China’s digital presence dominates in the Western Balkans
China has made inroads in the Balkans by dominating digital infrastructure in some countries and providing telecommunications technology in others.
According to an editorial in the online blog “War on the Rocks”, China’s digital presence in the Balkans is expanding, raising concerns in the West.
The so-called “Chinese Digital Silk Road” now dominates telecommunications in the Western Balkans, ie Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo.
The Chinese Digital Silk Road is a crucial part of the Belt and Road Initiative. It aims to provide digital and telecommunications infrastructure in several countries.
The Belt and Road Initiative is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organizations.
By providing telecommunications networks in the Balkans, and in particular 5G digital technology, China is establishing its geopolitical influence in Europe, raising concerns in the Western world.
The Digital Silk Road is an alliance of Chinese ICT companies and the Chinese state with the aim of increasing China’s strategic power.
At the same time, the Digital Silk Road is an effort for the global expansion of Chinese technologies into markets previously dominated by local or Western companies.
China has built bilateral cross-border optical cable networks, plans transcontinental submarine optical cable projects, improves satellite information passages to expand information exchange and cooperation.
Now, China’s 5G technology aims to dominate the international telecommunications arena with super-fast mobile networks.
Greece – China cooperation
While the Chinese shipping company COSCO is the main shareholder in the port of Piraeus – the largest in Greece and one of the largest in Europe – the Asian giant does not have a significant share of the country’s digital infrastructure.
China has also made a number of major investments in Greece, notably in energy and real estate.
However, this is not the case in the field of ICT. The lion’s share of Greece’s digital infrastructure is owned by Deutsche Telekom Group, the German giant which bought out the former state-owned telecommunications company OTE and changed its name to COSMOTE.
COSMOTE launched the first 5G network in Greece in December 2020 without using Huawei technology.
At the same time, Greece still has a duty to Brussels, as Beijing is accused of trying to sabotage a unified EU with initiatives such as the “17 + 1” summit.
The European Commission has announced that it will further crack down on Chinese investment in Europe, signaling Greece and other European countries to open up to China’s plans.
Serbia – China digital cooperation
China has successfully promoted the Digital Silk Road in the Western Balkans.
Serbia is China’s main partner in the region, as Huawei dominates the country’s fixed and broadband internet network.
In 2016, Telekom Srbija announced that the company had signed a $ 150 million contract with Huawei for the development of optical networks and fast internet.
In the same year, Serbia and China signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement.
The strategic and economic ties between Belgrade and Beijing have enabled increased cooperation in the digital and telecommunications fields.
Huawei has built its regional headquarters in Belgrade and is a long-standing partner of the state-owned telecommunications company Telekom Srbija.
Along with Huawei, Chinese Hikvision and Dahua technologies have also been established in Serbia, providing video surveillance solutions for commercial and public safety purposes.
According to 2020 data, the amount of contracts signed with Chinese banks to modernize Serbian infrastructure has exceeded $ 7 billion.
Today, there are 1,000 Huawei security surveillance cameras in the capital of Serbia, Belgrade, while all digital communications are equipped by the Chinese company.
Balkan countries not aligned with China
Kosovo and China have yet to establish formal diplomatic relations. The Balkan country is clearly aligned with the US Clean Network initiative.
Likewise, North Macedonia and Albania have limited Chinese influence in their digital infrastructure, including 5G networks. In 2020, the two countries joined the Clean Network Initiative.
Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo have openly expressed their willingness to push China out of the existing digital infrastructure and prohibit the participation of Chinese companies in further development.
Montenegro has allowed Chinese companies to participate in the rollout of 5G in the country. However, the country has announced that it will seek to diversify its suppliers to mitigate security risks.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, on the other hand, has not limited China’s digital influence. The capital, Sarajevo, has signed a memorandum of understanding with Huawei.
Huawei has a strong presence in the country’s telecommunications system and has been involved in the education system by cooperating with the University of Mostar.
European Union and United States concerned
The Chinese “digital invasion” in the Balkans is a source of concern for both the EU and the United States.
The Balkan countries are in the immediate neighborhood of the EU, while some of them are potential members who are queuing up.
If these Balkan countries do indeed become partners of the EU, China’s digital influence could potentially be transferred to the European Union.
In addition to their aspirations for EU membership, Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia are also members of NATO and, with Kosovo, have established close defense relations with Washington and of security.
If China creates digital infrastructure in the region, it could pose a potential security challenge not only for Europe, but also for the United States.
Ian Bremmer and Cliff Kupchan, respectively chairman and chairman of the Eurasia group, wrote in a 2020 report:
“China will step up efforts to reshape international technology, commerce and financial architecture to better promote its interests in an increasingly bifurcated world.”
Washington has so far attempted to curb China’s attempt to dominate the digital realm with the Clean Network Initiative.
The Clean Network Initiative is an approach to protect US assets, including the privacy of citizens and the most sensitive corporate information, against “intrusions by malicious actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party.”
It was former President Trump’s initiative to protect data streams, which President Joe Biden adopted.
Several countries in the Western Balkans have joined the US Clean Network initiative, including Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo.
Other Western Balkan countries that have not joined the initiative are under pressure to limit China’s 5G digital presence in the region.
The Biden administration is trying to strengthen ties with the EU in order to counter China’s growing influence in the Balkan countries and around the world.
For its part, the European Commission itself has taken precautionary measures and asked member countries to adopt policies that will limit the presence of “high risk suppliers”.
It also serves as a warning to potential EU members in the Western Balkans. They will have to follow EU digital technology rules if they want to integrate.