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Why was Orbán the only Western leader in Beijing?

Articl by Dr. Eric Hendriks, Visiting Fellow, Danube Institute.

Why was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the only leader of an EU country who attended the Third Belt and Road Forum in Beijing (17–18 October 2023), the grant summit hosted by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping marking Belt-and-Road’s tenth anniversary? The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is an infrastructure development umbrella that links China to the rest of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and Europe in trade and construction. Though its exact contents and outlines are as elusive as ever, the BRI still formally covers a wide-ranging and heterogeneous landscape of commercial and (semi-)state operations and inter-institutional linkages in and with 150 countries and international organizations. Representatives from more than 110 countries attended this third international BRI summit since the BRI’s founding in 2013. However, where is the EU in this? Once conceived as the region where the main road and the main belt were supposed to end, the EU seems no longer interested in the additional connectivity. Eighteen EU member states, including Poland, Italy, Austria, Romania, and Greece, have, at some earlier stage, signed a memorandum with China to be part of the BRI. Still, this time, none sent a high-level delegation. Why was Hungary the only EU and Western country represented by its political leader?

Of course, a decision to attend or not to attend, like any diplomatic decision, must be understood as a specific communicative process in a specific communicative context. But here are two seemingly relevant environmental factors to the divergent decisions reached. First, whichever country sent its highest political representative had to bear seeing this person in a group photo with Russian President Vladimir Putin standing next to Xi in the front row. Given the Russo-Western standoff over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, that prospect is a non-starter for most European leaders, though not, evidently, for Hungary’s prime minister.

A second factor of probable relevance, and perhaps the primary pull factor, is that on both the level of the government and the broader public (possibly including the intelligentsia), Hungary is arguably the most ‘China-friendly’ country in the EU. Admittedly, the push factor of the Russian leader’s presence may be a sufficient explanation for why there were no other EU leaders at the BRI Forum, but the outcome may be overdetermined. Also, the second factor, more interestingly, leads to an exploration of Hungary’s unique geopolitical position within the EU, part of which is Hungary’s passionate outreach to China. The Hungarian government has since 2010, through Hungary’s ascension to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRI and policy strategies such as the so-called “Opening to the East,” sought increased connectivity with the People’s Republic of China, continuing its outreach effort even as other Western states and the EU became more hesitant and eventually adopted the policy concept of “de-risking.”

Hungary’s relative sinophilia

Let us touch upon Hungary’s sinophilic credentials, beginning with the broader public. In Pew’s latest poll on China’s favourability (published on July 27, 2023), which asks respondents to choose between “favourable” and “unfavourable,” Hungary’s population is the least negatively disposed toward China out of the nine polled EU countries. 50 percent of Hungarian respondents were “unfavourable” toward China, while 42 percent were “favourable.” Though negative responses outnumbered positive ones in Hungary, too, the pool is split. Other Western populations, by contrast, leaned negative much less ambivalently. Sweden, the most sinosceptic nation in this measure, has rates of 85 percent “unfavourable” against 12 percent “favourable,” comparable to the rates Pew measured in the US, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. However, all those Pew favourability polls should be taken with a grain of salt, among other reasons, because they force responses into a simple binary. At the same time, it is unclear whether one is supposed to judge the nation, the state, or the government, or all these at once.

Still, one indicator that the China mood in Hungary indeed might be more divided or overall less sceptical than in other EU and Western countries is that other measurements also show Hungary to be the outlier within an overwhelmingly sinosceptic world region. In a survey by the Századvég Foundation (Europe Project survey, 2023 edition), respondents were asked which statement they agreed with more. The first statement held that the EU “needs tougher measures against China because of its relationship with Russia”; the second that “a tougher stance is not necessary [because] we should strive for peaceful economic cooperation.” With 14 against 79 percent, Hungary was the EU country with the strongest tendency toward that more dovish, China-tolerant second statement.

In parallel, Budapest’s intellectuals and China watchers are, in my impression, more open-minded toward China than their peers in many other Western centres of culture; though, of course, Budapest also houses outspoken and principled critics, sceptics, and opponents of the Chinese government and regime. Here, I draw on my observations writing about China from Budapest, which allowed me to interact with various institutions that publish on China and organize talks and conferences about China.

