China in Eurasia – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
Welcome back to the China In Eurasia Briefing, an RFE / RL newsletter tracing China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.
Great news! The China In Eurasia newsletter will now be released twice a month. Expect to see it in your inbox on the first and third Wednesday of every month. I’m RFE / RL correspondent Reid Standish and this is what I am right now.
China occupies a central place in Europe
Debt issues and transparency issues have put Beijing’s plans across Europe in the spotlight this month. A controversial Beijing-funded motorway project in Montenegro and a $ 1.5 billion loan to build a Chinese university in Hungary sounded alarm bells in Brussels as both companies indicated growing influence within the Union European Union and on its doorstep.
Find the perspective: Hungary signed an agreement with the prestigious Fudan University in Shanghai at the end of April that would open a campus in Budapest by 2024.
Leaked documents show the campus will cost $ 1.8 billion and the Hungarian government will take out a Chinese loan of $ 1.5 billion to cover most of the cost.
The plans are controversial for a host of reasons, as I reported this week with my colleague Akos Keller-Alant from RFE / RL’s Hungarian service.
Opposition politicians in Hungary have raised concerns about potential debt problems and Hungarian taxpayers footing the bill for a private Chinese university, stressing that the proposed project will cost more than what the government annually spends on higher education nationwide.
Many details around the project and the Chinese loan are also hidden, which Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony says is one of the reasons he is trying to prevent construction of the campus.
Meanwhile, Montenegro asked the EU in April to help it pay off its $ 1 billion debt to China for a still unfinished highway to Serbia, which I explored in an article with Asja. Hafner, Gjeraqina Tuhina and Slavica Brajovic from RFE. / Balkan Service of RL.
The EU has rejected those calls to help repay the loan, which was signed by the previous government, leaving the cash-strapped Balkan country in dire straits as its first debt repayments were due this summer.
Why is this important: Both cases point to growing concern in Brussels (and Washington) about Chinese lending practices and debt, which could open the door to increased political and economic influence from Beijing.
But the examples also highlight the role of Chinese cash in domestic politics.
In Hungary, China is a useful card for Prime Minister Viktor Orban to play in his standoff with the EU. His close relationship with Beijing also gave him cover as the country’s democratic institutions eroded under his leadership.
- My colleague Predrag Tomovic from the Balkan service of RFE / RL looked at the details of the contract Montenegro signed with the Export-Import Bank of China, focusing on the clause that could allow the bank to seize assets if the government fails to repay its debt.
- For more context on what drives the links between Beijing and Budapest, this quote from my interview with Tamas Matura, assistant professor at Corvinus University in Budapest, is enlightening: “None of these ideas come from China. Hungarian side., but, of course, Beijing is happy to accompany them. “
- Hungarian RFE / RL service speak with Local expert Gyorgy Tilesch on security issues related to hosting Fudan University in Budapest, which has known ties to Chinese intelligence.
Experts’ corner: Europe between Beijing and Washington
Readers asked, “Is Europe emerging as the new dividing line between China and the United States?”
“Europe sees itself as a moderating force in the growing competition between the United States and China. For economic and political reasons, it rejects the notion of a zero-sum world and refuses to choose sides. Walking this geopolitical tightrope will be China can accommodate an unaligned Europe, but American politicians will be hard pressed to swallow. “- Noah Barkin, author of the Watching China In Europe newsletter of the German Marshall Fund and editor-in-chief of the China division of Rhodium Group
Have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org and I’ll get a response from leading experts and decision makers.
Three more Eurasian stories
1. Play the long game
Beijing is bracing for the fallout from US President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, where China is seeking more influence but is reluctant to get too involved in the country’s chaos.
Evolving interests: China shares a 76-kilometer border with Afghanistan and has preferred a low-key approach to its volatile neighbor, but that is slowly changing, on which I wrote with my colleague Ajmal Aand from Radio Free Afghanistan of RFE / RL.
Beijing’s main concern is for Afghanistan to become a haven for Uyghur radicals and other fundamentalists angered by Beijing’s repressive policy towards ethnic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang to launch a cross-border insurgency.
