Filip Kovacevic: China and the Balkans Revisited

In December 2014, I wrote an article on the intensification of the Chinese political and economic presence in the Balkans.[1] I discussed the Chinese relations with the Balkan states chronologically and underlined the importance of the annual „16+1“ summits between China and 16 East-Central European states, including those states in the Balkans which are not EU members. I pointed out the special importance of the Balkans in the long-term Chinese geopolitical and geo-economic plans for Europe.

My article has been one of the very few that have delved into this matter from the standpoint of the Great Powers’ rivalry in the Balkans. I claimed that the increased presence of China, even without any coordination with Russia, was making nervous the top decision makers in both Brussels and Washington. They knew that they could not match the types of credit and investment deals that China was able to offer the struggling economies in the Balkans. In fact, the economic model ingrained in the IMF and World Bank functioning is very different from the one propounded by the Chinese government-owned companies and banks. While the IMF and the World Bank are interested in the rapid ideological re-shaping of the economic sphere, including various socially painful, but ideologically justified austerity measures, the Chinese government is oriented toward funding long-term infrastructure projects, which over time demand the permanent presence of the Chinese workers, experts, and agents of influence. In this way, the local government officials, having become dependent on the Chinese economic and logistical support, inevitably fall more and more under the sway of the Chinese foreign policy. This is nothing new, or unique to the Balkans. In fact, we are witnessing the same process in some parts of Latin America and Africa.

Since the neo-liberal West appears incapable of offering a better economic option, the only way that it may try to delay and/or stop the emerging geopolitical tilt to the East is to create internal unrest and social chaos in those states which are most vulnerable. In fact, considering that the overall political instability in the Balkans has greatly increased in the last several months, we may actually be witnessing exactly such a covert strategy being implemented.

The 2015 „16+1“ Summit

Since the December 2014 summit in Belgrade which I discussed in my previous article, there has been just one more „16+1“ summit. This summit took place in the city of Suzhou in China’s coastal Jiangsu Province, just north of Shanghai, in November 2015. It was the fourth summit and the first one to take place on the Chinese territory. To recall, the first summit took place in Warsaw in 2012 and the second in Bucharest a year later.

The location of the 2016 summit will be in East-Central Europe once again. It is scheduled to take place in Riga, the capital of Latvia, in November. This is interesting, considering that Latvia has been in the forefront of the recent NATO’s anti-Russian campaign and will host additional NATO and U.S. troops this year. It is possible that Latvia’s organization of the summit, in close cooperation with China, might represent a positive step toward easing the tensions in the region. At this point, however, it is too early to gauge the impact of the summit on the Russian-Latvian relations.

The importance of the 2015 summit is underscored by the fact that almost all East-Central European states were represented by the heads of government. Out of 16 states, only Poland, Croatia, Romania, and Slovakia did not send their prime ministers.[2] I suspect this had to do with the dynamics of internal politics and was unrelated to the significance these states assign to the economic and political links with China.

The participants of the summit adopted a joint declaration called the Suzhou guidelines for cooperation between China and Central Eastern European countries (CEEC). The guidelines called for the strengthening of the relations between the Secretariat (established within the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and headed by Wang Chao, deputy foreign minister) and the national coordinators representing the 16 CEEC.[3] In other words, much firmer, formal institutional structures are to be established in the coming period, which are intended to facilitate the transmission of the Chinese foreign policy agenda to the East-Central European decision makers.

The guidelines also mentioned specific projects and initiatives being engaged in by China and CEEC. Their number has grown exponentially since the last summit. In addition to the already existing cargo transportation agreement with Poland and the Road and Belt initiative signed with Hungary, there are many more similar agreements and initiatives with other states in the region. Notable among them is the initiative on customs clearance procedures among China, Hungary, Serbia, and Macedonia which will enable the cost-free import of Chinese goods into Europe via the ports in Greece. This is all a part of the ambitious and geopolitically significant China-Europe Land-Sea Express Line which will irrevocably alter the China-Europe trade balance in favor of China and may, in the mid-to-long term perspective, lead to Europe’s economic subservience.[4]

Moreover, the guidelines also described in detail the concrete steps to be taken to intensify the China-CEEC cooperation in the fields of agriculture, forestry, science, technology, health, higher education, cultural exchange, and arts. The vast majority of these activities are supposed to be financed by the Chinese state budget and it appears that there is no shortage of funds. In many ways, the immense amount of money China is willing to invest in East-Central Europe resembles the U.S-engineered, post-WWII Marshall Fund. Historians have shown that with the Fund’s vast resources, the U.S. was able to buy itself the position of the hidden puppet master of Western European politics for many years to come. The same outcome can now be reasonably expected in the case of China. It is true that in the Suzhou guidelines, there is no mention of military, national security, or intelligence cooperation, but once the Chinese agents of influence are in place, it may not be difficult to penetrate these areas as well. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

The Balkan Leaders in China

All Balkan heads of government, except the prime minister of Croatia Zoran Milanović who had just lost the parliamentary elections, attended the summit in Suzhou. They used this opportunity to send their supporters back home the positive political message of China’s investments being beneficial to their countries’ economies. For instance, the prime minister of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić boasted that Serbia was the country that signed the most contracts with the Chinese companies.[5] He officially met both with the Chinese president Xi Jinping and prime minister Li Keqiang and praised the steadily increasing Chinese economic presence in Serbia.