Budapest’s field of China watchers is wildly diverse, normatively and analytically, covering the entire hawk–dove and popular–academic spectra. Though Hungary is arguably the EU country with the best China relations, think tanks like the Danube Institute, where I work, frequently host outspoken critics of the CCP, principled Atlanticists, and neocon speakers from America’s Washington-centric security landscape, who typically stress the virtues and relevance of a Western alliance in geopolitics and paint China’s rise as a potential threat to the “rules-based global order.” Meanwhile, the Democracy Institute of the Central European University, founded by George Soros, and the think tank Political Capital organize and fund conferences on topics such as “the China threat,” to which they invite Taiwanese independence activists as speakers. For example, the 2023 Budapest Forum, which they co-hosted, had a program item titled “The Disinformation and Military Threat of Chinese Aggression,” the keynote being provided by Lo Ping-Cheng, Minister without Portfolio and Spokesperson at Executive Yuan in Taiwan.

Meanwhile, and in complete contrast, the city also houses the Eurasia Institute, which publishes the Eurasia Era book series and Eurasia Magazine, to which I also regularly contribute columns and articles. The magazine regularly publishes generous interviews with and analyses by politicians, diplomats, and thinkers from mainland China. The Eurasia Institute and its variegated popular and academic outputs are informed by a spirit of cultural-diplomatic outreach, seeking to connect Central Europe to China and other parts of Asia in cultural, intellectual, and trade domains. Finally, both Corvinus University and the extracurricular education institute Mathias Corvinus Collegium stage conferences on Belt and Road and Chinese international trade, some of which are more strictly academic while others also seek to further “connectivity,” drawing on Belt-and-Road-connected scholars and diplomats.

To sum up, the ideological spectrum of Budapest’s China watchers field runs from events with Taiwanese independence activists through a variety of more detached, scholarly, and ambivalent views to institutions with Belt-and-Road connections and praise for China's multipolar world vision.

Yet, most importantly, the Hungarian government is committed to what it brands as “connectivity” with China. Connectivity, not block formation: this is the political line. As part of the connectivity line, the Hungarian government reaches out to Turkey, Central Asia, and even Russia, but, above all, China, which is Hungary’s largest trading partner outside the EU and its largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI). On May 15, 2023, Wang Yi, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee and China’s foreign policy chief, told Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó that Hungarian-Chinese relations have entered “the best period in [their] history.” Hungary’s prime minister might even be “the very last friend of Beijing in the whole of the EU.” That, at least, is the conclusion reached by international relations scholar Tamas Matura of Corvinus University in the China chapter of the Merics report From A China Strategy to No Strategy At All: Exploring the Diversity of European Approaches (2023).

Dr. Matura also believes that this intra-state “friendship,” in particular the Hungarian prime minister’s affinity toward China, is the cause rather than the effect of the slightly less sinosceptic mood among the Hungarian public and groups of Hungarian intellectuals and journalists. He claims the government’s sinophilic policies and rhetoric “shaped a pro-China narrative in governmental communication and in pro-government media outlets.” In particular, “[t]he outcome of these governmental communication efforts was a sharp increase in China’s reputation among Fidesz [the largest party in the national governing coalition] voters.” Whether or not this causal claim is accurate, the government’s motives warrant further attention.


What, then, lies behind the Hungarian government’s outreach toward China? Or, as Danube Institute intern Matthew McCracken phrases it in his analytical op-ed on the website of the Hungarian Conservative: “Why is Hungary growing closer to China as the West grows further away?” (See: “Two Suns in the Sky: Hungary’s Divergence with the West on China,” 5 August 2023.) Of course, as Matura clarifies, “one can only speculate about the intentions of the government.” Matura and McCracken speculate that the Hungarian government’s China outreach, powerfully shaped since 2010 by Prime Minister Orbán, has economic and politico-ideological motives.

