A New Cold War in East-Central Europe | Opinion

As the world watches the aftermath of the U.S.' shockingly executed withdrawal from Afghanistan, China has already appeared on the scene. It openly and confidently asserted its power and economic influence and engaged with the Taliban before any commentator had a proper chance to notice. Similarly, China's quiet entry into another strategic region, the investment-hungry East-Central Europe, has attracted little attention. With the U.S. under President Joe Biden's administration pivoting away from the region and with Western Europe using European Union funds to challenge certain "misbehaving" governments in the former Eastern bloc, China has taken advantage of a natural opening.

Take, for example, Hungary. By 2024, the Shanghai-based Fudan University is set to open a new campus in Budapest. The move comes after power has changed hands in Washington, moving U.S. policy away from former President Donald Trump's strategic interest in Central Europe to the Biden administration's bet on Berlin, Paris and Moscow. Following a series of Chinese infrastructure investments in the country, the new Fudan campus marks the next step in Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Eastern Opening economic policy and his push to increase foreign direct investments and strengthen trade relations, primarily with China. While the Fudan deal has vocal critics within Hungary, it also marks a new, if still mild, assertiveness on the part of China.

Chinese educational institutes exist throughout Europe, but no campus has been built so far in the EU. The new Budapest facility may give China access to EU R&D funds and distort the European educational landscape. The United States might be able to prevent the campus from being built—by not reversing the Trump administration's support for the region and offering an alternative.

The Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) region is likely to be a battleground in the next Cold War—between the United States and China. Washington should wake up to the dangers of reversing Trump's policies toward the region. The previous administration was correct to engage in Central Europe and keep China at bay with U.S. support for the Three Seas Initiative, a regional investment fund focused on energy and transport infrastructure.

Why should the U.S. care about Hungary or CEE at all? Marking the divide between the West and the East, with access to the Baltic, the Adriatic and the Black Sea, the region is a natural gateway from Asia to Europe and the Atlantic. For centuries, it served as a boundary between empires, as Russian, Prussian, Austrian, Ottoman, French, German and Soviet armies fought one another and tried to dominate local populations. Now China has realized the region's strategic importance and its usefulness in its Belt and Road Initiative. Slowly but steadily, Chinese representatives are making inroads into the heart of Europe with their infrastructure investments and Chinese language programs through the much criticized Confucius Institutes.

Inevitably, the transformation of power in international relations will bring about a structural reorganization of a region, even the world. It always does.

A Hungarian national flag
A national flag flutters in front of the Hungarian parliament. ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP via Getty Images

Following World War I, after the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was carved, its successor nations formed a cordon sanitaire against Bolshevism. After World War II, Joseph Stalin equated territorial expansion and the spread of communism into the eastern half of Europe with Soviet Russia's national security. Thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. under President Joe Biden deemed the CEE region unworthy of renewed American interest. Abandoning the Trump administration's billion-dollar Three Seas infrastructure fund sent a signal to Beijing: rightly sensing the power vacuum in the region, China is redefining the spheres of influence in Europe, creating a new divide between the West and the East and setting the stage for a new Cold War.

This Second Cold War will not be based on mutually assured destruction but on economic and technological dominance by any means necessary: computer servers and cyber-attacks instead of tanks and bombs; alongside infrastructure investment, universities and highways instead of military bases. China has the advantage here, as it is much easier to execute long-term foreign policy plans without the inconvenience of holding elections and competing for the approval of voters. In other words, time works in their favor, and the West has to realize that.

Chinese infrastructure investments in Europe—such as the Budapest-Belgrade highway or the planned Fudan University campus in Hungary—have very distinctive characteristics. China makes a point of not questioning the state of political freedom or human rights in the beneficiary country and purposely calculates the "investments" to leave its clients in China's debt. Money talks, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) might use its growing economic clout to silence its critics and attack human rights activists wherever they are.

Why, then, would Hungary do business with China? Orbán's pro-business policies are no secret, and neither is the country's need for infrastructure investment. While the U.S. is a preferred partner, in its absence Hungary will consider other offers. A sovereign state between East and West, Hungary will do everything in its power to find balance between the great powers. Fully appreciating Hungary's strategic position and keeping it in the Western sphere of interest takes more than just scolding the former captive nation for its attachment to tradition and national identity, as Biden and much of the U.S. media have been doing. Instead, investing in the relationships between peoples prevents conflict and may prove more effective than large-scale military spending, particularly in the 21st century.

As a region whose development has been heavily affected by empires throughout history, Central and Eastern Europe differs from Western Europe in terms of wealth, political socialization and identity. And yet, the region is undoubtedly still part of the Western cultural hub. Our shared history and values are rooted in Christianity and the idea of human dignity whose protection is enshrined in law and guarded by the constitutional government. The CCP sees these notions as anathema—an existential threat to its absolute power. Unrestrained by Western values and customs, the Chinese drive to impose political dominance on the world makes them a very efficient and dangerous adversary.

The chessboard is set; the plans are in motion. All Washington has to do is see the signs, pay attention and treat Hungary and all of CEE as a strategic partner again. Seen from the perspective of a fallen Austro-Hungarian empire, we have lessons to teach: Unlike the U.S., we understand that there is no limit to how bad things can get.

Your move, America!

Márton Zsuráfszky is an international relations expert from Budapest, Hungary. Márton participated in numerous fellowships, such as the John N. Lauer Leadership Training Program, Young Hungarian Leaders Program and Europa Fellowship. He formerly worked at the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank and was recently accepted to the Hungarian Public Administration Scholarship Program.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.