Brussels is worried, and we should be, too, but for different reasons. The People’s Republic of China is gaining influence in eastern Europe, and it’s doing it with one of my favorite tactics: international trade as a national policy tool.
In Hungary it is hailed as the “Eastward Opening.” Serbian authorities see it as the glue in a “reliable friendship”, while the Polish government describes it as a “tremendous opportunity.” Yet the 16+1, a grouping of 16 central and eastern European countries led by China, receives more caustic reviews in leading EU capitals, with diplomats fearing it could be exploited by Beijing to undermine union rules and take advantage of growing east-west tensions in the pact itself.
The catalyst for the group is China’s ability to finance and build the roads, railways, power stations and other infrastructure that some poorer central and eastern European countries need. But the scope of its operations has spilled over into overtly political and strategic areas, breeding mistrust among some of the western European powers that dominate the EU’s agenda.
The Financial Times piece at the first link is well worth the read, but the quoted paragraphs are the sum of it.
We should be worried, but not because Europe—the EU—is beginning to lose the contest for the hearts and minds of central and eastern Europe to the PRC, even as it’s beginning to lose the contest for the geography to an aggressively acquisitive Russia. We should be worried because we’re not taking advantage of the opportunity the People’s Republic of China’s moves in eastern Europe presents us. This is a contest we cannot lose, were we to enter it at all.
The way we should enter this contest is two-fold, and one of those folds also would serve to counter, and to roll back, the gains being made by that empire-seeking, domineering Russia. One fold is to engage with eastern Europe—all of those 16, but not the +1—economically through international trade. We should be busily pursuing free trade agreements with those 16—and contra President Donald Trump, we should be working toward a regional free trade agreement involving the 16 nations. And Great Britain. True enough, central Europe also is the heart of the EU, and that would complicate trade agreements, but that shouldn’t stop us from pursuing, separately and in parallel, such arrangements with the nations of eastern Europe.
There’s nothing like free market competition to increase the prosperity of the citizens involved, and so the nations involved, and from that, showcasing—again—both the fatal weaknesses of centrally planned economies in contrast with free markets, and the power of individual liberties and responsibilities for each citizen compared to the stultifying “security” of Big Government doing for the citizens, while firmly controlling what Big Government will allow those same citizens to do on their own.
The other fold is a mutual defense arrangement, much like NATO although separate from and in addition to it, with certain nations of eastern Europe. As a first stage in setting this up, the treaty nations should include us, Great Britain, each of the Baltic States, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. This arrangement would profit from a second stage that would include Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. In addition to the ties generated by trade, the mutual defense imperatives would both move toward a strong barrier to Russian expansionism, and it would spur economic development as a happy side effect—to both the nations’ benefit and further to resist PRC inroads.