17+1 = problems; Huawei’s woes; Western Balkan wobbles

Gogi Kamushadze

Hello, and welcome to China Influence Monitor, a weekly newsletter published by CEPA and Coda Story and edited by me, Edward Lucas. We track the westward footprint of China’s influence operations, and point you towards this week’s best (and worst) coverage. 

In this issue: CEE countries wrestle with a Chinese invitation; fine words from an ex-Huawei boss in Denmark, but strange goings on in Sweden and Switzerland; 

A big test of Chinese influence in Europe is looming on February 9. 

Since 2013 China has used the loose 17+1 framework to lobby ex-communist countries (since 2019 also including Greece) over infrastructure and other issues. Last year’s summit should have happened in Beijing but was postponed. 

This year’s shindig will be virtual — but for the first time hosted by Xi Jinping himself, upping the pressure on the other countries to provide similarly senior representation.

Complying would be a kowtow and annoy the United States. Refusal will be a clear snub to Beijing. Decision-makers in Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Slovenia are all grappling with the dilemma.

So the guest list on February 9 will be a lot more exciting than the discussions. (The agenda is likely to feature record rail freight shipments, pandemic recovery and climate change). 

Most countries say they haven’t yet decided who to send. That’s already enough to annoy China. Hungary’s leader Victor Orbán is coming. His country is a hotspot for Chinese vaccine diplomacy. The Czech president, Miloš Zeman, notorious for his anti-Western stance, will definitely take part. His Slovak counterpart, Zuzana Čaputová, definitely won’t. 

Lithuania’s hotshot new foreign minister, Gabrielus Landsbergis, tells me that his country “most likely will not be represented at all.” 

HUAWEI WATCH

Germany’s planning to spend €2billion on developing replacements for Huawei equipment — which may foreshadow a decision on banning the company from 5G networks.

We reported in December about the Danish executive Tommy Zwicky’s resignation. He couldn’t comment then, but has now lambasted the Chinese telecoms giant for its collusion with human rights abuses. You can only lose credibility once, he tells the Washington Post. How many other Huawei executives are wrestling with their consciences — and with the toxic career consequences of staying on?

By the way: the company’s Nordic region boss, Kenneth Fredriksen, confirmed for the first time that it had tested and patented ethnicity-detection systems.

In Sweden, Expressen has been digging into Huawei’s lobbying activities, via a “Green Cities” group that suddenly got interested in 5G issues. The country’s a real battleground for Chinese influence in Europe. Former Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s curious dealings with China still arouse a thundering silence in most of the local media. Swedish-speakers (and anyone who can use Google Translate, or similar) should follow investigations by Patrik KronqvistFreda Sundkvist and Birgitta Forsberg

What we’re reading: 

  • Sarah Cook’s new NED report on the techniques of Chinese sharp power. 
  • The latest issue of the Axios newsletter, which outlines the new US administration’s whole-of-government approach to China, involving all departments in the National Security Council. 
  • The FT report on China’s vaccine diplomacy in Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and North Macedonia, quoting plaintive complaints about the EU’s neglect. 
  • Also on that subject, this new ECFR report, which says “China is on the cusp of acquiring real leverage over policy choices, political attitudes, and narratives in some parts of the Western Balkans.”
  • This long investigation for the Aargauer Zeitung (quoting the great Basle-based China-watcher Ralph Weber) at what look like Chinese influence operations at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland. This is a center of expertise in proton beam therapy — a technology much sought-after by China. A (belated) rethink of Swiss policy on China is looming. 
     

No prizes for: EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans, who held a video conference with Vice Premier Han Zheng but didn’t mention human rights. Some fear that China will hold cooperation on climate change hostage to concessions on other fronts.

And last but not least: Norway is going squishy on the winter Olympics, planned for 2022 in Beijing. Other countries think boycotts, not treacly videos, would be more appropriate. 

We’ll keep you posted on what happens — and what doesn’t. 

See you next week.

Best regards
Edward

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Edward Lucas

Edward Lucas is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He was formerly a senior editor at The Economist. Lucas has covered Central and Eastern European affairs since 1986, writing, broadcasting, and speaking on the politics, economics, and security of the region.

A graduate of the London School of Economics and long-serving foreign correspondent in Berlin, Vienna, Moscow, and the Baltic states, he is an internationally recognized expert on espionage, subversion, the use and abuse of history, energy security and information warfare.

He is the author of four books: The New Cold War (2008, newly revised and republished); Deception (2011); The Snowden Operation (2014), and Cyberphobia (2015).