China has also been drawn to Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, with Chinese companies announcing multibillion-dollar investments in copper mining and oil exploration, though continued instability has left those companies on hold. .
Reality check: China will seek to step up diplomatic efforts and protect its interests, but the country is unwilling to fill the vacuum left by the United States in Afghanistan.
2. Xinjiang continues to spread across Eurasia
The fallout from China’s ongoing internment of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities in its western region of Xinjiang continues to reverberate throughout Central Asia and beyond.
Local: As a Kazakh service of RFE / RL reported, three ethnic Kazakhs who sought asylum in Kazakhstan after illegally crossing the Xinjiang border are asking the government for permission to leave the country.
Despite being granted temporary asylum, none of the three are able to legally work in the country and have no path to citizenship or permanent residence under the law. Kazakh. Faced with these difficulties, they urge the Kazakh government to allow them to leave for a third country.
Meanwhile, Raqyzhan Zeinolla, a 58-year-old naturalized Kazakh citizen, was released in April after being jailed in China for 17 years. Zeinolla was arrested in 2004 during a visit to Xinjiang and accused of being a spy, where he later spent time in prison and in a so-called “re-education camp”.
The Global: Human Rights Watch monitoring group declared in April that the Chinese government commits crimes against humanity against Uyghurs and other groups in Xinjiang.
The Rand Corporation also published a new study where the authors examined satellite photos of Xinjiang to show the massive expansion of detention centers in the region.
3. Decipher the belt and the road
China is the world’s largest official creditor, but many basic facts about Beijing’s foreign loans are still unknown.
In the hope of lifting the curtain on these practices, I interviewed Scott Morris, one of the authors of a recent Center for Global Development study that conducted a unique analysis of 100 Chinese contracts in 24 countries. in development. in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America.
Main points to remember: The study reveals that Chinese contracts have a host of unique characteristics that are unusual even in the troubled world of international lending.
Heavy reliance on secrecy is common among Chinese contracts, while many agreements contain clauses that prevent collective debt restructuring and allow Beijing to write off debt or speed up repayments, which Morris said. could potentially influence the policies of debtor countries.
Despite the restrictive nature of the agreements, Morris rejects so-called “debt trap diplomacy,” the idea that Beijing is deliberately trying to borrow countries in order to increase its influence over them.
Instead, he says that after analyzing the contracts, it is clear that “Chinese entities issue loans with the full intention of getting their money back.”
Across the supercontinent
It’s Chinatown: A Tajik town bulldozed 30 houses on a scenic riverbank for a massive China-funded project that included 1,200 apartments, a school, a parking lot and various stores.
My colleague Farangis Najibullah examined how, six years later, 300 evicted people are still waiting for promised housing.
In front of the line: The Ukrainian service of RFE / RL is investigate how Chinese citizens living in Ukraine have been vaccinated en masse against COVID-19, as the rest of the country’s deployment continues to progress slowly.
Sinopharm is coming: North Macedonia’s struggling vaccination program has received a boost with the arrival of 200,000 doses of Chinese Sinopharm vaccine, RFE / RL’s Balkan service reported.
About 500,000 doses of Sinovac, another Chinese vaccine, are expected to arrive later this month.
Perception gap: Despite being heavily spent by the EU, a majority of Serbs believe China is the biggest provider of aid to Serbia to fight the pandemic – although Iva Martinovic of RFE’s Balkan service / RL reports that this is changing.
According to a recent study, 56.4% of Serbs believe China is the top donor, down from 75% who thought so at the start of the pandemic last year.
One thing to watch out for
How to tackle the challenges posed by China was one of the top priorities of the May 4 meeting of G7 ministers in London. Western officials say they are not looking to contain China, but rather to compete with it.
Ahead of the G7 summit scheduled for next month, expect discussions to resume around Western alternatives to China’s Belt and Road Initiative. The United States, European Union, Japan and India are already discussing creating alternatives to Beijing’s infrastructure project and Biden has would have requested that it be placed on the summit’s agenda.
That’s all about me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments or advice you may have.
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