Comment: Why is Romania’s relation with China underdeveloped?

Guest writer Mihai Titienar, a Romanian student in Shanghai, looks into the complicated relation between Romania and China.

A few days ago, the 5th Meeting of the Heads of Government of Central and Eastern European Countries and China took place. Dacian Cioloș, Romania’s Prime Minister, announced the setting up of the Center for Dialogue and Cooperation on Energy Projects in Bucharest, emphasizing the importance of stronger ties with China. Last year in September, Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis had a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a UN event and stressed that Romania was devoted to deepening bilateral ties with China. Although progressing very slowly, these declarations show Romania’s interest in improving its relation with China. Unfortunately, this was not always the case. A once flourishing relationship between Romania and China, now needs sweet talk in order to progress closer ties in the right direction.

I remember over a year ago I attended a party organized by Romania’s Embassy in Beijing. I was impressed by how large the size of the building was. Personally, I believe that building is symbolic to illustrate how strong Romania and China’s relationship once was.

Back in 1949, Communist Romania was the third state to recognize the independence of the People’s Republic of China. Afterwards, the two countries cultivated close relations through their many common interests. One should watch the videos of Mao’s warm welcoming to Ceausescu during his visit to Beijing to get an idea of how intimate the relationship between the two countries were. Their ties were so closely linked that Romania even played a role in the rapprochement between USA and China, as Kissinger mentions in his book “On China”.

Present day, things look very different as the relation between the two countries have faded in the last few decades. Once China’s closest ally in Europe, Romania now struggles to even be considered one of China’s top allies in Eastern Europe, where countries such as Hungary and Serbia receive more attention from China.

So why did the two best friends become indifferent to each other?

The crux that triggered the inevitable diminish of a once cordial, intimate friendship was Romania’s 1989 Revolution. Not only did this lead to the ousting of Ceausescu, but also everything built between Romania and China was lost in the regime change. Afterwards, in the ensuing aftermath and political change, diplomatic ties with China was arguably moved to the bottom of Romania’s new political elite’s list of priorities. Not to mention, China was still a long way from establishing itself, compared to present day when it claims the second largest GDP in the world.

There is an urban legend that I have heard on several occasions, which says that when Jiang Zemin, the leader of the PRC, visited Romania in June 1996 and met Romania’s Iliescu, he spoke in Romanian to Iliescu’s shock. What had eluded Iliescu was that Zemin had studied Romanian for a few months in Romania. If this story is indeed true, I think it is telling for how little interest Romania had for China at that time.

When Romania became more coherent and set its foreign policy goals to become a part of NATO and the EU, the prospects for an improved relationship with China further deteriorated. Joining NATO and the EU were difficult goals Romania had to overcome; along with the many reforms that it had to implement, Romania also had to show its Western partners that it had abandoned its old establishment and was up to speed with the rest of the Western countries. Faced with such circumstances, it wasn’t fancy for Romania to be seen next to Communist China, especially after the Tiananmen incidents. In the culmination leading to present day, China and Romania’s relationship has remained mostly unchanged. Romania has become part of the EU, and its role within NATO is growing due to its proximity with Russia. Moreover, it has a strategic partnership with the USA.

I’m not sure if any of these affiliations are restricting Romania in establishing closer ties with China, but I do think that Romania’s foreign policy makers have been dealt a difficult hand. I imagine it must be hard for them to execute a proper plan that not only improves relations with China, but also appeases both the EU and NATO.

It’s also important to note that various parts of the Romanian media, along with some influential right-wing intellectuals, are critical towards China and the Romanian politicians who have shown interest in bridging closer gaps. Even nowadays, when some of these people show frustration towards Victor Ponta, Romania’s former Prime Minister, they remind the public of how he tried to make economic deals with China.

Of course, I assume China shared some of the responsibility for the downfall of this relationship, but Romania shared just as much, or even more of that responsibility. Romania should have shown more interest in maintaining and cultivating close relations, especially since it had less to offer.

Let’s see how things will unfold in the future.

by Mihai Titienar, guest writer

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Mihai Titienar is a Romanian based in China. He studies trade in Shanghai and his interest include travel, politics, history and mass-media. You can follow his blog on China.