Clash of Mask Diplomacies? The COVID-19 and Changing Perceptions of China and Taiwan in Central and Eastern Europe

Written by Tamás Peragovics and Ágnes Szunomár.

Image credit: China and Hungary by TeaMeister/Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

It has become a truism that China’s mask diplomacy seeks to enhance the country’s global standing in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. By exporting medical aid and equipment, the Beijing Government rushes to the rescue of countries still struggling to contain the virus. Positioning itself as saviour rather than villain, China’s motivation is to cultivate a global aura of blissful ignorance with regards to the outbreak’s early mismanagement, including the silencing of Chinese whistle-blowers who emphasized contagion risks and tried to warn of the severity of the new pathogen. To help whitewash its own culpability, China encourages countries that receive its support to publicize their appreciation of the Beijing Government.

Taiwan is likewise jockeying for more international prestige, but with a clear head start over China. Unlike Beijing, Taipei bears no responsibility for bringing about the current pandemic, and the medical equipment it exports to afflicted countries seems to be of a much better quality. Bolstered by an outstanding performance in containing the virus, the Taipei Government launched the “Taiwan can help” campaign and donated millions of masks in April and May around the globe. Its humanitarian assistance is likely to translate into some improvement in global standing, particularly as a liberal democracy that successfully tackled a public health crisis without large-scale authoritarian restrictions across society. In a tweet in April 2020, EC President Ursula von der Leyen thanked Taiwan for its 5.6-million mask donation, an explicit show of support rarely seen from the European Union.

As always, Taiwan’s international ambitions are closely watched and checked by China. Though Taipei may be getting ahead of Beijing in terms of public approval, this kind of support is inconsequential for seeking more visibility and recognition within international institutions. In May 2020, Taipei withdrew its bid for observer status in the World Health Assembly after the Government refused to submit to the ‘One China’ principle, a key condition put forward by Beijing. This state of affairs is unlikely to change for the better. As Washington pulls out of the WHO, it creates a financial gap and leaves a vacuum of influence in its wake, both of which can be filled by China.

Although European countries abide by the “One China policy,” not all of them are convinced by China’s mask diplomacy. In Europe, many recipients, from Spain and the Netherlands to Norway and Czechia, accept Chinese medical assistance. Much of this has been reported to include faulty or substandard equipment, but they are wary of becoming overly indebted towards what EU High Representative Josep Borrell called China’s “politics of generosity.” Other European countries showed their gratitude more modestly, as they remain suspicious that Beijing’s mask diplomacy aims to entrap supporters in a new discourse of responsible Chinese leadership. To make sure adherents follow this narrative, Chinese foreign policy has recently taken an assertive turn, dispatching wolf warrior diplomats to censure more and more aggressively what can and cannot be said about China.

Individual countries within Europe are aware that their acceptance of Taiwanese support may provoke a backlash from China, and yet many of them are willing to take the risk. Relations between China and Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) are expanding within the 17+1 platform, primarily in the economic and societal domains, but the region remained rather resilient in terms of its external affairs. Historically, geographically, and politically bound to Europe and highly dependent on the European Union in trade and investment, the CEE region does not have a common position on China. Some countries have reservations about a growing Chinese presence, but others are more welcoming in the hope of economic opportunities. As the CEE countries differ in their respective foreign policy towards China, this diversity is also reflected in their approach to Taiwan.

For instance, despite its small size and limited influence in global affairs, the Czech Republic has been exceptional in siding with Taiwan despite growing Chinese pressure. Although the Czech political spectrum is not unanimous in favouring Taiwan, the self-ruled island is seen by many as a symbol reflecting the Czech Republic’s own historical experience and struggle. Czech politicians are building on this sympathy and draws closer to Taipei; all the while Czechia’s ties to Beijing are becoming tense as a result. In early June, a Czech opposition party pushed for a resolution to thank Taiwan for its medical supplies. Though rejected, the proposition generated a heated debate, not the first one in Czech history, over foreign policy towards China and Taiwan. Shortly thereafter, the speaker of the senate announced a planned visit to Taiwan in early August to advance cooperation between Taiwan and Czechia “in economic, technological, medical, tourism, and cultural areas” Beijing promised to retaliate if the visit takes place. However, its options for punishment are somewhat limited. China’s economic footprint remains small in Czechia, and while the suspension of Chinese tourism has been discussed, the Covid-19 pandemic is gradually making this threat irrelevant.

Like Czechia, Lithuania is also experiencing a slight but tangible shift in foreign policy towards Taiwan. The Baltic state, whose intelligence authorities identified Chinese espionage as a threat to national security this February, is not a newcomer to China-related challenges, having ventured into sensitive issues like China’s human rights situation, and China’s treatment of Tibet, Xinjiang and Hongkong in the past. In May, Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius openly supported Taiwan’s observer status in the WHO. It came after an open letter to the Lithuanian President, signed by over 200 Lithuanian politicians and public actors, called for supporting Taiwan’s independence and accession to the WHO. The President refused to back the initiative, but the letter itself was considered by the Chinese ambassador to Lithuania an overt provocation against the ‘One China’ principle. As Lithuania’s economic ties to China are among the weakest in Europe, and with less fear of pushback from Beijing, Vilnius is clearly more willing to experiment with the limits of its China policy.

Notwithstanding the Czech and Lithuanian examples, the Beijing Government also has its most enthusiastic European cheerleaders in the CEE region. Amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić scorned the EU for its lack of solidarity and praised China’s support and President Xi Jinping as his brother on massive billboards across Belgrade. Similarly, Hungarian Government officials criticized the EU’s assistance and lauded Beijing’s help instead. In a regional comparison, the Chinese investments hosted by Hungary and Serbia are outstanding, and both countries are politically committed to China and support it internationally. These amicable ties offer a good example of the “win-win” concept much vaunted in Chinese foreign policy discourse. The strongly pro-Beijing stance of these European Governments means they are valuable partners for China. At the same time, Hungary and Serbia are glad not only that their non-EU allies like China and Russia have an ongoing interest in the survival of the reigning political elite in Budapest and Belgrade, but that they can be used as bargaining chips against the European Union. Consequently, Belgrade and Budapest have not been swayed by Taipei’s mask diplomacy and kept their respective ties with Taiwan to the bare minimum.

Countries like Hungary or Serbia appear to be relentless in their pro-China foreign policy, but as the global realignment engendered by the pandemic is not yet over, the long-term effects and implications of East Asian mask diplomacies remain uncertain. What is clear is that if Czechia or Lithuania can get away with their pro-Taiwan endeavours, it can set a dangerous precedent, and Beijing is likely to take tangible steps to prevent other countries from following suit. If Prague and Vilnius are allowed to have their cake and eat it too, however, it may be due to the inevitably limited role CEE countries play in global affairs, as well as to the lack of significance they have in Chinese foreign policy calculus. In that case, only time will tell how contagious the Czech and Lithuanian examples are going to be.

Tamás Peragovics is a Junior Research Fellow, Research Group on Development Economics, Institute of World Economics, Centre for Economic and Regional Studies, Budapest, Hungary and assistant lecturer, International Relations Department, Eötvös Loránd (ELTE) University, Budapest, Hungary. He tweets @peragovicstamas

Ágnes Szunomár is a Senior Research Fellow, head of research group, Research Group on Development Economics, Institute of World Economics, Centre for Economic and Regional Studies, Budapest, Hungary and assistant professor, Corvinus University of Budapest (CUB), Budapest, Hungary.

This article is part of special issue on Taiwan-EU relations.

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