Hungary and the Philippines Compare Notes on China at the Mabini Dialogue

States in Central and Eastern Europe and the Southeast Asian region have converging and diverging interests and perceptions on the continuing rise of China as a global power. They also share common challenges and potential fields of cooperation in their relations with China.   

This sums up the discussion during the Mabini Dialogue entitled “Through the Gates of Asia and Europe’s Backdoor: Exploring China’s Relations with East-Central Europe and Southeast Asia,” held on 18 November 2019 at the Carlos P. Romulo Library, Department of Foreign Affairs Building.

Co-organized by the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Embassy of Hungary in the Philippines, the Dialogue featured Mr. Péter Goreczky, a Senior Analyst from the Hungarian Institute of Foreign Affairs and Trade (IFAT) as guest speaker. Dr. Aaron Jed Rabena, Program Convener and Research Fellow from the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress, Inc. served as discussant.

Mr. Goreczky gave a comprehensive discussion of the evolution of the relationship between China and the Visegrad countries, also called the V4 – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. Guided by European Union (EU) framework documents, the V4’s pursuit of relations with China is primarily driven by economic interests.

The V4 countries, which had vastly similar approaches in dealing with China in the 1990’s, now have divergences in priorities and foreign policy approaches as individual countries have developed and intensified relations with China in the last decade. Mr. Goreczky emphasized, however, that the V4 face common challenges that may be turned into opportunities for cooperation in dealing with China, citing the areas of connectivity, investment promotion, market access and financing as examples.    

Dr. Rabena reinforced Mr. Goreczky’s statements on China’s rise as a global power, asserting that China’s growth poses both risks and opportunities. Dr. Rabena recognized the EU’s policies towards China – focusing on China’s potential as an economic partner – as a sign of pragmatism, and posited that the Philippines has exhibited the same pragmatic attitude.

He also noted similarities in the following: the existence of differing threat perceptions of China among the countries in both Central and Eastern Europe and the Southeast Asian region, divergence in political attitudes toward China, existence of cultural differences, and China’s cooperation formats with both regions, i.e., multilateral regimes supplementing bilateral arrangements.

Differences in perceptions of and approaches to China among Southeast Asian countries are complicated by the existence of territorial disputes among China and several ASEAN countries.

Dr. Rabena stressed that the Philippine government’s policy toward China need not result in a zero-sum game approach, and advocated “cautious optimism” for ASEAN countries in dealing with China.  

The issues raised during the open forum include the emphasis on a rules-based international order, implications of the EU’s evolving perceptions of China (most recently, as a strategic competitor), the (real) ideological basis of China’s expansion, and security concerns emanating from economic deals with China. The Dialogue emphasized the need for a discerning take on how best to deal with China in its evolution as a global power.