Why China Plays the Spoiler in the Western Balkans

Why China Plays the Spoiler in the Western Balkans
(Aris Oikonomou, Pool Photo via AP)

The Kosovo-Serbia dialogue has been taking place off and on since 2011. Instigated by the European Union, the dialogue is a series of negotiations aimed at normalizing relations between the two countries. The Trump administration has taken a keen interest and active role in the dialogue, and it appointed Richard Grenell as special envoy to the negotiations in October.

The negotiations largely take place between Grenell, Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. They have been mired in controversy not only for their role in the recent collapse of Kosovo’s government, but also for the fact that a territorial exchange in which Kosovo would swap some of its ethnic Serbian-majority municipalities for some of Serbia’s ethnic Albanian-majority ones is being strongly considered.  

While the United States and European Union are the two most active actors from outside the Western Balkans in this process, China has been notably absent. This is somewhat surprising, considering that over the past several years China has emerged as one of the Western Balkans’ most important foreign actors. Beijing has invested heavily in the region as part of the Belt and Road Initiative and has incorporated most of its countries into the 17+1 format. 

The Western Balkans have become a focal point for China’s BRI investment in Europe. China views the region as a key route to transport goods shipped in from the port in Piraeus, of which China's COSCO Shipping Corp. Ltd. is majority owner, to the EU common market. While China has been investing a significant amount of capital in most of the countries in the region, the linchpin of its Balkans strategy has been its relationship with Serbia. China’s relatively close ties with Serbia predate its active role in the region as a whole. In 2009, former Serbian President Boris Tadić declared China to be the “fourth pillar” of Serbian foreign policy, along with the United States, the European Union, and Russia.

The Sino-Serbian relationship has only grown closer since then. This closeness was recently exemplified by the fanfare that greeted Chinese medical aid and workers when they arrived in Belgrade to help Serbia with its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A billboard was later placed in the center of Belgrade, bearing a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the phrase, written in both Serbian and Chinese, “Thank you, brother Xi.”

This relationship has also been reinforced by a shared policy of non-recognition towards Kosovo’s independence -- Serbia still considers Kosovo to be one of its provinces. In 2008, Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia. The delcaration came a full decade after the conclusion of the Yugoslav Wars, during which Serbian troops committed atrocities against Kosovar Albanians. Serbia’s reasons for not recognizing Kosovo’s independence, besides the obvious desire to not lose territory, include its denialism of war crimes committed by Serbian troops during the Yugoslav Wars and the important role that the Battle of Kosovo (1389) plays in the Serbian nationalist mythology.

There are two motivations behind China’s non-recognition of Kosovar independence. While this policy may prevent China from investing in Kosovo through the BRI or 17+1 format, China appears to view this as a tradeoff worth making in order to further ingratiate itself to the Serbian government. China also fears that recognition of Kosovo’s independence would set a precedent for the territories it views as its own renegade provinces, such as Taiwan.

Conveniently for China, a non-recognition policy towards Kosovar independence has been able to achieve two foreign policy goals, drawing it closer to its most important ally in the Western Balkans while simultaneously defending its own territorial integrity by proxy. However, a successfully negotiated agreement between Kosovo and Serbia could create a tension between these synchronized interests.

Part of the European Union’s motivation for initiating these negotiations in the first place was to achieve a policy of mutual recognition between the two countries, as Serbia is a candidate for EU membership and Kosovo a potential one. No country can become an EU member without recognizing the territorial sovereignty of every other member state. This means that if a Kosovo-Serbia deal is successfully negotiated and true to its original mission, then Serbia will wind up recognizing Kosovo as a sovereign and independent state.

Such an outcome would complicate China’s Balkans strategy and force it to consider the implications of its Kosovo policy in a way that it has never had to before. If this comes to pass and China chooses to continue to not recognize Kosovo’s independence, then it risks alienating its most vital partner in a region core to its geostrategic ambitions. On the other hand, if it reverses its policy and recognizes Kosovo, then those with anti-Beijing and pro-independence sentiment in places like Taiwan may be emboldened.

From China’s perspective, the ideal outcome is for the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue to fall apart and the status quo to persist.

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