The last few weeks have seen a rapid flurry of activity on the international stage between the West and China. China began the secret trial of the two Canadian citizens being held in response to Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s arrest on a United States extradition order. Canada and various Western countries responded by sending their diplomatic representatives to the trials in a symbolic, but ultimately futile attempt to gain access to the two Canadian citizens. In even bigger news, the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union announced sanctions on various entities in the Chinese province of Xinjiang that are reportedly connected to the human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing that is going on in the region. China rapidly fired back with its own set of sanctions, except it chose to include elected representatives of the aforementioned countries, including the Political and Security Committee of the Council of the European Union and the Subcommittee on Human Rights of the European Parliament. It seems that the tit-for-tat sanctions war has begun, and many are forecasting the advent of a new Cold War between the West and China.
Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó publicly criticized the European Union for sanctioning China, despite Hungary initially voting yes to the sanctions. Additionally, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe made a trip to Hungary to meet with President Áder and other officials just a few days after the sanctions were announced. Of course, meetings such as this take months to plan and execute, but it certainly does not look too rosy from an American perspective.
Vaccine diplomacy is also on the rise, with China exporting millions of doses around the world to various developed and developing nations. It has garnered some results, with Hungary and Serbia publicly thanking China for delivering the vaccines, while adopting the narrative that the EU’s vaccination strategy has failed.
Russia is also conducting its own vaccine diplomacy, and in some ways has seen even more success than China. The Sputnik V vaccine is being considered by an increasing number of European countries (in large part due to its reported 90%+ effectiveness) and may even be licensed for production in Europe. What is slightly paradoxical about the Russian situation is that the country has not even vaccinated 5% of its own population, yet Russia is sending hundreds of thousands of vaccines abroad. While this may be, in large part, due to the Russian people’s skepticism regarding the vaccine, (even President Vladimir Putin chose to get vaccinated off camera), it may also reflect Russia’s desire to place its foreign policy interests over the health of its own citizens. It would not be the first time that Russia has done so.
Hungary seems to have become China’s newest and best friend in Europe. In an article by the pro-Beijing Global Times, Hungary is the only country mentioned expressing doubts regarding the EU’s “unfair” treatment of China. A few weeks before that, Prime Minister Orbán attended the 17+1 conference with Chinese Premier Xi Jinping and expressed his thanks and support towards the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.
Hungarian politicians like to emphasize that our relationship with China (and Russia) is one based on practicality and realistic expectations, cold-hearted economic calculus and export opportunities. These arguments make sense when the conversation is about trade, but the reasoning becomes shaky when it comes to massive Chinese investments that have the potential to morph into national security risks.
The most obvious example is the 85% Chinese financing of the Hungarian portion of the Budapest-Belgrade railway, one of the largest infrastructure investments ever made by any Hungarian government. The expected terminus of this railway is the Chinese-owned port of Piraeus in Greece, so the project ultimately serves Chinese economic and strategic interests as well.
And let us hope that Hungary never walks into the Chinese debt-trap that has befallen many countries around the world who have chosen to build critical infrastructure with Chinese loans.
Then there is the Huawei research facility. This past October, it was announced that a new research center would be opened by the Chinese state-owned tech giant in Budapest. It is unclear why Hungary decided to go through with this at a time when most other European countries are ridding their telecommunications infrastructure of this company (in large part due to U.S. pressure).
Hungary does have a unique relationship with China, or rather, the Chinese people. In the 1990s, due to a change in visa laws, Hungary became the first European country to allow Chinese citizens visa-free travel and easy immigration. This is one of the main reasons why the Chinese population of Hungary is estimated at around 50,000 strong, with 30,000 living in Budapest.
Chinese people make up the largest non-European immigrant population in Hungary, therefore, it makes sense that the two countries have a basis for a cultural relationship.
But we’re talking about a regime that places its ethnic minorities in concentration camps, and the Xinjiang situation is not a new phenomenon. China has stifled any and all attempts by Tibetans towards autonomy or independence and has colonized the region with ethnic Han people.
For a country like Hungary, which considers national minority rights to be paramount, the positive relationship with China is paradoxical.
How can we call out the EU for its inaction regarding the Minority SafePack Citizens’ Initiative, when we are the most pro-China voice in the EU?
In the featured photo PM Viktor Orbán with Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China. Photo by Balázs Szecsődi/PM’s Press Office