Beijing’s growing influence in Europe is inciting fears of a Chinese “takeover” of the region through divide and conquer tactics. China is extending financial support to the economically weaker Central and Eastern European (CEE) nations in exchange for their support in EU decisions. Many fear this will eventually rupture the unity of Europe.
Weakening EU unity
China’s influence on CEE nations started in 2011 in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Hungary, which was then struggling with a potential debt crisis, approached China for financial support. Beijing, sensing that it could use the opportunity to start meddling in Europe, extended its hand to Hungary. This eventually led to the establishment of the “16+1” group, a conglomeration of 16 CEE countries and China, with Beijing promising investments and cheap loans.
In 2017, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences opened a branch in Budapest, the China-CEE Institute. “Its aim is to study Eastern European perceptions of the BRI [Belt and Road Initiate] and 16+1… The China-CEE Institute aims to encourage scholars and researchers in CEE countries to carry out joint research and field studies, organize seminars and lecture series, hold training programs for younger students, produce publications, and so on,” according to the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace.
China has committed to developing the Budapest-Belgrade railway link and has also invested in projects in Southern and Eastern Europe. Though the investments have been few, Beijing has managed to win several CEE countries to their side. This was evident last year when Hungary categorically refused to sign an EU joint letter that denounced the torture of lawyers in China. Later in July, Hungary, together with Greece, prevented the EU from referencing Beijing in a statement that highlighted the illegality of China’s claim over the South China Sea.
Political experts warn that such incidents should not be taken lightly and are a sign that China is slowly getting control over the European Union’s decision making. This obviously has huge implications for international human rights as EU nations supporting China can now block the European Union from making negative statements about China, allowing the communist regime to continue with its repressive policies.
“The problem isn’t that China has a strategy. It’s that we don’t have one… If we can’t succeed in developing our own strategy with China, then China will succeed in dividing Europe,” Sigmar Gabriel, German Foreign Minister, said to Handelsblatt Today.
Chinese tech takeover
Concerns about China’s attempt to dominate Europe in technology are also strong. The issue became a hot topic after Chinese appliance manufacturer Midea acquired KUKA in 2016 for US$5.3 billion. KUKA is a German company famous for robotics technology. The company was Germany’s poster child for innovation until the Chinese takeover.
After acquiring KUKA, Midea went on to remove the company’s CEO despite giving assurances against such actions. The Chinese company now has complete control over all the cutting-edge robotics technologies developed by KUKA, effectively depriving Germany’s local technology sector of benefitting from their advancements. Industries in Germany are also worried about the Chinese acquisition of several middle-sized businesses that might one day become their competitors.
To counter China’s takeover of European tech industries, the EU has proposed to implement a screening mechanism that will prevent hostile foreign direct investments, especially in critical sectors like health, aerospace, food supply, media, and so on.