Slovakia became independent only in 1993, when Czechoslovakia split into two separate countries. As a legal successor of Czechoslovakia, Slovakia established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in October 1949, one of the earliest countries to do so. The 1950s can be considered a ‘golden age’, during which bilateral political, economic, and social relations flourished between the two countries. However, after the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960s, relations froze and remained almost non-existent for the next two decades. Although the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev was in power in the Soviet Union, saw a thaw in the relationship, the Velvet Revolution of 1989 in Czechoslovakia led to the establishment of a new anti-communist government that had very different strategic priorities than developing relations with China.
During most of the 1990s and 2000s, Slovakia focussed on entering the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)—which was achieved in 2004—and developing relations with partners in the West. At that time, Slovak leaders mostly kept a low profile when dealing with China, in an attempt to avoid controversies. Yet, in 2013, the Slovak government decided to accept the remaining Uyghur prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay Camp, incurring China’s wrath. In 2016, the Slovak President met the visiting Dalai Lama, which resulted in another public rebuke from the Chinese authorities. In both cases, however, there was no evidence of any Chinese retaliation, at least in terms of economic measures, besides symbolic diplomatic steps.
Slovakia is a member of the so-called 17+1 Platform, which includes China and 17 countries in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The first summit at the level of prime ministers took place in 2012, and in 2015 the platform was ‘officially’ included as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) during a summit in Suzhou, China. At that same summit, Slovakia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) related to the BRI. However, this MoU was not followed by any concrete action plan, and to this day no BRI-related project has been realised in the country.
Perhaps the only noticeable development in relation to Slovakia and the BRI or the 17+1 Platform (besides the annual leaders’ summits) is in the area of technology. Since the summit in Suzhou in 2015, Slovakia has been mentioned in the 2017 Budapest Guidelines for Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries as the ‘coordinator for the area of innovation, research, development and technology transfer’. As a result, a Virtual Technology Transfer Centre was established in the country. However, in the years since its establishment, the centre does not seem to have conducted any considerable activity besides organising a few seminars and a conference on innovation. Subsequently, the guidelines adopted at the 2019 17+1 Summit in Dubrovnik mentioned the establishment of a blockchain centre of excellence, which was also established in Slovakia and went on to organise the first China-CEE blockchain summit in Bratislava in the same year.
Overall, Slovakia can be counted as one of the least active countries within the 17+1 Platform when it comes to engaging China. While many of the country’s neighbours—such as Hungary, and previously also Poland and the Czech Republic—put significant effort into enticing China to invest in various projects, the Slovak approach has remained lukewarm.
According to data from the Slovak Embassy in Beijing, Slovak economic exposure to China is relatively limited, especially when compared to most other countries around the world. In terms of trade, as of 2019, only about 2% of Slovak exports went to China, making China the twelfth largest export destination for Slovak products, the vast majority of which were cars and auto components produced by multinational companies. On the other hand, China was the third largest source of imports to Slovakia behind Germany and the Czech Republic, accounting for 6% of all imports in the country.
When it comes to investment, various sources show different figures, but they all agree on the basic fact that China is not a major foreign direct investment (FDI) provider in Slovakia. According to official figures from the Slovak Central Bank, the Chinese FDI stock in the country in 2019 was only worth about 30 million EUR. Data from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce for the same year shows around 83 million USD (68 million EUR). The Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs mentions about 245 million EUR of Chinese investments (including those ‘in the process’) in 2019, while the Chinese Ambassador mentioned in an interview with a Slovak journalist 400 million EUR without adding any further detail. The only large-scale Chinese investment in Slovakia is a logistics centre near Galanta, which is worth 140 million EUR and the Chinese state-owned investment company CNIC acquired from the previous owner Prologis in 2017.
As a member of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Slovakia is not a recipient of development aid. During the COVID-19 pandemic, China provided significant amounts of medical supplies. Most of them were sold commercially, but some were donated, for instance under the scope of sister-city/region links with Shanghai and Cangzhou, or by the Sino-Czech-Slovak Friendship Farm.
Due to the limited scope of the bilateral engagements, there are few controversies. One issue worth noting is that Slovak officials have long attempted to get permission to export agricultural products to China and have complained of the prolonged and cumbersome process. For instance, it took five years for Slovakia to get the approval (announced in 2019) to export milk to China, and at the time of writing it remains unclear when—if ever—any Slovak milk products will start being exported to China. In addition, various projects under discussion with Chinese government officials and companies have not materialised, such as the construction of a hydropower plant on the Ipel river and a wide-gauge railway through the entire territory of the country to the Austrian border, the acquisition of the Bratislava airport and of the Slovenske Elektrarne Company, and the opening of direct flight connections.
The main English-language media outlet in Slovakia is The Slovak Spectator. The main source of information on Slovak-China relations is the Central European Institute of Asian Studies, an independent think tank. Among other activities, CEIAS publishes a monthly CEEasia newsletter. Some of the most recent and relevant publications of CEIAS on the topic of Slovakia-China relations include:
Cover Photo: Luca Sartoni (CC).