Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent war, a sixth wave of EU enlargement swiftly, but unsurprisingly, gained traction. As of July 2022, North Macedonia and Albania have begun long-awaited accession negotiations after 19 years of candidacy status and vetos by EU Member States. This is a historic moment for the two nations and the EU as a whole but even more so for an unexpected contender: China. China has a complex history of involvement with the Western Balkan 6 (WB6) in relation to the EU, one full of contradictions and strained relations, leaving policy analysts stumped on their goals in the region.
Therefore, the question arises: do China’s murky intentions in the WB6 demonstrate a cohesive foreign policy approach or an opportunistic gamble?
It would be inaccurate to claim that the war in Ukraine single-handedly revived the EU’s enlargement efforts. Although the war pressured the West to exert influence in the volatile region of the WB6, China’s initiatives have raised alarm in Brussels since 2018. The European Commissioner at the time, Johannes Hahn, warned that Beijing is turning these countries into “Trojan horses” that will one day become EU members, and his predictions have become increasingly prophetic as China’s influence throughout the region has grown considerably.
Following the last round of enlargement procedures in 2007, the EU fell into a so-called “enlargement fatigue,” a period of stalled integration progress for candidate countries. This, paired with the United States’ disinterest in the region, created a power vacuum that China quickly took advantage of, most notably by integrating the WB6 into its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The BRI is an ambitious infrastructure investment project that aims to strengthen trade ties and stimulate economic growth via land and maritime networks. Due to the geographic proximity of the WB6 to the Greek port of Piraeus — which China purchased in 2008 and has since transformed into the second largest port on the Mediterranean — the region has emerged as a significant component to advancing the efforts of the BRI in Europe. Improving infrastructure is vital for transporting goods from the port into the EU’s market of over half a billion customers, but investment in the WB6 also improves relations with countries that will eventually become EU member states themselves.
Upon first glance, China’s investments in the region seem to align with the goals of the EU. Economic and infrastructure development in the WB6 are objectives shared by both powers; hence, the WB6 may benefit from much needed external financing in order to meet the economic requirements before acceding to the EU. Chinese President Xi Jinping even publicly reaffirmed Beijing’s support for Belgrade’s bid to join the EU during a visit to Serbia in 2016.
Despite initially seeming like a mutually beneficial relationship, a closer look reveals that China’s project investments, in fact, have a negative effect on the prospects for these nations’ potential EU membership.
In particular, the BRI’s investment in fiscally unsound projects has raised some suspicion in relation to China’s intentions in the region. The most prominent example of this is the construction of a highway that would connect the port city of Bar, Montenegro with Belgrade, Serbia. The Montenegrin government took out a loan with the Export-Import Bank of China for 85% of the cost, causing its debt-to-GDP ratio to increase from 63% in 2012 to over 80% in 2018. This statistic is even more troubling as two feasibility studies performed on the prospects of this project have shown that the highway would not be able to generate a large enough profit to pay back those loans. As a result, this may put Montenegro at risk of becoming a victim of “debt-trap-diplomacy” and therefore subject to undue Chinese influence. This is not the ideal situation for a country projected to join the EU in 2025.
By offering funds when EU support falls short, China has become a financial alternative for these countries at lower conditional costs, at least in the short term. This weakens the EU’s ability to pressure WB governments to adhere to EU standards. So, if China aspires to influence Europe once these countries have been admitted to the EU, why does it continue to invest in projects that undermine the prospects of WB6 countries meeting the institution’s strict admittance standards?
In order to answer this, we must acknowledge that the BRI, in addition to developing trade, investment and development, also serves to advance China’s geopolitical interests. By targeting vulnerable economies like Montenegro’s, which is unable to pay its dues, China is able to gain leverage and garner international support for contentious political issues in its own domestic and regional spheres.
China’s use of economic tactics to influence foriegn policy positions of other countries has already been seen in action in Africa. A study by the research lab Aid Data found a connection between a country’s pro-China voting pattern on the One-China policy within the UN and the amount of “aid” said country receives from China. Consequently, China’s deployment of similar tactics in the Western Balkans does not seem far-fetched.
However, China’s geopolitical interests and its economic goals in the region still appear to contradict one another. China wants to move away from dollar hegemony and towards a tripolar monetary system based on the U.S. dollar, the Euro and the Chinese Renminbi (RMB). Therefore, China strongly supports the success of the Eurozone as it sees the Euro as the only viable currency that can rival the dollar. Yet, its debt-trapping policies in the WB put the prosperity of the Eurozone far out of reach. If Montenegro, for example, were to enter the EU and adopt the Euro with its current debt-to-GDP ratio, it would add to the list of fiscally fragile countries in the EU and only fuel the flames of a second sovereign-debt crisis.
Ultimately, it appears that China has no concrete foreign policy for the WB6. Many of its initiatives contradict public statements and conflict with the broader goal of the BRI: increasing interconnectivity and broadening trade relations. China’s investment in fiscally unsound projects, its sabotage of WB6 prospects for joining the EU and its contribution to rising foreign debt within the EU system would seem to suggest that its geopolitical interests hold precedence over its economic ones.
But while all this is speculative, one thing remains certain: China will emerge as a major player in the EU in the years to come.