This CEIAS policy paper aims to continue the ongoing discussions about China and its political and economic significance for Europe. It specifically analyzes both history and the future of the relations between Slovakia and China while attempting to interpret the Chinese understanding of its foreign policy towards this part of the world. The topic is particularly relevant for Slovakia that has not yet seen the level of China’s engagement rise dramatically as in its neighboring countries but should use the opportunity to take the lessons from the experience of others and prepare itself for the challenges coming from cooperation in China.
China and Slovakia: Challenges to the future of the relationship
One of the main issues of the Slovak approach towards China is the lack of awareness of the risks involved in cooperation with China. This can be seen in the lax approach of the Slovak government towards the issue of Chinese 5G network providers. Slovak government and businesses need to undertake increased due diligence when dealing with Chinese institutions while also taking into account possible linkage of Chinese companies to human rights abuses.
The current Slovak law already contains tools that can be used to protect certain industries from malign Chinese influence. Examples include public procurement laws, public registry of beneficial ownership, banking regulations, or ban on media cross-ownership. However, these were primarily aimed at preventing the negative impact of monopolistic behavior of oligarchs and were not designed to deal with the negative impact of behavior by foreign economic actors with ties to their domestic government.
Slovakia needs to adopt a national FDI screening mechanism that would provide a holistic approach to dealing with security risks posed by Chinese (and other potential foreign) investors.
Slovakia should also strive to keep its foreign policy and public debate free of illegitimate interference whether from the side of parochial business interests or directly from China. It is necessary to be aware that in dealing with China, Slovakia is dealing with a one-party dictatorship which has a very different understanding of some norms and concepts and avoid legitimizing.
China might seek legitimacy by earning support from states such as Slovakia, using tactics such as an advertorial by the Chinese Ambassador, spreading conspiracy theories about the Hong Kong protests, which was published by the Slovak business weekly Trend. In other instances, Slovak politicians have become tools of Chinese propaganda, such is the case of the staged visit of the Slovak parliamentary delegation to Tibet in August 2019.
However, not all Chinese state-led activities in Slovakia should be viewed as coming with ulterior motives and automatically threatening. Assuming an understanding of the risks involved, cooperation with China in various sectors can be beneficial and should not be discarded.
While staying aware of the very limited tools, not to talk of leverage, in hands of Slovakia to pressure China on human rights, this topic should not be absent from the Slovak foreign policy towards China. The main platform for human rights efforts will remain at the multilateral fora, especially the EU, where the common voice of the 28 countries can carry a certain weight.
The EU relations with China provide the most important framework for Slovakia to achieve its interests, not the least due to the economic exposure to China being mediated by EU partners. Still, Slovakia should be a more constructive and responsible actor in forming and adhering to EU-wide policies. The ongoing EU process of addressing the challenges of the 5G technologies and investment screening mechanism that was initiated as a response to the wider Huawei debate is a good example. In addition, one potential area where Slovakia could consider its input towards common EU policy regards China’s activities in the Balkans, a priority region for Slovak foreign policy.
When it comes to the prospect of future cooperation, China sees several potential benefits when it comes to further investments in Slovakia. In addition to its access to the EU market, Slovakia stands in a good position given the fact that is the only one of V4 countries that uses Euro as its currency.
The BRI project, which can be seen as having both economic and geostrategic implications, could to some extent benefit countries such as Slovakia. However, the fact that none of the large projects discussed in the past have materialized showcases the need of the Slovak policy-makers to take into account the feasibility and real potential of some of these investments in order to distinguish between a successful PR story and a real beneficial cooperation.
The one area of actual cooperation with China on BRI has been the cooperation in the railway sector, more specifically as a transit point and intermodal hub for China-Europe freight trains. Slovakia has remained far behind its goals of significantly increasing its share of the railway transit, largely due to external factors. It should be a strategic priority for Slovakia, to pursue cooperation in this area.
Perhaps the most effective game-changer for a more active approach towards China on the Slovak side would be an increased presence of the Slovak diplomatic representatives in China. These steps, however, should be taken with an already defined strategy towards China in mind, avoiding the pitfalls of increasing capacities without having a clear agenda and objectives to reach in the first place.
At home, Slovakia suffers from a lack of expertise in China and Asia-Pacific affairs. As China is becoming an ever more important actor in international affairs it will be more and more crucial for the state to have sufficient access to domestic experts on economic, political, security and international affairs with specific knowledge of China and other countries in the region. To this end, the government should bolster training of experts at universities as well as support the nascent domestic community of think tanks that specialize in China and can provide policymakers with tailored analysis.
Barbara Kelemen is a non-resident research fellow at CEIAS. She holds a double masters degree in International Affairs from London School of Economics (LSE) and Peking University. Previously she worked at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) in London and Mercator Institute of China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin writing on issues regarding China's security policy. She currently works as a Research Associate for Asia-Pacific at the the Risk Advisory Group in London.