The other Balkan leaders also held high-level meetings with the Chinese officials. These leaders’ corrupt and socially destructive economic policies brought their countries to the edge of bankruptcy and the overall state collapse. It is not surprising therefore that they are glad to receive any financial inflows, no matter what strings are attached. They have no long-term political vision, except holding on to political power for as long as possible and at any price (even if it means the brutal use of police and intelligence networks against their political opponents). Just as in the case of Louis XV, at the eve of the French Revolution, their moto is „after me, the deluge.“ And the Chinese government officials are willing to oblige: they do have a long-term political vision.

Xi in Belgrade

The special importance of the Balkans in the long-term Chinese geopolitical plans was further emphasized by the president Xi’s visit to Serbia in June 2016. Xi brought to Belgrade a numerous delegation of the Chinese government officials and business leaders. During the meetings with the top Serbian leadership, including the president Tomislav Nikolić and the prime minister Aleksandar Vučić, twenty-two cooperation agreements were signed, dealing with various aspects of inter-state polical and economic relations. What may be particularly nettlesome for the U.S. and NATO is that Serbia and China agreed on the collaborative projects in the field of defense industry.[6] In addition, Nikolić decorated Xi with one of the highest Serbian state decoration and stated that Serbia was „China’s trusted partner“ and that he expected the relations between the two countries „to be deepened based on what was passed on to us by our predecessors“.[7] It is interesting to note that Nikolić, a well-known anti-Communist, is so willing to appropriate the diplomatic heritage of Tito’s Yugoslavia when it suits the advancement of his political agenda.

Xi concurred with Nikolić that the relations between their respective countries are following a very positive, upward trajectory and the two presidents signed a joint declaration on the „overall strategic partnership“. This means that we will be seeing the rapid growth in the number of Chinese investment projects in Serbia in the coming years. The first on the list is the Chinese takeover of the gigantic Serbian steel factory complex in Smederevo. Nikolić and Vučić believe that the Chinese will save the complex from bankruptcy and rescue them from having to deal with thousands of unemployed workers.[8] However, as I already pointed out, it will not take long before the robust economic presence begins translating into direct political influence.

While in Belgrade, Xi also met with Milorad Dodik, the president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, who announced several new joint ventures and projects with the Chinese government.[9] Considering that these projects will contribute to the economic strengthening and self-sufficiency of the Serb Republic, the Chinese government decisions fly in the face of the recent efforts of the EU and the U.S to make Bosnia-Herzegovina more centralized. And so it is in Bosnia, too that the U.S. and Chinese geopolitical agendas for the Balkans show the signs of likely future clashes.

Generally speaking, China is a relative geopolitical new-comer to the Balkans, but its increasingly tangible influence may present the biggest long-term challenge to the U.S.-NATO plans for the region since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

NOTES

[1] http://www.boilingfrogspost.com/2014/12/15/bfp-exclusive-china-the-balkans-this-geopolitical-battle-in-its-beginning-phases/

[2] http://www.mfa.gov.lv/en/policy/multilateral-relations/cooperation-between-central-and-eastern-european-countries-and-china/the-suzhou-guidelines-for-cooperation-between-china-and-central-and-eastern-european-countries

[3] The Secretariat has its own website – http://www.china-ceec.org/eng/index.htm

[4] http://www.mfa.gov.lv/en/policy/multilateral-relations/cooperation-between-central-and-eastern-european-countries-and-china/the-suzhou-guidelines-for-cooperation-between-china-and-central-and-eastern-european-countries

[5] http://www.blic.rs/vesti/politika/samit-u-kini-premijer-vucic-mi-smo-zemlja-koja-potpisuje-najveci-broj-sporazuma/z0wdb38

[6] http://www.rts.rs/page/stories/ci/story/1/politika/2356817/sta-su-sve-potpisale-srbija-i-kina.html

[7] http://www.rts.rs/page/stories/sr/story/9/politika/2356590/drugi-dan-posete-kineskog-predsednika-srbiji.html

[8] http://www.rts.rs/page/stories/sr/story/9/politika/2357468/predsednik-kine-si-djinping-u-smederevu.html

[9] http://www.rts.rs/page/stories/sr/story/9/politika/2357267/dodik-i-si-izrazili-zelju-za-nastavak-saradnje.html

Originally published by BFP/Newsbud, August 16, 2016.