A rising China is poised to challenge the already established paradigms and concepts of how global politics and economy work, but also how scholars and political elites think about them. This is more likely to happen in the context of multiple crises, when the normative hegemony of the Western liberal-democratic order is at a retreat. This is especially relevant to China's interaction with Central, East and Southeast Europe (CESEE), a region that where significant processes of shifting away from liberal democracy might be under way. The post-2012 relations between China and the CESEE countries have the potential to unveil novel features of China's influence as an external actor within the EU. They also help us craft a more critical understanding of the intra-regional socio-political dynamics, as well as the capacity of the EU to cope with the new realities. We examine the reasons, circumstances and political consequences of China's new relations with CESEE, and discuss how this affects the general Sino-European relationship. The key question that the paper tackles is the one of the meaning of China's influence in CESEE, especially the relationship between its new role and the shifts in guiding normative principles and policy models in the region. To do this, the paper builds upon primary and secondary sources both from China and Europe, as well as data gathered through participant observation in some of the diplomatic and scholarly forums where the China-CESEE cooperation has been shaped. It triangulates theories on a) hegemony; b) principle diffusion; and c) linkages, leverages and gate-keeping elites.
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