engagement in international politics has intensified in recent years,
especially since Xi Jinping became the general secretary of the Chinese
Communist Party. The Western Balkans are no exception. Serbia, Bosnia and
Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo have all seen an increase
in interactions with China. In a new Prague Security Studies Institute study,
the analyses by Balkan experts show similar patterns in China’s approaches to
the region and its local perceptions. The collaborative work is worthy of
attention since the region’s relations with the PRC remain underreported.
A new era in Balkan-China relations
The study points
to an increase in interactions with China in recent years. This has featured
the establishment of the ‘16+1’ platform in 2012, a China-led grouping of
European countries from the former Soviet Bloc that aims to strengthen
cooperation and political ties. This organization plays an important role in
promoting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in the region, but has sparked
suspicions internationally, experts and politicians warn that 16+1 is mainly a
Chinese tool to drive a wedge between EU’s West and EU’s East.
politicians (even in Kosovo, a country that is not officially recognized by
PRC) seem to be bending over backward to get Chinese investments and loans to
fund their projects and help develop their countries. The study’s findings show
that so far very little investment has materialized, and mostly brought limited
benefit to the host countries. The only country receiving substantial amounts
from China is Serbia, but even here Maja Bjeloš – the author of the Serbian
paper – notes that “the forms of Chinese investment are almost exclusively
acquisitions, construction contracts and loans with little added value for
Serbia (e.g. using Chinese contractors and thus not creating new job
opportunities or providing skills development).”
This seems to be
the pattern in most of the Chinese investment projects from the Philippines to
Africa, something that has led to considerable international scrutiny of BRI.
The study’s authors also highlight the lack of transparency in the way Chinese
regime interacts with local governments, even saying that it is endangering the
EU accession process:
non-transparent business practices provide space for corruption to flourish.
Since corruption is one of the region’s biggest obstacles to its transition
process and European integration, Chinese activities should be closely
Most of the
projects, the authors agree, belong to the infrastructure and energy sectors.
Corruption has indeed been reported in the case of North Macedonia, where the
government got caught discussing a “commission” in exchange for making a
highway project cost the country extra 155 million Euro. Another trait noticed
by the Bosnian and Herzegovinian paper’s author Srećko Latal is the Chinese export of
construction capacity and “its older, ‘dirty’ technology, equipment and
paper on North Macedonia notes that in the case of projects in that country
“the contracts envision Chinese courts as the bodies that arbitrate in disputes
effectively exempting China from any costs in unfavorable scenarios,” which
could turn out to be a major issue should any dispute within the projects
Balkans’ BRI experience, as described in the study, fits patterns observed
elsewhere. The lack of substantial investment in the five countries is similar
to what Sinopsis, a Prague-based project focusing on China, has called the “the
‘economic diplomacy’ of empty promises”: despite high-profile announcements and
agreements, promised projects often fail to materialize. While the Czech
Republic is a prime example, similar situations have been described globally,
from the Philippines to Poland. Nor are the lack of transparency and
China-enabled corruption limited to the Western Balkans. The North Macedonian
case is reminiscent of the previous Malaysian government’s dealings with China
in the context of BRI projects, where government officials including the PM
made deals to raise the costs of infrastructure and split the extra amount
between themselves and the Chinese company building the project. The PM also
asked China to spy on Wall Street Journal journalists in Hong Kong
investigating Malaysian corruption.
Neutral economic partner or a foreign power?
While the authors
of the study mostly agree in their description and interpretation of economic
cooperation between the countries and China, they differ in the perception of
China as a potential threat.
Some seem to
suggest that China is more of a neutral power, interested only in business.
Others, such as Naunov, underline China’s potential threat to the countries’
stability and political culture. He cites reports and statements by, among
others, EU officials, pointing to possible consequences of deals with China:
engagement in the region–which gives off an impression of ‘a politically
neutral force and a reliable business partner’ – belies a formidable strategy
in the geopolitical and ideological power struggle with the West. This
stratagem is likely the reason behind EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn’s
identification of Chinese influence as a much greater danger to the Western
Balkans than Russian influence.”
quotes a European Union Institute of Security Studies paper:
expansion is[…] fostered by its domestic model of business relations, based on
a balance between state and market forces which is in stark contrast with the
governance reforms promoted by the EU China’s economic expansion, for example,
often abets unmitigated corruption, as is best illustrated by China’s financing
of two highways in North Macedonia.”
The authors of
the report also seem to fear “debt-trap diplomacy”, mainly in North Macedonia
Naunov, since Chinese courts can rule on project disputes, “the North
Macedonian government is now compelled to plunge the country into further debt,
something that could add North Macedonia to an already sizable list of states
in different parts of the world that have fallen into this so-called ‘China
On the other
hand, Bjeloš notes that the “Serbian government still does not seem to have
recognized the risk of falling into the so-called ‘Chinese debt trap’”.
China’s global coming out
China tries to promote an image as a neutral power just doing business. The
messaging still seems to be working in many places, and as the report suggests,
even in the Western Balkans. Under Xi Jinping, PRC is getting increasingly active
in lobbying and influence operations globally. This was underlined by Xi’s
Davos speech in 2017, where he stated that China is aiming for “two
leaderships” (两个引导) that is in
globalization and insecurity issues.
actively pushes to change norms and standards to be more aligned with its own
worldview and agendas. For this, it has been employing ‘elite capture’ tactics,
co-opting local and international actors, at times in exchange for money. For
example, former Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremić and president of the UN General Assembly
received millions for cooperation with a former Hong Kong minister (and CEFC
the conglomerate he worked for) sentenced by a US court to 3 years of jail for
bribing politicians at the UN and in Africa,
Xi Jinping also
boosted China’s United Front work that is now actively approaching politicians
and public alike in order to co-opt them and advance China’s interests abroad.
The Leninist nature of China’s Party-state system many interactions with
Chinese entities can be more political than is the case with other nations.
Even cultural exchanges are often politicized when it comes to China, often
with the intent of cultivating local actors rather than simply promoting
culture. The activity of the Confucius Institutes should be understood in this
context. These organizations are not NGOs, as the Serbia paper calls them, but
rather government entities with links to the CCP’s propaganda system.
During an April
PSSI conference presenting findings of this study, some of the Balkan experts
denied that the Western Balkans could become “Trojan horses” bringing Chinese
influence ever closer to the West via EU accession, saying that “even Italy is
now joining the BRI”. Indeed, China already enjoys considerable political influence
not only in EU countries such as Italy or the Czech Republic but elsewhere in
the Western world. But while “the West” is dealing with China extensively, too,
and is getting under heavier and heavier Chinese lobbying, some of the
malpractice should not be repeated simply because other countries “do it too”.
Based on Naunov’s
quotation of a Chinese academic who stated that “North Macedonia’s EU accession
would benefit China as well” and other authors’ discussion of the accession
process as linked to China’s increasing interest in the countries, the
potential risk of China influencing local politics in order to gain more power
in EU structures should not be dismissed.
As in other
regions, local actors in the Western Balkan could benefit from an increased
understanding of China and its politics. A lack of China knowledge may result
in failing to see China’s activities abroad in the general context of its
political system, which differs markedly from more familiar European models.
The need to understand China on its own terms will only become more important
as the country continues to become more assertive.