Mapping China’s rise in the Western Balkans – European Council on Foreign Relations
China’s emergence as a power in the Western Balkans over the past decade is 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. Moreover, in recent years we have witnessed both an expansion and broadening of activities that go beyond the economy and interaction with state institutions. There is now greater Chinese engagement in culture, academia, education, media and even with a range of political parties and local governments. China is also developing a wider group of interested partners in the countries of the region, to strengthen its influence there. In addition, the persistent wider geopolitical stalemate in the Western Balkans – the most significant example of which is the deadlock in the EU accession process and the development gap with the rest of Europe – involves continued attempts by many non-Western external actors to position themselves and integrate into the region. to pursue their long-term goals. These have included 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 enter critical sectors. Moreover, 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 nearly 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 through the “16 plus 1” framework, which brings together Central and Eastern European countries to collectively interact with Beijing. Diplomatically, China has preferred to interact at the elite and state institutional level, but it is increasingly focusing on non-state, local and civil society structures in the various states of the region. . Importantly, China’s growing presence in the region and growing geopolitical competition have led the West to respond with increasing support for EU and NATO expansion, infrastructure support and efforts to deepen cooperation with Western Balkan states in areas such as critical infrastructure and security.
China’s appearance on the regional map surprised many politicians, while others preferred to ignore the significance of the trend due to a scarcity of reliable and accessible data points and information. Meanwhile, renewed interest in the issue from official national and international institutions, universities, research centers and private companies, has illustrated the growing need for a more structured, systematic effort and long-term to collect, collate and analyze data from Beijing. entry and advancement in the region. This mapping project attempts to begin to provide this data and information.
The war in Ukraine has the potential to introduce new political dynamics into the Western Balkan region. Major EU states like Germany are already calling for the accelerated integration of this part of Europe into the EU and NATO space and these political voices are expected to multiply in the weeks and coming months. There is a real possibility of greater coordination between Russia and China in the region, further raising the geopolitical stakes. Moreover, policies of neutrality like Serbia’s could become untenable as the global system splits into two major political and economic blocs.
The mapping project provides brief snapshots 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 collating data on China is challenging for a variety of reasons, which means 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. The ECFR is grateful for the support and contributions of the organizations and individual experts who participated in the creation of this exercise in mapping these countries’ interactions with China.