West’s Tension With China Presents Balkans With Tough Choices

Balkan countries don’t want to have to decide between warm economic ties to China and political and strategic commitments to the West – but they may have to.

Anastas Vangeli

Originally published by the Balkan Insight

April 2, 2021

How has the rise of China and its arrival in the Balkan region transformed the worldview of its local elites? When looking at Balkan-China relations, we usually focus on China's intended messaging. What we often do not take into account is that this messaging, while advancing China’s agenda, also has unintended consequences.

At the same time, in addition to Sino-Balkan interactions, factors exogenous to the Balkans-China relationship have also impacted on how Balkan elites see a world in which China plays an ever-greater role.

In my study for PSSI, China's Ideational Impact in the Western Balkans 2009-2019, I start from the premise that the emergence of China as a global actor has affected the way in which policy, business and knowledge-producing elites around the world and the Balkans think of global politics and economics, and about their own role in global affairs.

China’s rise itself has had a profound impact on a conceptual level, as it has been associated with narratives of power shifts from West to the East and the rise of an alternative model of development.

Equally importantly, however, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, China has embraced a pro-active foreign policy and became part of the calculus for regional development in a number of areas of the world. In the Western Balkans, in less than a decade, China has become one of the central discussion points when thinking about the trajectory of the region in the global political economy.

Through pro-active, economically oriented diplomacy under the Belt and Road Initiative, BRI and 17+1 frameworks, China has attempted to shape the Balkan countries’ attitudes in favour of deeper Sino-Balkan cooperation.

In this it was initially successful, as regional actors thought of relations with China in economically liberal, pragmatic terms. Such thinking of China has been facilitated by the condition of the region in the post-crisis era – i.e. by its increasing need for economic partnerships that could not be met by the traditional partners – but also by the general spirit of the time: until 2016-17, cooperation with China was not politically sensitive.

Moreover, there has been an important caveat to how this process unveiled: while China and its global vision were warmly welcomed in the region, it was with a clearly defined role as a “Plan B” option. Most of the landmark infrastructure projects in the region pursued in cooperation with China are projects that were previously been shunned by Western partners. Today, Chinese vaccines become an alternative for Balkan governments only because it was difficult to obtain those produced by Western companies.

And, for all of the pragmatic discourse surrounding it, China has not managed to stay out of domestic political debates as it originally desired. Concerns about financial and environmental sustainability and about governance issues that have arisen from the pursuit of joint projects with Chinese partners in the Balkans have led to China becoming a contentious issue in domestic debates.

China has been also politicized by its close association with incumbents in backsliding democracies. In North Macedonia, cooperation with China was seen as a policy of Nikola Gruevski’s authoritarian governments, so being opposed to Gruevski meant being opposed to closer relations with China. Similar developments can be seen in Serbia, where relations have had a strong personal association with President Aleksandar Vucic.

The most significant unintended consequence, however, has been in the framing of the Balkans-China relationship as being in isolation from global dynamics,and as apolitical in nature.  While China bears an implicit but potent narrative about global change, permeated throughout its developmentalist rhetoric, it has left significant global issues out of the discussion with regional actors and adopted a discourse centred on pragmatic cooperation.

But Balkan actors, while welcoming the idea of regional prosperity envisioned by China, for example through the BRI, have not trespassed into areas they consider taboo. They have never endorsed broader global transformations or renounced their commitment to the West.

The attempt to depoliticize relations advanced Balkan and Chinese cooperation in the short term but has since become a major blind spot for the two sides. As relations between the US and China rapidly deteriorated after 2016, and as the EU also became less trusting of China, cooperation with Beijing has become politically sensitive.

In the light of these changing global dynamics, apart from Serbia, all other Western Balkan countries have toned down enthusiasm for cooperation with China. Even in Serbia, the ruling elite has balanced deepening cooperation with China with moves to reaffirm relations with the West, including the signing of an agreement with Kosovo under the auspices of former US President Trump in Washington in 2020.

Today, it is impossible to speak of China in the Balkans without taking in account the broader global landscape and of the state of play between “East” and “West.” Such a development was not part of China’s plan. The increasingly “zero-sum” and “either-or” understanding of external affairs in the region is breeding caution when dealing with China, but is also sometimes instrumentalized by local actors who attempt to play off China on one hand against the EU and the US on the other.

This also suggests that besides Balkan-China interactions, global political dynamics will remain a decisive factor in. shaping the understanding of China, and of a world in which China plays a greater role among Balkan actors in future. Relations between the West and China will significantly determine the way Western Balkan actors think and position themselves in the world, too.

However, aside from added caution and perhaps louder commitments to their strategic orientations, Balkan countries are unlikely to sacrifice cooperation with China because that cooperation is not a result of preference but of necessity.

This poses a challenge for European and American policymakers, who aside from contemplating relentless competition with China in the Balkans, at some point may want to consider the possibility of engagement.