Western Europe?
It is important for Europeans across the member states to cooperate more with their China knowledge, more communications among universities, more networks, that’s what I do with the ECRAN and try to create a kind of Europe wide network with expertise which is really very important. I don’t know much about level of knowledge in Slovenia, but it seems that there is a tradition of sinology, but it seems it is more about literature, classical based, knowledge of contemporary China is happening, but it’s probably not as much as you get in Germany, Britain, France. We need much more effort going into teaching people about Chinese economy, Chinese politics and society. Obviously many Chinese students who come here, they contribute a lot to that knowledge, but I think we need to have our own trained Chinese experts and I imagine that in this area this is a job that needs to be done. I remember that last night someone said that in the former Yugoslavia all the expertise of China was based in Beograd, so other places didn’t really have oriental departments.. So that all have to be restarted, but it seems to be happening, it seems there is a lot of activity.
There is a very strong memory of 1989 in the Czech Republic and strong anti-communist sentiments, which often regards China as the current ‘evil’ communist country we are supposed to fight with. This is a problem when it comes to studying today’s China and not classical China, as you said.
Czech Republic has got a very strong view and it is distinctive, it is not like some of the other members of this region, the Czech Republic has been always very critical. But I guess it is understandable, because it was the state which had undergone the transformation among the earliest. However, I think that also they are starting to develop more links with China now. China isn’t really kind of a positive or a negative force, I think that kind of approach is really too simplistic. It is very complicated and people have to live with this complexity rather than with simplified things.
Richard Turcsanyi is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Masaryk University and the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politics magazine. Currently, he is a Visiting Fellow at the European Institute for Asian Studies in Brussels.