SCHLOSS ELMAU, GERMANY – Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently shared some history with a friend, explaining why he reached out to China's then-Premier Wen Jiabao in 2011, seeking urgent financial support and providing Beijing one of several European inroads in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
Orban's reason was a simple one: survival. Facing a potential debt crisis and unwilling to accept austere loan conditions from Western institutions, Beijing offered a lifeline. For his part, Orban convened some Central European leaders with Beijing, and they laid the groundwork for the "16-plus-one" initiative based in Budapest that since then has provided China unprecedented regional influence.
It didn't take long for China's investment to bear fruit. In March 2017, Hungary took the rare step to break European Union consensus on human rights violations, refusing to sign a joint letter denouncing the alleged torture of detailed lawyers. In July of the same year, Hungary joined Greece – another distressed European target of Chinese largesse – in blocking reference to Beijing in a Brussels statement on the illegality of Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
The Bavarian Alps might seem an unusual place to reflect on China's growing global influence, in a week that begin with U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping working to avoid a trade war in Argentina and advanced to Canadian authorities arrest of Chinese tech company Huawei's CFO in Vancouver, at US request on suspicion of Iran sanctions violations.