China Will Loom Large in Balkans Once Pandemic is Over

Despite the West’s growing suspicions about China, its role in the Western Balkans is likely to become even more central in the post-COVID-19 era.

Anastas Vangeli

Originally published by the Balkan Insight

April 13, 2021

The global public has never talked as much about China as it has during the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 struck China first, causing mayhem in Hubei Province. China was also the first country to put the outbreak under control, and the only major economy to record positive economic growth in 2020.

As the virus spread globally, China gained importance as a leading exporter of protective equipment, and China’s pharmaceutical companies were among the few in the world to produce a vaccine against COVID-19, making it a key player in the global inoculation drive.

However, the coverage of China in global debates during the pandemic has been far from value-neutral. Relations between the West and China were already getting tenser before COVID-19, to the point where some authoritative voices spoke about the emergence of a new Cold War.

Any news about China and its global role during COVID-19 have thus been interpreted primarily through the lens of the global balance of power and the trajectory of the global political economy. At the same time, however, a number of political actors around the world have also seen China and potential relations with it through the lens of the national emergencies caused by the pandemic and their own tangible needs.

This central contradiction that has shaped the understanding and positioning towards China has been particularly visible when one focuses on China’s presence in semi-peripheral regions around the world like the Western Balkans.

China had been already gaining attention in debates on the Balkans before COVID-19 as an external actor that had established linkages to and a real presence in the region since the global financial crisis.

While not the single most important issue in the region, the question of the role and impact of China has persistently hovered over debates on the Balkans in the time of COVID-19, and is poised to become even more central in the post-pandemic era.

Yet, in shaping relations with China, Balkan countries are caught up in the contradiction between practical common sense, which makes China a potentially valuable partner, and the Western normative common sense, according to which China is a threat to regional stability.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, countries in the region have swung between these different discourses, often assuming ambiguous positions.

In early 2020, the Balkans, like the rest of the world, followed the news of the early outbreak in China with shock and disbelief. Debates in the Western media determined those in the region. Skepticism about official information coming from China was dominant. Conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus proliferated. Some, like the theory that the virus escaped a lab in Wuhan, persisted for months. The virus was also racialized, but while this translated into a rise in racial profiling of Chinese and other East Asian people, it did not escalate in the Balkans to the level seen in some other parts of the world.

However, while popular feeling towards China rapidly hardened, governments in the region stayed silent.

The dynamics shifted as COVID-19 started spreading across the globe. While Sino-skepticism still loomed large in the region, China was already putting the outbreak under control. It now seized on the opportunity to promote its methods in combating COVID-19 as best practice, and used previously existing channels established under the Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, and 17+1 banners to convene the Balkan countries, along with their partners from Central-East Europe, and propose different forms of healthcare cooperation.

Chinese actors started pro-actively offering protective equipment, both in the form of aid and commercial deals, as the Balkan countries encountered grave shortages. Chinese diplomats also narrated a Chinese version of the history of COVID-19, disputing the allegations against China made in the Western media. Such actions met scorn from the EU, which saw China’s “mask diplomacy” as undermining its own position in the region, while also framing Chinese narratives as a disinformation campaign.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, in a performance that attracted the attention of audiences worldwide, used the moment to praise China and thank “his brother” Xi Jinping while criticizing the EU for its lack of solidarity. Other Balkan leaders, however, took a lower profile; they also received protective equipment from China and engaged in knowhow exchange, but without much pomp, and, most importantly, they publicly upheld their Transatlantic orientation. They did not legitimize China as a game changer but as a supplementary partner – something that they have been doing for a decade.

Even Vučić made some offsetting moves that reinforced Serbia’s global orientation as pro-Western, such as signing an agreement on normalizing trade relations with former province Kosovo in Washington while also issuing praise for the EU.

Soon after, the start of the “vaccine diplomacy” in the region signified the third act of the Balkans-China relations during the pandemic. Gradually, political calculations have given way to pragmatism, even in the face of brewing geopolitical storms.

Serbia has been a significant outlier at this stage as well, as it has noted exceptional success in securing vaccines, being among world leaders in terms of the pace of inoculation and far outperforming the EU itself.

While Serbia has secured vaccines from various suppliers, a key moment in its drive was the arrival of 1 million doses of China’s Sinopharm’s vaccine in mid-January, a subject of yet another publicity performance by Vucic. By March 2021, Serbia had agreed to construct a factory to produce Sinopharm vaccines at home.

Even more significant than Serbia’s example, however, have been trends in the other Balkan countries during the “vaccine diplomacy” stage. Initially, except Serbia, all other Balkan countries rejected or simply avoided discussing use of Chinese vaccines. Yet, by March 2021, all of them had voiced interest in, and some had made agreements with, the Chinese producers of Sinopharm and Sinovac.

The reason for this change is simple; they had run out of options. They relied on the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access system, COVAX, and on assistance promised by the EU, both of which proved less efficient than predicted. On the other hand, Serbia’s example showed all governments in the region that an alternative existed.

The inclusion of Chinese vaccines in the mix in the Balkans was further underpinned by a shift in thinking and discourse not only about China but about global politics. An illustrative example is North Macedonia’s government under Zoran Zaev. which is well known for its devoutly pro-Western orientation.

Initially, the Skopje government dismissed calls to obtain Chinese and Russian vaccines for geopolitical reasons: as PM Zaev put it, as a NATO member, North Macedonia was obliged to align with the policies of its allies, meaning that it lacked the maneuvering space that Serbia had in securing vaccines.

But as the country failed to secure vaccines from other sources, Zaev retreated, and now argued that it was the sovereign right of every country to secure whatever supplies of vaccines it could find. The emergence of a potential corruption scandal concerning North Macedonia’s bid for Chinese vaccines, however, raises suspicion that there may have been additional motivations for the change of heart.

Yet, all over the Balkans, publics are warming to the idea of using Chinese and Russian vaccines. With that, China is now coming a full circle – from being seen as a source of the disease a year ago to being seen as a source of a cure. More significantly, China is being further embraced as a “Plan B” option, after the EU and the US did not deliver on the key needs of countries in the region.

If this is extrapolated to the domain of economic development, despite geopolitical uncertainties, China may be poised to play an even more significant role in post-COVID regional affairs.

That China is not mired in deep domestic uncertainty, and can plan for a pro-active global engagement only helps its case. This is a scenario that would entail a kind of repetition of the recent past; what enabled China's arrival in the Balkans in the first place was its emergence as a globally pro-active economic actor after the global financial crisis.

This scenario does not entail Chinese hegemony over the Balkans, as its agenda will still be significantly countered by the US and possibly by the EU – but one thing is clear: no one will be able to talk about the Balkans in the post-COVID era without taking China into account.