Mr. Orbán’s Hungary: China’s Last Friend in the EU?

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For our weekly ‘Ideas on Europe’ editorial by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we have the pleasure to welcome Dr Tamás Matura, from Corvinus University in Budapest.

 

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You are the founder of an institute that conducts research on the relations between Central and Eastern European countries and China.

That’s right. You may have heard that these relations, which were institutionalized in the so-called “17+1” cooperation group, have cooled down a bit over recent years, for various reasons. But contrary to the majority of Central and Eastern European countries, the Hungarian government still seems very keen on maintaining close and friendly relationships with China.

 

What exactly is Victor Orbán’s strategy with regard to China?

The Orbán government has never published an official China Strategy! As a result, one can only speculate about its intentions. But some strategic goals are clear to see.

First, the government hopes that strong ties to the PRC may lead to economic advantages in the form of increased trade and investment relations. Currently, Chinese foreign direct investment in Hungary is between 4 and 6 billion Euros, which is not negligible, and the government argues that bilateral trade has been growing dynamically. Let’s not forget either that thanks to the goodwill of Beijing, Hungary was one of the first countries to roll-out Covid-19 vaccinations to its population, even though vaccine procurement from China has raised many questions regarding the efficacy and price of the doses.

 

And in political terms?

When it comes to domestic politics the pro-China attitude of the government did bear some fruits.

Since 2010, the public praise by the Orbán cabinet of Sino-Hungarian relations and of Chinese investors has shaped a pro-China narrative in governmental communication and in pro-government media outlets. Furthermore, the positive tone about a successful China helps to depict the West as an even less favorable partner, on the brink of collapse. The Covid-19 crisis offered another opportunity to the Hungarian government to paint a pleasant picture of China while it could denounce European ‘incompetence’. Official comments have never blamed Beijing for the outbreak of the pandemic. On the contrary, the government has been emphasizing the massive amounts of medical equipment sent from China to Hungary. The outcome of these governmental communication efforts was a sharp increase in China’s reputation among Fidesz voters, which in turn, has contributed to the popularity of the ruling party and its massive election success in early 2022.

 

What are the diplomatic benefits for Hungary in adopting this attitude?

Well, the perceived or actual support of Beijing may actually improve the bargaining position of Hungary vis-à-vis the European Union and the United States.

Ever since Mr. Orbán announced his intention to turn Hungary into an “illiberal democracy”, he has been trying to form a global alliance of similar regimes with the likes of Bolsonaro, Erdoğan, Netanyahu, Putin, up to Xi Jinping, and even Donald Trump. Part and parcel of this endeavour was the use of Hungarian vetoes in the EU to support not only Chinese but also Russian, Turkish, or Israeli interests.

 

How successful is this strategy? Has it reached its limits?

Mr. Orbán’s foreign policy, based on a loud and aggressive communication strategy, worked surprisingly well in the peace and prosperity of the 2010s. It seems, however, less applicable in recent years as the “illiberal club” proved unstable with the political fall of many of its members, and as Russia’s aggression on Ukraine has made European countries rally around the flags of the EU and NATO in defense of “liberal democracy”.

But despite these fundamental changes in the international landscape, Mr. Orbán apparently tries to double down on his pro-China policy. Indeed, as he has become the very last friend of Beijing in the whole EU, his relative importance may have even grown in the eyes of the Chinese government. The visit of state councillor Wang Yi to Budapest in February 2023 and the subsequent announcement that Mr. Orbán may visit China in the near future both demonstrate the strength of bilateral ties while at the same time, EU-China relations experience serious tensions. Whether this unique position is worth its price of lost reputation in Washington and Brussels, is a question only Mr. Orbán himself could answer.

 

We’re already happy with your own analysis. Many thanks for sharing this insight with us. I recall you are the founder of the Central and Eastern European Center for Asian Studies, and assistant professor at Corvinus University in Budapest.

 

Interview by Laurence Aubron.