The Western Balkans is one of the few regions on the European subcontinent that has not yet joined the European Union. The region, which consists of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, the Republic of North Macedonia, and Croatia (which has been a member of the EU since 2013), has been struggling to recover from the devastation wrought by conflicts in the late 1990’s. It is therefore not too strange that China was welcomed with open arms when it significantly scaled up its investments in infrastructure, factories and mines in 2012, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Due to this increased investment, China has acquired a significant amount of influence in the region. This trend has been observed with wary eyes by the neighbouring EU, as it is currently discussing the prospect of some countries in the region acceding to the European Union.
Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chinese influence in the region became a stark reminder for the EU that they should be serious about engaging with the Western Balkans, or risk the region ending up in the Chinese sphere of influence.
How influential is China?
Initially, Chinese presence and influence in the Western Balkans was confined to the economic sectors. Chinese companies mostly engaged in direct investment and project development, with mixed results. On the one hand, there are projects like the Pupin Bridge in Belgrade, which were received very well by the Serbian government. On the other hand, there were projects such as the Bar-Boljare Highway, which were met with disappointment from the local population. According to the Clingendael Institute, China’s interest in the Western Balkans is mainly due to its geographical proximity to the EU, which is a major export market for China. The area forms a corridor between Greece, a country in which China already has a considerable presence, and the rest of the European Member States in Central and Southern Europe. Being a highly strategic area, it is not strange that China has chosen the Western Balkans as the destination for infrastructure investment. Even in 2020, investment in the area continued, which was illustrated by China supplanting Russia as the largest investor in Montenegro.
In recent times, however, China has started to diversify its presence in the region as well. One example of this diversification effort is the presence of the various Confucius Institutes in all Western Balkan Countries, except Kosovo (which is not recognised by China). A report by the Konrad Adenauer-Stiftung shows that media has also been a significant part of the effort to gain influence in the Western Balkans.
Chinese relations with the Western Balkans are mainly conducted through the China-CEEC framework (also known as the 17+1): an initiative created in 2012 to promote ties with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. This initiative is often perceived by the EU as a Chinese attempt to divide the European Member States, and to use economic ties to assert its own influence in the region. Recently, it became clear that the initiative might have lost some of its appeal, as the heads of state of some Eastern European Member States decided to skip the annual meeting, and sent a replacement instead. This seems to show a trend towards a different perspective on China, perhaps best illustrated by Romania, which has taken a relatively tough stance.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been the beginning of a new chapter in China-Balkan relations. As some argue that the EU has failed in their vaccination policy, many of the countries that were counting on the EU now turn to other vaccine suppliers, such as China and Russia. These countries include those in the Western Balkans, and even EU Member States such as Hungary. For China, this is the ideal opportunity to establish themselves as “champions of international cooperation,” and to further deepen their influence in countries such as Serbia and Montenegro.
It seems that this diversification effort has been successful to at least a certain degree. The European Council on Foreign Affairs warned that China is actually “on the cusp of acquiring real leverage over policy choices, political attitudes, and narratives in some parts of the Western Balkans.” This could prove problematic for the future dynamic between, for example, Serbia and the EU, as Serbia is in the process of becoming a full-fledged EU Member State.
How does the EU perceive this?
On the whole, the European Union has seen China’s forays into the Western Balkan region as nothing more than an attempt to gain influence in Europe. The South China Morning Post argues that the Chinese leadership holds similar views: they too perceive the Western Balkans as a geopolitical and market bridgehead into Europe. In January 2021, a cross-party group of MEPs signed a letter expressing concern about the increased reliance of Serbia on China, as well as the pollution caused by Chinese investment in Serbian industry.
Recent developments in what is perceived as Chinese “vaccine diplomacy” has worried policymakers in the EU, who perceive it as a clear geopolitical move. China’s influence clout in the region, together with the distribution of Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines, has served as a harsh reminder that the EU is not the only one competing for influence in their own immediate neighbourhood. With many countries arguing that the EU has “abandoned” them, it seems that the EU will need to put an increased effort into maintaining relationships with them.
What will the future bring?
If the EU is to have any chance of limiting Chinese influence in the region as part of the accession process, they will need to focus more on the region, and come up with a policy aimed at closing the development gap between the EU and the potential EU Member States in the Western Balkans. China, meanwhile, is likely to continue expanding its economic presence in the region, as well as diversifying its presence even further. In this light, Chinese President Xi talked with French President Macron about enhancing French-Sino cooperation on Eastern and Central Europe.
Of course, it would be wrong to only talk about the Western Balkans as an object of the influence struggle between the EU and China. The political trends and public opinions of these countries can play a significant role for determining the degree of influence in the future. For example, environmental concerns due to Chinese industrial investments have led to a worried populace in some places, and even protests in Serbia. If these concerns are not addressed, we could potentially see Western Balkan foreign policy shift away from China, and again look for closer relations with its direct neighbours. Alternatively, countries such as Serbia can also use the struggle for influence between China and the EU for their own gain.
Considering the current geopolitical tensions, it will certainly be important to watch Chinese investments in the Western Balkans for the years to come. Especially worth keeping an eye on is the transition of Chinese presence in the Western Balkans from a merely economic presence to a more diversified presence, how this presence will manifest itself in actual influence, and how this will have an impact on EU-China relations.