Home Politics Mapping China’s rise to power in the Western Balkans

Mapping China’s rise to power in the Western Balkans

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China’s emergence as a power in the Western Balkans over the past decade constitutes one of the most significant geopolitical developments in Europe. As part of Beijing’s broad internationalization efforts to expand its global footprint, the country has worked to improve its position in several key sectors, such as energy and infrastructure. Furthermore, in recent years we have seen an expansion and broadening of activities that go beyond the economy and interaction with state institutions. China is now engaging more in culture, academia, education, media and even with various political parties and local governments. China is also developing a wider pool of interested partners within countries in the region, in order to strengthen its influence there. Furthermore, the persistent geopolitical impasse in the Western Balkans – the most striking example of which is the impasse in the EU accession process and the development gap with the rest of Europe – results in continued attempts from numerous non-Western external actors to position themselves and integrate into the region. to pursue their long-term goals. These include Beijing’s stronger positioning and influence in key sectors, such as energy and infrastructure, as well as broader positioning in society and politics.

The overall development prospects of countries in the region continue to suffer due to geopolitical uncertainty, incomplete access to the European market, persistent emigration, insufficient investment and poor governance. This status quo creates opportunities for countries like China to gain access to critical sectors. Additionally, Beijing’s policy of lending money with few explicit conditions creates a “debt trap.” Montenegro currently finds itself in such a trap, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of almost 100%, more than half of which is owed to China. These risks are further exacerbated by corruption and autocratic and non-transparent governance. China engages with Western Balkan states on a bilateral basis, but also under the “16 plus 1” framework, which brings together Central and Eastern European countries to interact collectively with Beijing. Diplomatically, China has preferred to interact at the level of elites and state institutions, but is increasingly focusing on non-state, local and civil society structures in the various states in the region. Importantly, China’s growing presence in the region and increasing geopolitical competition have led the West to respond with growing support for EU and NATO expansion, support for infrastructure and efforts to deepen cooperation with Western Balkan states in areas such as critical infrastructure and security.

The appearance of China on the regional map surprised many policymakers, while others preferred to downplay the significance of this trend due to the lack of reliable and accessible data and information. At the same time, a renewed interest in this issue on the part of official national and international institutions, academia, research centers and private companies has illustrated the growing need for a more structured, more systematic and long-term effort to collect, collate and analyze information from Beijing. entry and advancement into the region. This mapping project attempts to begin to provide such data and information.

The war in Ukraine could potentially introduce new political dynamics in the Western Balkans region. The main EU states, such as Germany, are already calling for accelerated integration of this part of Europe into the EU and NATO area, and these political voices are expected to multiply in the weeks and the months to come. There is a real possibility of greater coordination between Russia and China in the region, which would further raise the geopolitical stakes. Moreover, neutrality policies like Serbia’s could become untenable as the global system divides into two large political and economic blocs.

The mapping project provides a brief overview of China’s relations with six Western Balkan countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia. It offers a complementary mix of quantitative and qualitative approaches. Collecting and compiling data on China is challenging for a variety of reasons, meaning that some aspects of each country’s relationship with China still require further research. Subsequent iterations of the project will add and update the initial content. ECFR is grateful for the support and contributions of the organizations and individual experts who helped create this exercise mapping these countries’ interactions with China.

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