Amid Russia-Ukraine war, Hungary rivals Africa for Chinese ties

Wednesday March 16 2022
Smoke rises from a Russian tank in UKraine

Smoke rises from a Russian tank destroyed by the Ukrainian forces on a roadside in Lugansk region on February 26, 2022. Budapest is using the war to warn the EU of an imminent change in world power, for Russians and the Chinese. PHOTO | AFP


The European Union has often stood together on matters of the economy, democracy and security. And Hungary, a member of the European bloc since 2004, has often endorsed most of those stances.

But take the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Budapest is using the war to warn the EU of an imminent change in world power, for Russians and the Chinese.

When the EU imposed sanctions on Russia recently, Hungary said it would support them but warned there has to be sobriety about it.

Péter Szijjártó, the Hungarian foreign minister, said this week that while Hungary considers it a priority to maintain European unity, hasty decisions that could hurt his country’s interests on Russia will be rejected.

“There cannot be European unity if sanctions endanger smooth energy supplies,” he said in a bulletin.

Hungary has had to “make its red lines clear that sanctions should not jeopardise energy supply”. The European Commission is due to discuss the latest proposal for sanctions on Russia.


Hungary, though, sees China and Russia as the future powers of the globe.

Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, made the revelations on March 2 in what could indicate how far Chinese influence goes beyond the developing world in Africa and into the European Union.

And although the Hungarian PM joined EU members this week to vote for sanctions against Russia and has opposed the invasion in neighbouring Ukraine, he argues the aggression itself indicates that US dominance of the world is falling, and a possible challenge to the future of the EU.

“A change of position is taking place among the world’s top countries. As things stand today, China will soon be the world’s strongest economic and military power. America is in decline, while China is growing stronger,” he told his in-house website, About Hungary, on Wednesday.

“With its ten million inhabitants, Hungary will need to manoeuver skillfully in such times. We’re in alliance with the West, but we also want to develop a beneficial relationship with the emerging new superpower. For policymakers this is a complex task, bordering on the realms of art.”

For Hungarians, defiance-in-cooperation did not start this week, however. And Mr Orban did admit he had overseen the changes since the 2008 financial crisis whose origin was in the US. So he started, in 2010, what he called “intergovernmental negotiations with the Chinese and the Russians in a spirit of partnership”.

“I thought that when we came to power we’d have to face up to the realities of world politics that had emerged after the 2008 financial crisis,” he said in the interview this week.

“I expected the financial crisis to shake the Western world, especially the European Union, but not the Chinese – and that therefore there would be an acceleration of the process whereby China assumed the leading role in the world economy.”

Orbán, considered one of the most stringent nationalist leaders in Europe, has been in politics for more than 30 years. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on March 24 became his third conflict as PM in the neighbourhood.

He was there when the North Atlantic defence alliance Nato intervened in Kosovo in 1999. He left the post in 2002 but returned in 2010, only for Russia to annex Crimea from Ukraine, a precursor for today’s war, technically the third war in his neighbourhood.

In all this, he says he has mastered the art of “strategic calm”. Yet whenever he spoke, controversy emerged too. Hungary, for example, rejected migration quotas to be imposed by the EU, including controversial policies against foreigners.

This time, however, he says all people fleeing Ukraine will be welcomed and protected. Hungary itself had been a source of great minds who emigrated to other countries across the world, becoming popular citizens and winning top awards such as Nobel prizes.

They include Philippe Lenard, the German-Hungarian physicist, Swedish-Hungarian pathologist Robert Bárány, American-Hungarian biologist Albert Szent-Györgyi and Canadian-Hungarian chemist John Polanyi. Even Kenya’s famed surgeon Emre Loefler was originally from Hungary.

China dalliance

But his dalliance with China is also controversial, as the EU has been battling Beijing’s influence in Africa recently. It is one of the few European countries that have used Chinese Covid-19 vaccines and is planning a university fully funded by the Chinese, mimicking similar installations across Africa.

Last year, a controversial mayor irked the government after renaming some Budapest streets near the planned university area as an indirect attack on China, such as Dalai Lama Road, Free Hong Kong Road, Road of Uyghur Martyrs and Bishop Xie Shiguang Road, referring to issues on which the EU has been critical of China.

Hungary’s history is checkered. After losses in WWI, the country, then a monarchy, also lost more than 70 percent of its territory, under the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 to Austria, Czechoslovakia (which later split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Italy, today’s Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia (which formerly formed Yugoslavia), Poland and Romania. And then it was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1945 to 1990.

Linguistically unique, with none of the neighbouring countries related to it, Hungarians look back to the lost territory, sometimes with anger.

But today, the Hungarian PM says his country must prepare for a future where a new country is the world power.

“We know what the world is like under Anglo-Saxon dominance. But we don’t yet know what the world will be like when there’s Chinese dominance,” he said.

“One thing is for sure: The Anglo-Saxons want the world to recognise their position as morally right. For them it’s not enough to accept the reality of power; they also need you to accept the things that they think are right. The Chinese have no such need. This will definitely be a major change in the coming decades.”

Still, he thinks Nato is sufficient for the EU, which must also continue to search for peace, not pursue aggression.