Thursday, November 19, 2009

China is coming


Looking eastwards, even further

Nov 19th 2009

Could China fill a power vacuum in eastern Europe?

AS THE countries of eastern Europe bump nervously between a near-neutralist Germany, a revisionist Russia and an absent-minded America, the search is on for a powerful outsider, with strong interests in the region, willing to put all kinds of clout behind the smaller countries’ sovereignty and independence.

Once, Britain filled that role. The Royal Navy helped the Baltic states win their independence after the first world war. Britain also ruled the southern part of Georgia as a protectorate from 1918 to 1920 and sent a daring expedition to Baku to push back the Bolshevik presence there. But Britain’s imperial star, with the shame and glory that it brought, has waned. Who can fill the gap?

Maybe China. It has plenty of reasons to develop a presence in eastern Europe, ranging from trade to geopolitics. It has expressed interest in buying Estonian Air (currently up for sale by SAS, its owner). That would give China a “domestic” European Union airline and access to a low-cost airport. Or imagine that China lends Ukraine some money to pay next year’s gas bill; perhaps in exchange for a favourable privatisation of some asset long-coveted by the Kremlin.

The result of such moves would be to place a conspicuous foot in Russia’s front yard. From a Chinese point of view, that is potentially provocative, but also perhaps quite satisfying. It would also have other benefits. Beijing would be glad to have some more allies inside the EU or in its waiting room, in addition to the ones it already has, such as Cyprus. A NATO country would be a bonus. Eastern Europe could also be an attractive low-cost manufacturing base to increase market share inside the EU, dodging protectionist pressures, higher transport costs and other impediments to feeding the European desire for cheap goods directly from China itself.

A rising Chinese presence would put eastern Europe back on the map. But flirting always brings the risk of seduction. Russia may be a nuisance now, but it is declining. Fending it off by giving a rising China a big bridgehead in Europe could look a dangerous mistake in 20 years time.

Another problem is values. Some ex-captive nations (Czechs and Lithuanians particularly) feel sincere outrage about the plight of occupied Tibet. The Dalai Lama (pictured above) is an honoured visitor, not a pariah as he seems to be in Washington, DC under Barack Obama’s administration. Reluctance to cosy up to communists of any stripe is still a reflex in most of the region. When slave labour camps are part of your family history, you may feel a bit queasy about seeking friendship with a country whose system of prison labour looks unpleasantly similar to the Soviet gulag. Two countries—Latvia and Macedonia—came close to establishing full diplomatic relations with Taiwan (“Free China” in cold-war terms) in the 1990s. “Red China” wants to dominate the world. Why help?

On the other hand, worries about principles prove no barrier to economic and security ties where countries like Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan are concerned. If warmer relations with China enable the ex-communist countries of Europe to brace themselves better against a Russo-German squeeze, many may argue that this is a price worth paying.

A final argument is the idea that eastern Europe could help China change. Russia’s chaos and missed opportunities over the past 20 years are seen as a warning by Chinese policymakers and opinion-formers. They have paid less attention to the success stories. Demonstrating that a multi-party system and the rule of law can take root after decades of one-party dictatorship is a potentially powerful message.

1 comment:

TT said...

I just finished you book and I'm gladly surprised that at least one person in West understands Russia. In my opinion it should be compulsory material for European leaders:) Or maybe they know all of it, just do not care.

But my question is about the quote from the "China is coming" article: "Russia may be a nuisance now, but it is declining" It's nice to hear but when one looks at "North Stream" and "South Stream" it rather looks like Russia has Europe in energy stranglehold for a long time?