The coronavirus epidemic may end up expanding China’s global reach and influence in many places on the planet. Even though the Balkan countries are firmly in the geopolitical orbit of the European Union and the Unites States, Chinese economic presence in the region is expected to grow.
The Balkans mostly represent fertile soil, characterized by economic stagnation, corruption, weak governance and high unemployment rates on which West European, American, Russian, Turkish and Chinese companies put down roots. Beijing used the coronavirus crisis to increase its political and economic presence in some Balkan countries. For instance, it provided donations in medical equipment to Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Albania, which some analysts see as Beijing’s growing “soft power” in this part of Europe. In Serbia, the region’s largest and most populous nation, China also built a state-of-the-art laboratory that has helped to nearly double the country’s testing capacity for COVID-19. The laboratory is located in the capital Belgrade, and another one in the city of Nis is expected to be built by July.
During the most critical phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Serbia, as well as other so-called Western Balkan countries – all of them located in the central and southern parts of the Balkan Peninsula, not in the West – implemented Chinese-style restrictions and lockdown. The Serbian government reportedly followed the orders it got from Chinese experts who had come to Serbia in March after President Aleksandar Vucic appealed for help from his “friend and brother” Chinese leader Xi Jinping. All that, however, does not mean the region is switching from Euro-Atlantic to China-centric geopolitical orbit.
The main form of Chinese economic cooperation in the Balkans is lending for infrastructure projects, mainly in transportation and energy. From a perspective of the Balkan countries, Chinese investments present both opportunities and risks. They can help to completely transform the region, but the visionary projects can also burden governments with large debts, as well as economically unviable infrastructure and increase dependency on China. The whole region is already heavily dependent on the European Union and the United States. At present, the EU is the main trade partner for the Balkans, accounting for 73 percent of its interstate commerce. China’s share with the Balkan countries is much lower, accounting for 5.7 percent of the overall trade in the region.
When it comes to political influence, all countries in the region have been on “European path” for decades, with no chance to join the European Union any time soon. Some analysts claim that Beijing’s main aim is to use the Balkans as a gateway and a commercial platform to Western Europe, where real Chinese interests lie. It is worth noting, however, that the United States pressured many European countries over their business ties with China, but not the Balkan nations. The US is attempting to ban high-tech Chinese firms, such as Huawei, from US markets in the name of national security. It has also stepped up pressure on its European allies to break ties with Huawei and to change their policies toward China. However, Serbia, which is a de facto modern colony where Western powers have major influence, is allowed to keep doing business with the Chinese technological giant. Serbian officials repeated on several officials they have no plans of abandoning their cooperation with the Chinese company. Huawei already started implementing surveillance system in Serbia, which includes installing 1,000 high-definition cameras that use facial and license plate recognition software, in 800 locations across the Serbian capital Belgrade. A Chinese company in Serbia is also installing infrastructure for broadband internet, including 4G antennas on police stations. Next year, Huawei is expected to start installing a 5G network in the Balkan country. The very fact the US did not pose any threat to Serbia due to its business with China is a clear indication that Chinese influence in the country is part of Beijing’s deal with Washington over the balance of power in the region.
If a hard decoupling and “new Cold War” are part of a wide informal agreement between the US and China, the two major powers will likely create certain zones of influence all over the world, just like the United States and Great Britain on one side, and the Soviet Union on the other side did in 1944 and 1945. Due to its energy importance, the Balkan countries that are out of the European Union will likely remain in Euro-Atlantic geopolitical orbit, although in the foreseeable future China could have predominance in certain spheres.
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