Economically, FDI is vital. China, as McCracken notes, “became Hungary’s number one investor in early 2023.” Major Chinese projects in Hungary include Wanhua Yantai, Huawei, Bank of China, and battery makers CATL and EVE Energy. McCracken explains that a recent spike in investment is mainly “tied to the construction of a new battery factory in the country by the Chinese company Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Ltd.”

However, McCracken and Matura agree that politico-ideological motives are, in the words of McCracken, “a much deeper reason.” Matura interprets the China outreach as a hedging strategy by Orbán in his “grand chess game against the West.” He specifies: “The perceived or actual support of Beijing may improve the international diplomatic bargaining position of Hungary vis-à-vis the European Union and the United States. This latter dimension has become an important element of Hungarian foreign policy since the deepening of tensions with Western allies and EU institutions and fits into the broader picture of Hungarian diplomatic efforts.”

This hedging strategy, in turn, takes shape against Orbán’s belief that the West is in relative decline in an emerging multipolar order. Against the backdrop of this vision of global ideological transformation, it appears wise not to put all your eggs in the Western, liberal basket. McCracken cites Orbán’s statement that “[American] dominance seems to be lost.” Orbán beautifully expressed his vision of multipolar peace with the metaphor of the two suns: China and the US—two suns, each with a unique gravitational pull—have to share the sky, shining brightly while not colliding or overheating world geopolitics. Acceptance of multipolarity is crucial for peace. “The big ones should accept that there are two suns in the sky,” Orbán prognosticated in his Tusványos speech of 2023.

Finally, this prognosis is also a polemic against a Western world that, in Orbán’s view, is untrue to itself and, therefore, in moral decline and without a legitimate claim to universality. Matura—who appears to reject this normative assessment or doubt its sincerity—accuses PM Orbán of using a positive China image as a rhetorical means to make the West look fragile in comparison. “Mr. Orbán has reinforced his positive tone about the East Asian country as it helped to depict the West as an even less favorable partner (i.e., China is successful vs. the West is on the brink of collapse).” Danube Institute fellow Rod Dreher understands Orbán’s polemic intent similarly but, by contrast, agrees with the implied moral criticism and diagnosis of Western civilization. “Orbán hardly needed to spell out that here he contrasted China with the spent and diminishing power of Western civilization, which has abandoned its ancestral religion Christianity, and no longer believes in itself. Or, to be precise, the West no longer believes in what it once was—a vibrant civilization based on Christian faith and the secularization of Christian values in the Enlightenment.” For Dreher, this falls under the header of “tell[ing] truths that few people want to hear.” (Source: Hungarian Conservative 2023 Vol. 3, Nr. 3, p. 6.)

The limits to “connectivity”

In conclusion, Hungary, though small in terms of GDP and population size, is trying to play in the big league of geopolitics by connecting itself, on its initiative, and in an out-of-the-block way, with cultural regions and states beyond the EU and NATO, and with China in particular. I must confess that I like the cosmopolitan connectivity approach in principle; after all, what could be more exhilarating and freeing than a widening horizon, friends afar, and intellectual, economic, and human-to-human exchanges? Also, facilitating connectivity is diplomacy’s very telos, while block formation, when reciprocated, is always potentially dangerous.

That said, I must make two reservations. First, though there is, indeed, a rising multipolarity in geopolitics, the United States remains leading in many fields, including education, popular culture, and journalism; the EU has established itself as a legal and legislative powerhouse; and many migratory patterns—people voting with their feet—continue to lead toward Western societies. So, just as one can underestimate the long-term transformative impact of multipolarization, one can count out the West and America too quickly.

Second, the strategy of connectivity-over-blocks naturally has its limitations. Hungary is still in Central Europe, in the economic orbit of Germany, and within the EU and NATO. Hungary has merely ten million inhabitants and a nominal GDP 23 times smaller than Germany’s (World Economic Outlook Database, April 2023). In this light, EU and NATO leaders may not appreciate Hungary’s cosmopolitan, creative, and perhaps unrealistically independent approach to geopolitics, stressing instead the importance of loyalty to the EU and NATO, respectively. Of course, loyalty is an essential virtue, too, and necessary to any alliance.