The Chinese march to the Western Balkans
The Balkans could perhaps find itself in a situation of total political retreat, damaging the long-term interests of the EU and North America
Armed with its foreign aid diplomacy, China has forged its way into the European geopolitical chessboard via Eastern Europe. In 2012, it launched its 16 + 1 cooperation framework, including all the states of the Western Balkans (excluding Kosovo) and nine others from Central and Eastern Europe (CEECs). Later next year, Greece joined the “17 + 1” initiative, promoting what many strategy experts call “multilateral bilateralism”. Under the BRI, China’s economic cooperation with these 17 countries responds to their mutual investment needs and strategic interests.
In the context of the Western Balkan States, Beijing from 2005 to 2019 invested around $ 14.6 billion (excluding Albania), especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia in different projects , and more than 80 percent of these investments constitute loans with conditions such as “pre-agreements” on companies, workers, tax cuts. This has led to a situation of asymmetric interdependence that Beijing can essentially use as an essential negotiating tool vis-Ã -vis the EU and the US.
Even during the Covid-19 lockdown, China succeeded in creating a ‘sanitary silk road’ in the Balkans when in March 2020 the European Commission decided to block essential pandemic products. Russia and China both took the opportunity to provide them with medical and surveillance equipment for COVID 19. Although the EU later coughed up $ 9 million, given the trajectories of the pandemic, the Aid came a bit late, and China’s proactive health diplomacy was appreciated among the Balkan countries.
EU membership is closely associated with China’s strategic forays into the Western Balkans. Of the six Western Balkan countries, the official candidates for membership are Montenegro, Serbia, the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania, and potential members are Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. If the official observation of the various platforms of the EU is positive, that is to say that they are considering their membership because of their geographical and cultural affinity with the community, there is nevertheless a hesitation on the part of the EU, especially France, to fund projects that do not appear “lucrative” and are “unaffordable” outside of the turbulent political nature of their societies. Beijing has taken initiatives that are probably “unprofitable”, such as the BRI-funded railway between Belgrade and Budapest. Chinese loans therefore appear to be an attractive option as they can communicate strategically with the EU to focus less on political and economic reforms for its members, in addition to prompting more rigorous investment plans. Dorde Radulovic, Montenegro’s foreign minister, apparently referred to as the “heart of Europe”, recently said of the insufficient funding from the EU and the US that he had “left an empty geopolitical space here in the Western Balkans, China has jumped “.
Beijing’s economic presence in the region is governed by debt trap conditions similar to those of countries in South Asia and Africa. The projects are implemented by state-owned companies employing Chinese workers, thus increasing Beijing’s geopolitical influence. Imagining cultural shifts induced by increased interactions to define the narratives of geopolitical changes might not be wrong if we look at previous case studies of small countries like Nepal and Myanmar falling into the trap of China. The vicious cycle of being denied membership on the grounds of diminished political and financial credibility resulting from Beijing’s profitability must be avoided in order to weaken its strategic reach and the associated risks. Otherwise, the Balkans could perhaps find itself in a situation of total political retreat, damaging the long-term interests of the EU and North America.
Second, China’s strategic interests in the Western Balkans and other states can be understood in terms of NATO membership of Albania, Montenegro and North Macedonia and Serbia’s refusal to join. organization for reasons of military neutrality. Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the other hand, is eager to join NATO due to Russian influence over the Serbian community and therefore fears the collapse of the existing power-sharing agreement. China has also made efforts to deepen its ties with the country, making it a fourth political player after the EU, NATO and Russia in search of influence. For example, Beijing recently decided to finance coal-fired power plants in the country despite President Xi Jinping’s pledge to reduce projects sanctioned for the use of coal. The smart cities project and 5G communication networks have further increased China’s influence. Such and other âunconditionalâ measures that seem affordable to economically disadvantaged countries only heighten China’s stakes in regions of the world.
Moreover, just as the tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine reach the brink, the geographical importance of the Balkans should not be missed by strategic experts. Nonetheless, China’s larger goal is to build a âland-seaâ route to link the port of Piraeus (Greece) to serve as a hub for EU-China trade. As envisioned by Xi, it is the largest container transit port in the Mediterranean and serves as a southern gateway to central and eastern Europe.
The third aspect on which China is capitalizing is ideological. Beijing has carefully increased its presence through the ideological similarities it shares with some of the Balkan and Central European countries. These similarities will play a pivotal role in shaping crucial decisions such as whether to vote for China or perhaps even military bases at an opportune moment in the near future. For example, there is the China-CEEC Political Party Dialogue and the China-CEEC Young Political Leaders Forum; active participation in the Global Dialogue of Political Parties to strengthen its ties with the communist countries of the world, and finally, party-to-party cooperation with the Democratic Party of Montenegrin Socialists and the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) outside Yugoslavia. Moreover, although not recognized by Beijing, Kosovo maintains informal relations and adheres to its âOne Chinaâ policy regarding Taiwan. The result is the creation of sharp divisions within the European community.
The democratic summit organized by the United States has further divided Europe. With countries like Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia invited and Belarus, Hungary and Bosnia and Herzegovina uninvited, this has deepened divisions within Europe. China could fill the “political vacuum” and extract advantages that could possibly harm the interests of Europe and the United States.
Europe recently woke up to the Chinese threat, and in September 2021 the EU adopted a new Chinese policy that highlighted human rights violations in Xinjiang and disinformation in addition to ” promote strategic autonomy and defend European interests and values âââ. The European Commission has recently sought to evolve its role towards that of a âgeopolitical commissionâ which aims to strengthen trade rules by bringing them fully into line with existing international trade law. The launch of the âGlobal Gatewayâ strategy amounting to 300 billion euros focused on digital, transport and energy projects, in addition to strengthening democratic partnerships, is increasingly seen as a response to practices of China’s debt trap.
Finally, from a different perspective, the role of the Western Balkans should be considered. The Balkans would strategically expect favors such as debt cancellation from the EU in the face of strategic Chinese incursions and might expect reciprocal action as a counter-response from China. Alternatively, countries might expect the EU to repay Chinese debt instead of military favors. In both cases, the transfer of European wealth to Chinese banks therefore seems inevitable.
(The author is an assistant professor at the Central University of the Punjab, Bathinda. The opinions expressed are personal.)