China’s support for Putin provokes hatred in Eastern Europe

May 05, 2022 06:00
An anti-Russian demonstration outside the Russian embassy in Warsaw, Photo: Reuters

China’s support of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is stirring the hatred of the governments and peoples in Eastern Europe and undoing a decade of patient diplomacy and building economic ties.

Huo Yuzhen, Beijing’s special representative for the China-Central and Eastern Europe Investment Co-operation Fund, has just completed a tour of eight countries in the region – the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia and Poland.

Her mission was to explain Beijing’s position in the war and “refute disinformation and clarify misunderstandings,” said the official Global Times.

“We used the meeting to express again our reservations to current Chinese co-operation with Russia,” said Lenka Da, spokeswoman of the Foreign Ministry of the Czech Republic. “We have already warned that any kind of Chinese support of Russia will hurt its relations with the European Union.”

During his visit to Beijing for the Winter Olympics, Putin signed an agreement with President Xi Jinping that said there was no limit to friendship between the two countries. Since the war started on February 24, Beijing has refused to condemn the invasion, the attacks on civilian targets and the war crimes committed by the Russian military.

State media do not refer to a “war” or “invasion”, but “a special military operation”, the same wording used by Russia.

Mareike Ohlberg, senior fellow in the Asia programme of the German Marshall Fund, said China’s siding with Russia and blaming NATO was absolutely unacceptable for most of Central and Eastern Europe.

“The Chinese government does not seem to understand or does not want to understand that Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is seen as an existential issue for most countries in the region,” she said. “Most of the relationship with countries in the region will continue to deteriorate.”

An editorial in the China Daily last week put the blame for the war on Washington, which was “fanning the flames of conflict. Rather than a negotiated peace, the U.S. and its NATO allies seem more interested in achieving a complete victory in their proxy war against Russia. Providing Ukraine with an endless supply of weapons goes against the world’s hopes for peace.”

For the citizens of Warsaw, Prague and Riga, such language is absurd and insulting. Every day they witness the devastation and death caused by Russian missiles and air attacks and millions of refugees pouring into their countries. They fear that Putin’s aggression may extend to Moldova and other countries in Eastern Europe that used to belong to the Soviet Union and its Eastern bloc. Last week Russia unilaterally cut off the supply of gas to Poland and Bulgaria.

Tamas Matura, from the Corvinus University of Budapest, said that China’s role in the Covid-19 pandemic and the return of the Cold War mentality in East-West relations had triggered substantial changes in the China policies of many Central and Eastern European countries. “Most of them decided to reinforce political and security ties to traditional partners like the EU and US.”

This new animosity is threatening Beijing’s landmark policy in the region, the China-CEEC co-operation mechanism set up in 2012. Since then, trade between China and CEEC members has increased 85 per cent, with an annual average growth of eight per cent, more than double China’s trade growth with the entire EU.

Matura said that most countries in the CEEC complained about the lack of tangible economic results and slow progress in building economic ties with China.

Among them, most favourable to China are Hungary and Serbia. In March, an inauguration ceremony was held for the Belgrade-Novi Sad section of the Belgrade-Budapest railway, a flagship designed to show co-operation between China and the CEEC.

In April, six PLA Y-20 transport planes flew to Serbia to deliver sophisticated missile systems which the country had bought from China. The Foreign Ministry in Beijing said that the weapons were for Serbia only and would not be used elsewhere.

The longer the war goes on, the worse it will be for Chinese companies who want to avoid involvement in the conflict and risk Western sanctions. Last week, drone maker DJI Technology said it would temporarily suspend all business activities in Russia and Ukraine.

It was the first mainland technology company to halt Russian operations since the war began. Reports have said that the Russian military is using DJI drones in its operations in Ukraine. “Our products are designed to improve people’s lives and for civilian use only,” the company said.

The U.S. State Department has put the number of Russian dead in the war so far at more than 10,000. Ukrainian officials put the figure at more than 17,000. Russia is recruiting foreigners, including Syrians and Ethiopians, to send to the front line.

It has also taken huge losses in tanks, aircraft and other equipment. This makes it more likely it will need foreign material to compensate for its losses – with China a major potential supplier.

Policy makers in Beijing may ask themselves if it is worth paying the rising cost of supporting Putin. Many in Eastern Europe compare him to Adolf Hitler. Is this the company China’s leaders want to keep?

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.