Even if left out of official documents, the threat of Chinese Communist Party will loom large at the upcomingSummit for Democracy, hosted by President Joe Biden. With the right leadership, the summit is an opportunity to forge a new coalition of the willing, made up of countries ready to hold China’s regime to account and to address their own vulnerabilities to Chinese influence. The post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, with their experiences of totalitarianism and existential attachments to the transatlantic partnership, should be the administration’s natural interlocutors.
For the past decade, China has tried to make inroads in the region with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the “17+1” summits with Central and Eastern European heads of government and the Chinese premier. As of late, however, the tide has started to turn. Despite being chaired by Xi Jinping himself, the most recent summit, held online in February, yielded no tangible results—not even an indication of a future meeting. In May, Lithuania left the “17+1” format altogether. Effective diplomacy by the United States can accelerate these trends, helping to shift the European consensus on China.
The main reason for changing European attitudes toward Beijing is China’s failure to deliver on is promises. Deeper ties with China were advertised as a prelude to Chinese investment in infrastructure, as well as advanced and green technologies. But in reality, Chinese investment has been modest and declined in volume in recent years. It has also concentrated on projects that generate relatively little economic value, such as the BRI-funded railway between Belgrade and Budapest. While that link, which would improve transport options between the Chinese-owned Greek port of Piraeus and EU markets, might make sense to China and possibly for the Western Balkans, it will hardly make a difference for most of the post-communist EU member states, which suffer no shortage of infrastructure-oriented funds from Brussels. (The two former-Yugoslav EU members, Croatia and Slovenia, might actually suffer from upgraded transportation routes bypassing their territories.)
Beijing’s unimpressive pattern of foreign direct investment, taken together with its ham-fisted COVID-19 diplomacy and its propensity to lash out against all criticism (for a recent example, consider this Holocaust-themed tweet targeting Lithuania), leaves little question as to why Central and Eastern European countries have started to look askance at China. A parliamentary delegation from the Baltic states is currently on a visit to Taiwan, and one of its Estonian members suggested that the time has come to afford Taiwan full diplomatic recognition.
The visit comes just 15 months after a high-profile trip to Taiwan by Speaker of the Senate of the Czech Republic Miloš Vystrčil, along with a sizeable delegation of Czech businesspeople. The symbolism of Vystrčil’s visit, together with the powerful speech he gave to the parliament in Taipei, led to a lot of huffing and puffing from Beijing. But it also revealed that for all the communist regime’s might, it has very little leverage over individual European countries. Prague suffered no real consequences for its moral stand, and last month, centrist and center-right parties in Czechia formed a new governing coalition that portends to be the most hawkish on both China and Russia in the country’s history, placing its policy closer to those of the Baltic states than some of its fence-sitting neighbors.
The confidence and commitment to democratic values expressed in the Baltics and Czechia are precisely what the Biden administration should praise and reward through the Summit for Democracy. Simultaneously, the Summit can be a signal that post-communist countries whose very survival relies on American security guarantees cannot also be vehicles for Chinese influence in Europe.
Greece has provided an unfortunate example of deepening economic links to China under its current reformist government. Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has a reputation as a responsible leader, and with diplomatic help, he may come to share the new European opinion about the true nature of Chinese largesse.
Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, not invited to the Summit, is a tougher case. An eager BRI member, the current government in Budapest has thwarted many European initiatives to hold China to account. His government’s histrionic rhetoric about possible U.S. interference in next year’s general election, its ongoing battle with the EU institutions, and its soft spot for Beijing present the Hungarian public with a stark choice: The country can either become a full-fledged member of the community of Western democracies, or a Chinese client state akin to the dysfunctional post-Soviet and ex-Yugoslav countries to its southeast.
The Summit for Democracy provides an opportunity to valorize good behavior by Washington’s Central and Eastern European allies. For the United States, the full backing of “new Europe” in its effort to contain China is certainly not enough. But it has the potential to be the beginning of a new values-based coalition, without which there’s little hope of defeating Beijing’s totalitarianism.