Nuclear Tug Of War: Will Eastern Europe Go Chinese?

  • Date: 09/09/20
  • Foreign Policy

Competition among China, Russia, and the West is taking the form of a battle to build reactors in Eastern Europe.

When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Prague in mid-August, the first stop on a tour of U.S. allies in Central and Eastern Europe, he had two things on his mind: China and Russia. Over the last decade, the two Eastern giants have won significant influence among the region’s young democracies. And the Trump administration, reversing its predecessor’s blacklisting of recalcitrant regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, seeks to reengage and quash the pair’s sway.

The minority government of Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, who founded the ruling ANO 2011 party, has welcomed U.S. President Donald Trump’s embrace. But his stance looks less than certain as the country prepares to face one of its sternest geopolitical tests since the fall of communism 30 years ago: choosing a partner to expand its Soviet-built nuclear power capacity.Trending Articles

A controversial billionaire who toes a populist—albeit centrist—line, Babis has earned brownie points with the White House by becoming Europe’s loudest critic of the Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, which Washington insists is a security risk. Although many allies have ignored the United States’ calls to bar the firm, the Czech leader (who reportedly dislikes comparisons to the U.S. president) blocked it from working on his country’s critical communications networks in late 2018.

Part of Pompeo’s mission to the Czech Republic was to convince Babis that it would pose a similar risk as Huawei should China or Russia win an upcoming tender to build a new 1.2-gigawatt reactor at the Dukovany nuclear power plant, at an estimated cost of over $7 billion. “If you choose one of these countries, it will jeopardize your freedom and sovereignty,” Pompeo reportedly stressed to the Czech leader.

However, Babis’s government is weak, and he faces building pressure at home and abroad to lean east. In turn, he has declined to exclude Chinese and Russian state-owned companies from bidding for the project and, despite welcoming Pompeo enthusiastically, demurred on signing a proffered cooperation agreement on nuclear energy.

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