Dear reader,

the impact of the newly inaugurated Biden administration on Central Europe, the ongoing drama of the China-EU investment agreement, the reactions of Central European countries to the Navalny saga and the upcoming summit of the 17+1 format gathering China and CEE countries are all drawing MapInfluenCE’s focus for your biweekly briefing.

Despite the tumultuous transition period, Joe Biden assumed the post of the 46th President of the United States on January 20. While the Biden administration will be surely preoccupied with domestic affairs, there is no shortage of foreign policy challenges facing the Democratic President. Although China will continue to be the number one priority, Biden's Russia policy also merits close attention. In both cases, it will figure prominently in the ties between the US and Central European countries, as explored by MapInfluenCE Russia coordinator Pavel Havlíček

The focus on limiting Chinese influence in Central Europe and beyond will survive the change of administrations. However, we might see less heavy-handed tactics in this respect or bombastic initiatives like the “the Clean Network”. Most importantly, the countries in the region are themselves long past the honeymoon period with China, so Washington will not have a hard time convincing them to distance themselves from Beijing, with the clear exception of Hungary. 

On the Russia front, the Biden administration is going to face a dilemma of balancing between pursuing democracy and human rights agenda, versus selectively engaging with Russia on several issues of mutual interest, such as nuclear non-proliferation and extension of the New START treaty  or green agenda. The first signs suggest that the new Biden team will assume a strong stance against both domestic repression and Russia's aggressive foreign policy and hybrid operations in the world. 

Ultimately, Biden will mostly find willing partners in Central Europe on geopolitical issues. We might instead expect continued frictions with Germany, whose mercantilist approach to ties with China and Russia is exemplified by the recent conclusion of CAI negotiations or the continued push for the construction of the Nord Stream 2 project. Still, the most problematic issues between the new Biden administration and Central European countries may not touch upon the foreign policy orientation but on the rule of law, democracy and civil society support. On these issues, the Biden administration is expected to be much more forceful vis-à-vis Hungary and Poland than President Trump, surely creating some friction.

  • The alleged Trojan horse has seen better times. Representatives of the 17 nations of Central and Eastern Europe are set to reconvene with China on February 9 for an online summit of the 17+1 format, as first confirmed by our sister project CHOICE. While the last year’s summit that was to be held in Beijing was canceled mainly due to the pandemic, it also symbolically showed that the cooperation is long past its prime. Most of the participating countries have reassessed the expectations from economic cooperation with China and have also moved to align with the US pressure on Beijing, most saliently on the issue of 5G security. Now, China’s Xi, who will be hosting the summit for the first time, seems to be hoping to inject some new vigor into the stagnant cooperation, riding on the wave of the CAI deal closed in late December. This is especially important for China as the Biden administration comes to power in Washington. However, China still does not have much to show in terms of practical results of the cooperation, and CEE countries will not be convinced by more empty promises. We can expect the summit to mainly revolve around symbolic statements, with China focusing on the joint efforts to fight the pandemic. Moreover, China will probably play its usual game and hold up cooperation with Hungary and Serbia as representative of the general state of play for China in the region. This is, of course, pure window dressing, that will not change the reality of growing divergence between CEE and China.   

  • Warsaw again voices its displeasure with CAI. After comments that the EU should have communicated the CAI issue with the US, Polish FM Zbigniew Rau again criticized the negotiated investment treaty between Brussels and Beijing. In an open interview, Rau said that the Commission’s mandate to negotiate with Beijing should have been renewed, as it was no longer valid. According to the Polish FM, the deal was rushed by the German presidency with “procedural tricks” and “for media fireworks”, avoiding a necessary debate, thus undermining EU unity and transatlantic ties. While Rau’s comments ring true, it seems that some of the criticism levied against CAI is mostly performative, whereas no efforts were made to stop the deal when it mattered. Nevertheless, CAI may still face significant hurdles in the European Parliament, where frustration is mounting as China steps up oppression against democratic forces in Hong Kong. On January 22, MEPs overwhelmingly passed a resolution, saying that the EU risks losing its credibility as a global human rights actor for not using the CAI negotiations as a leverage on Hong Kong and human rights issues.     

  • The Navalny case brings more troubles for EU-Russia relations. With the exception of Hungary, which traditionally remains ambivalent on issues concerning Russia, the V3 positions on detaining Navalny and his sentence to 30-day-prison-term were rather firm and ambitious. The three countries voiced their concern and solidarity, and advocated in favor of additional EU measures to respond to Russia's increased domestic repression and violations of human rights and democratic values. The Navalny case stimulated an EU declaration that, also thanks to the pressure of Central and Eastern European countries, left the possibility of new sanctions open. However, despite the draconian reaction to country-wide protests stirred by Navalny's new revelations of Putin's corruption, no sanctions were agreed upon at the Monday's meeting of EU foreign ministers. Borrell is set to discuss the release of Navalny and thousands of demonstrators during his upcoming February visit to Russia, he did not respond to calls by Poland and others to seek a meeting with Navalny. In his recent op-ed for Euractiv, Pavel Havlíček presents the case for rethinking the West's strategy towards Russia considering the recent developments.

  • MapInfluenCE analyst Matej Šimalčík discussed how China and Russia will use the storming of the US Congress to boost their own propaganda and long-term antidemocratic narratives for Slovak daily SME (read here).

  • MapInfluenCE analyst Tamas Matura commented on the plans of Chinese Fudan University to open its campus in Budapest for Financial Times. “In western Europe, they [Fudan] may face political turmoil or scrutiny, but in Hungary, they don’t have to be afraid of anything” (read here).

  • In Hungarian media Merce, Tamas Matura presented the results of a large-scale public opinion research on China’s image in Hungary, revealing that the political enthusiasm of Hungary’s government for close ties with Beijing does not translate into Hungarian’s views of China (read here).

  • Slovakia and Czechia cosigned a joint statement of the Media Freedom Coalition expressing concerns over China’s efforts to further curtail media freedom in the country. This comes on the heels of the conviction of citizen journalist Zhang Zhan for her reporting from Wuhan (read here).

  • Polish Supreme Court has overruled the decision to extradite a Falun Gong practicioner to China. The China-born Swedish national Li Zhihui was detained at the Warsaw airport based on an Interpol notice two years ago (read here).

Telling China’s story well – Beijing’s attempts to reign into media in Africa and Europe (January 28, 2 PM)

The issue of how pro-China narratives are created and how they shape the perception of China in Central Europe has been one of the focus issues of the MapInfluenCE project from the very beginning. Now, as Beijing‘s efforts to “tell China’s story well” intensify, the issue is getting more and more attention all across the globe. To follow the latest developments, tune in for an upcoming debate where MapInfluenCE project leader Ivana Karásková will be joining other top experts to discuss how China is shaping the media environment in Europe and Africa, organized by MERICS. 

Register for the event here!

Best regards

Filip Šebok
Project Manager of MapInfluenCE

Newsletter editor: Filip Šebok

Contributions from: Pavel Havlíček

@MapInfluenCE and #MapInfluenCE






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