Over the past century, Central Europe’s political order has seen a pattern of ideological German-Russian love-hate relations. The lands between the two powers, from the Balkans to the Baltics, were alternately controlled by one or the other, usually with shared responsibility. Each time they failed to reach an agreement on power sharing, a political vacuum formed, and world wars broke out. The First World War involved the Balkan vacuum, followed by a Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) vacuum which led to World War II. The Cold War was unleashed when Soviet influence in the region exceeded the acceptable limits of earlier consensuses, while the current war, Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, is clearly the result of the Ukrainian vacuum.
Today we have an unprecedented situation in Europe. With the Russian-German paradigm crumbling for the first time since World War II, the two powers have lost their former political prowess in the region. Russia’s economic influence in Europe has collapsed, while Germany’s unique growth model has dramatically diminished, as has its role as the European Union's main moral authority.
This evolving geopolitical climate is a unique opportunity for the CEE states to create a new, responsible European economic security architecture. But this Eurasian political vacuum also presents an existential threat to the region if it is ultimately filled by a different sort of influence: that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
The Hand of the CCP
Even prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the CCP sought influence in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries, or 17+1 bloc. However, Western sanctions on Russia forced Moscow to become dependent on Beijing for exports of dual-use products and materials for use by Russia’s military, including microchips, aluminum oxide, and other raw materials, leading to the Baltic states ending cooperation with Beijing. The future of the Cooperation between China and CEE countries platform has remained uncertain since.
Even without BRI or other formal China/CEE initiatives, close economic ties between Beijing and Central and Eastern Europe present risks to the region, including the export of the CCP’s mercantilist-communist economic model and techno-authoritarianism. China maintains an ability to coerce its CEE trading partners through an asymmetric economic dependence the region continues to have on Chinese imports. Trade is not equitably reciprocated, due to China securing supply chains in its favor and ending its reliance on high-value foreign imports through the CCP’s “dual circulation” economic model.
Beijing has further exploited this economic dependence through its support of the Trans-Asian railway to Poland and the Czech Republic, which ostensibly offers China an attractive, fast-growing trade route and hub for the region. For China, this railway is much more than about trade, however. This 9,500-kilometer route is a potential alternative to Indo-Pacific trade routes. In the event of hostilities in the Taiwan Strait, the route may be China’s only way to quickly export goods to the West. By building trade dependencies in the region and penetrating CEE markets considered particularly friendly to the United States, China can create new strategic advantages and drive wedges in Western partnerships.
As such, China’s interest in expanding the historic trade route and developing cooperation in CEE is not surprising. Against the backdrop of geopolitical turmoil in the region, CCP influence, along with Russo-Ukrainian and tensions surrounding Taiwan, may be one of the more serious challenges for the West today.
Enter the Three Seas
The Three Seas Initiative (TSI), an economic and infrastructure development forum consisting of twelve European Union countries in the CEE between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic seas, can help counter autocratic threats from both Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Through regional security structures, military cooperation, and joint infrastructure initiatives, TSI can help the region secure supply chains, realize energy security, and gain independence from PRC investment, as well as develop a new regional security architecture to respond to future geopolitical challenges.
Investment in the CEE is particularly needed as TSI member governments continue to face economic pressures due to inflation, the Russo-Ukraine War, and a slow recovery from coronavirus pandemic lockdowns. Regional governments cannot be expected to finance regional infrastructure development, nor can G7 countries like the United States or the United Kingdom be relied upon for investment when their priority is funding Ukraine’s military aid.
Once a political solution is reached, ending hostilities between Moscow and Kyiv, priority will shift from aiding Ukraine militarily to assisting the country’s reconstruction. The Three Seas Initiative Investment Fund (TSIIF), which helps finance transportation, energy, and digital infrastructure projects, should play a significant role in not only re-building Ukraine, but also ensuring the entire CEE region’s economy remains insusceptible to leverage from Russia, China, or other such actors. The TSIIF should seek investments from private equity, pension funds seeking to diversify investments from uncertain equity markets, and wealthy Indo-Pacific partners which have not been impacted by the regional volatility from the war and which have significant foreign currency reserves. The TSI also should work with the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to further expand the Blue Dot Network (BDN) into CEE, and help attract more private investment through the certification of infrastructure projects by BDN members America, Australia, and Japan.
Today, most Western countries aiding Ukraine do so through border crossings in Poland or Romania, but most activities are carried out independently by each individual country. NATO and the European Union are, of course, engaged in providing support to Ukraine, but even they do not undertake broad-based coordination. By using the TSI to coordinate not only logistics but to partner on Ukraine’s transformation into a prosperous Western democracy, CEE can build a broad architecture resistant to further CCP infiltration in the region.
Tomasz Wróblewski is the chief executive officer of the Warsaw Enterprise Institute.
Darren Spinck is an associate research fellow with the Henry Jackson Society.
Image: Tomasz Makowski/Shutterstock.com.