This summer, tourists flocking to the coastal Croatian city of Dubrovnik were greeted by a group very much out of place amidst the ancient fortified walls and orange-roofed buildings that have become synonymous with HBO’s Game of Thrones. Between trips to landmarks often associated with Khaleesi and her counterparts, visitors found themselves surrounded by hordes of Chinese police officers patrolling the town’s cobblestone streets. The security personnel, deployed through a new collaborative effort between the Croatian Interior Ministry and the Chinese Ministry of Public Security, allegedly sought to provide Chinese tourists with feelings of enhanced personal safety throughout their travels.
The “Joint Police Patrol,” however, is just the most visible example of heightened Chinese involvement in the Balkans. In a time of immense Balkan instability and change, the region—largely unguarded and vulnerable as a bloc—is involved in a tug-of-war of hegemonic proportions between the traditional soft power measures of the European Union and the new, radical approach of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. But while Xi Jinping’s aid programs are ostensibly aimed at Balkan stability, they may in fact have the opposite effect by undercutting EU development programs and consequently driving Balkan countries further from the long-term security they seek.
The Balkans have long been viewed as the powder keg of Europe. The region is composed of states of the former Yugoslavia, whose violent breakup in the 1990s is still deeply ingrained in recent memory. The new states that rose out of the ashes and pain of the 1990s—Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and hotly-contested Kosovo—exist in a climate of immense instability and inequity, where conflict could potentially break out at any instant.
It is not simply this internal discord that characterizes the Balkans as a region of extreme vulnerability; on the international scale, the territory remains relatively bereft of geopolitical alignment, save for EU members Slovenia and Croatia. In a world where multinational bodies have gained exceptional prominence, the Balkans’ continued absence from these groups is both curious… and inviting. China has mobilized to exploit this enticing vulnerability, attempting to craft a sphere of influence in Europe.
Upon Xi Jinping’s ascent to the position of General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, Chinese foreign policy departed from historically reserved global engagement to an increasingly emphatic international presence, perhaps best exemplified by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which launched in 2013. Marketed as an opportunity to restore the glory of the Silk Road, the Initiative provides development aid to over 65 countries worldwide.
The motives behind Chinese expansion aren’t necessarily sinister; rather, it is the practical consequences of China’s programs that provide cause for concern. China sees the Balkans as a key gateway to European markets and hopes to buy friends among countries that might eventually join the EU. At the surface, its investments in business and infrastructure provide aid to countries in need. But digging deeper, these programs actually pose a challenge to the long-term development and stability of the region.
The BRI differs from Western aid projects in that it provides fast-paced, visible infrastructure programs with no fine-print policy provisions. China’s unconventionally straightforward approach is alluring to many countries frustrated by the bureacractic hurdles and sluggish timeframes associated with Western aid institutions.
Over the past few years, China has subtly funneled over $10 billion into the promotion of infrastructure projects throughout the Balkan region. From bridges connecting Croatia’s discontiguous coastline to an ambitious overhaul of Montenegro’s highways, Chinese industry has been chugging away at projects dismissed as too ambitious by Western donors and domestic governments.
The implementation of these projects, however, could not have come at a worse time. The presence of no-strings-attached Chinese aid diminishes any incentive to enact stabilizing reforms that would pave the way to future EU membership, and many of China’s programs blatantly violate the EU’s regulatory standards. China’s construction of coal plants throughout the region, for instance, directly counteracts EU efforts to reduce carbon emissions. A highly publicized Chinese plan to build a railway between Belgrade and Budapest was halted due to outcries over its violation of EU infrastructure regulations. Workers in a Serbian steel mill have reported sharp declines in safety following a Chinese takeover of the industry. In addition to the myriad regulatory violations that have accompanied the BRI’s regional proliferation, Balkan countries have become increasingly saddled with debt to Chinese firms. The debt accrued by Balkan states in Chinese infrastructure projects could be enough to stymie any hope of ever being taken under Brussels’ wing.
Meanwhile, in February, the European Commission released a comprehensive roadmap aimed at achieving EU accession of Serbia and Montenegro by 2025, along with broader plans for the long-term integration of six Western Balkan states. However, in order to achieve EU membership, countries must meet an exhaustive list of economic and political standards, which is proving difficult for Balkan states. And there lies the issue: As long as these benchmarks seem lofty and unachievable, Balkan countries will continue to choose easy aid over long-term reform. The Serbian government, for example, struggling with economic stagnation and social instability, knows that it won’t meet the requirements for EU membership any time soon. The country has every reason to forego the difficult process of aligning its policies with the EU’s in favor of immediate Chinese aid. This subsequently contributes to deregulation and drives Serbia further from its ultimate goal.
That the Balkan states would opt for short-term solutions is unsurprising given their tenuous history, which is full of short-term stopgaps. Still, EU membership for Balkan countries may not be so far off after all, permitted they do not lose sight of the long run. But it’s hard not to be wooed by the flashy and new, given the region’s vulnerable state and desire for any modicum of certainty. The onus now rests on the EU: In order to save its reformist agenda, it must take several steps to present Western aid, and ultimately EU membership, as a viable and immediate option. This can be done by mobilizing financial resources and accelerating the timeline for project approval. Currently, there is a time-lag of about one year between project agreement and implementation in EU projects; this delay incentivizes turning to Chinese aid, which is remarkably swift by comparison. However, the EU must emphasize that its funds for infrastructure and economic development actually far outdo China’s in long-term effect. The EU provides grants; China only provides loans. Furthermore, the EU must clearly communicate that Balkan accession is a goal to which Brussels is truly committed and an investment that will benefit all parties.
Ultimately, both the EU and China hold Balkan stability as a common goal. It’s in China’s best interest to abide by EU regulatory standards, as the success of Chinese investments in the Balkans is contingent on the stability that EU membership could provide. But China’s emphasis on efficiency undercuts the EU’s focus on sustainability, paradoxically undermining its own interests. It is therefore imperative that the EU clear the path to membership in order to incentivize reforms that could allow the region to achieve a long-sought equilibrium.