Dear reader,
 

In this newsletter: China’s position on Ukraine keeps evolving, Russian propaganda takes a heavy hit, Orbán finds himself in a tight spot before elections, and China-Europe railway dreams dissipate.

China is continuing its diplomatic dance on Ukraine. Beijing has slowly shifted its position in the war, presenting itself as a part of the solution rather than an accomplice to the belligerent. Bolstering this position, Beijing has announced humanitarian aid for Ukraine and hinted at a willingness to mediate. President Xi Jinping also met virtually with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron, forwarding an image of a constructive party in pursuit of peace. The EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borell even went so far as to say that China is the only possible actor that could mediate the war.

However, besides the window dressing, it appears not much has changed in the substance of China’s approach. It is still unwilling to call out Russia for the invasion and allocates all blame for the carnage to the US and NATO. While official statements have tried to steer clear from fully adopting Russia’s narrative of the war and insinuations against Ukraine, Beijing has consistently sided with Russia when it served its effort to discredit the West. A clear example is found in the case of Russian disinformation campaigns about US labs in Ukraine working on biological weapons. China has happily echoed this conspiracy in official statements. Here, it builds on the previous efforts to link the US laboratories with the outbreak of COVID-19 and therefore reinforces its prior propaganda.

Moreover, it is questionable if China would be actually willing to step in and mediate the conflict. First of all, it can hardly be seen as a neutral party, as it has consistently shown support for Russian strategic interests in Europe, the symbol of which is the now-infamous February 4 Sino-Russian statement. Moreover, mediation is always a difficult endeavor and could be risky for China if it were to be responsible for its outcome.

  • Europe strikes against Russian propaganda. A Czech private association providing domain administrations, CZ.NIC, decided to block eight websites suspected of spreading pro-Kremlin narratives regarding (not only) the war in Ukraine. These steps were consulted with Czech security agencies, arguing that they represented potential risks to Czech national security. Based on the CZ.NIC’s internal mechanisms, these websites may be blocked for a month, which might be further extended. Neighboring Slovakia, on the other hand, adopted more systematic measures as parliament approved a law allowing the National Security Authority to block websites (until the end of June 2022) endangering the country’s security. This subsequently led to the blocking of one prominent website, Hlavné správy. These measures are part of an unprecedented effort to limit the spread of Russian narratives in the context of the war in Ukraine. For instance, the EU prohibited the functioning of Russia Today and Sputnik, two Russian state-controlled media. Nevertheless, the narratives supporting the Russian war in Ukraine continue circulating on social networks, especially on Facebook. Importantly, Russian narratives are also often featured in Chinese sources, that refrain from using terms like “war” or “invasion”, choosing to frame the news with the Kremlin’s term “special military operations”. Chinese state media also showed video footage showing Ukrainian soldiers capitulating, repeatedly shared news that President Zelensky was fleeing Kyiv, and have given credibility to Russian officials’ statements, including the alleged anti-fascist nature of the operation.
  • Hungary shifts its position on Ukraine and allows NATO troops. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán signed a decree to allow the deployment of NATO forces in the western part of the country. This decree also allows Hungarian airspace to be used for transit and enables shipments of weapons through its territory. The term “transit” is crucial here, as both troops and weapons may not enter Ukraine from Hungary as they need to cross the border with Ukraine in a different NATO country. This allows the Hungarian government to balance between sticking to NATO’s policy and not getting directly involved. Previously, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, argued that permitting transits of weapons to Ukraine could endanger the security of the Hungarian minorities in Ukraine. Despite pro-Russian tendencies of the current government and efforts to deepen economic cooperation with Russia, Hungary condemned the invasion, agreed to adhere to the EU’s sanctions, and opened its borders to refugees. These moves might be motivated by the April parliamentary elections as the war in Ukraine may strengthen the opposition, seeking to capitalize on Orbán’s pro-Russian stance. The Hungarian prime minister is thus in a tight position, endeavoring to react to the war in Ukraine and gain public support, which is currently deeply divided over the responsibility of the conflict, and the majority of Hungarians state that Hungary should refrain from intervening in the conflict. Making it even to the list of Russia’s “Unfriendly Countries”, Orbán is facing a need to redefine his long-held stances shortly prior to the election. 
  • War in Ukraine disrupts China’s Belt and Road plans in Europe. The China-Europe Railway Express (CRE), a key component of China’s BRI, has been impacted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In recent years, rail transport has become a crucial part of the global supply chains, representing an alternative to naval shipments struggling with rising prices and overloaded ports under pressure owing to the disruption caused by the COVID-19. The CRE system comprises a network of rails leading through Central Asia, Russia, and Belarus, entering the EU through Baltic countries and Poland. A small number of trains also pass through Ukraine to Hungary and Slovakia, which have now been suspended or diverted due to the invasion. Based on the information provided by Ukrainian Railways, all rail connections to Russia have been destroyed by Ukrainian forces, thwarting the transport from Russia, including the deliveries from China. Meanwhile, Ukrainian Railways announced its aim to reorient its rail routes to Europe and continue its cooperation with Asian partners without Russian involvement. The major routes have been reported to operate normally, so far, with sanctions imposed by the EU and US, listing also Russian Railways possibly impacting its functioning. Much the same as the situation after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, EU countries will not be able to transport some goods to China via this railway corridor as it crosses Russian territory. Similarly, with the rapidly evolving measures towards Russia, European companies risk both breaching the sanctions and damaging their reputation. This necessity to adapt to the new rules may motivate the companies to prefer sea shipments.

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  • “Currently, the Russian and Chinese outlets active in Poland seem to conduct their information campaigns in parallel rather than in tandem,” writes our Polish analyst Alicja Bachulska for SOAS China Institute (read here).

  • “The war in Ukraine has the most relevance for China’s plans for Taiwan. However, it must still be borne in mind that the geopolitical and geoeconomic position of Ukraine and Taiwan is quite different,” explains our analyst Filip Šebok in his article for our sister project CHOICE (read here).
  • Our project’s Founder and Leader Ivana Karásková sheds more light on the Central European perspectives on the war in Ukraine and explains China’s position in the ChinaTalk podcast (listen here).

  • Matej Šimalčík, our Slovak analyst, discusses the reception of the Belt and Road Initiative in Central and Eastern Europe and changes in opinion towards China in the context of the war in Ukraine in the ChinaTalk podcast (listen here).

MapInfluenCE Project Leader Ivana Karásková will be one of the experts invited for presentation at the European Parliament's Special Committee on Foreign Interference in all Democratic Processes in the European Union (INGE). The INGE meeting will be held on Tuesday 15 March from 9.40 to 12.00. Ivana Karásková will be talking about the confluence between Russian and Chinese narratives targeting Europe.

The meeting will be held in association with the Delegation to the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee (D-RU).

Best regards


Filip Šebok
Project Manager of MapInfluenCE


www.mapinfluence.eu
www.amo.cz

Newsletter editor: Filip Šebok

Contributions from: Filip Šebok, Veronika Blablová

@MapInfluenCE and #MapInfluenCE

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