This chapter identifies the perceptions of local actors towards China. It does so through a country-by-country approach for each of the six Western Balkans countries, focusing on political, economic and security dimensions of bilateral relations.

2.1 North Macedonia

Economic cooperation between North Macedonia and China commenced in the early 1990s. A Chinese loan of about EUR 80 million helped build a major thermal power plant, Kozyak. Construction began in 1994 and the plant became fully operational in 2004.[61] Both were the outcome of government-to-government (G2G) negotiations and were not open to transparent public procurement. Such a style of conducting bilateral relations appears to have been a facilitating factor for deal-making because of lower levels of transparency and accountability. Former government officials insist that the entire loan package was lower than available funding via Western lending institutions. The project also involved Chinese workers and experts, who together constituted just under half of the total work force.[62]

The need and desire to develop economically and converge with other European countries has been a major motive for North Macedonia’s openness to Chinese overtures. China’s motivations are not subject to major public scrutiny, with 36 per cent of interviewees stating in a recent survey that they believe that China has no motivations beyond economic, such as influence or control of the country.[63] Tourism from China has grown significantly, which in the long term may result in increased economic dependence. While trade is slowly rising, there are no obvious conditions for a more significant uptick. The lack of greenfield investments is universally noted among all interviewees.[64] To many, it serves as an indication that China lacks serious economic ambitions for North Macedonia, preferring to focus instead on Serbia. This is a cause for some, perhaps even for rather muted, resentment towards Beijing.

There has been some increase in political cooperation and non-state interaction, but its scale is still limited and does not amount to a significant shift in posture. North Macedonia experts and officials interviewed for this report rejected the notion of renewed geopolitical competition in the Western Balkans as a result of Chinese influence as an exaggeration. The proliferation of involvement by extra-regional actors including China does not seem to affect North Macedonia’s determination to accede to the EU. (It has already joined NATO.) China represents greater economic opportunity, but cooperation with the country is not seen as contradictory to wider geopolitical goals. Moreover, Beijing has been rhetorically supportive of these aims. Besides, local experts do not regard China as a significant actor, although cooperation with Beijing is perceived as facilitating North Macedonia’s development. There is some resentment of the EU’s at times forceful rhetoric against such contacts, with some North Macedonian experts and officials seeing it as an expression of the EU’s ‘double standards’, given China’s intense interaction with many Western countries.[65]

There have been no reported instances of contacts between China and North Macedonia’s political parties. The Social Democrats are focused on EU and NATO negotiations and accession, while the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO) is more open to intense cooperation with third countries.[66] Cooperation at the level of public administration is slowly increasing.[67] There is no notable rise in Chinese media presence, but the style of the new Chinese ambassador has been more open in terms of interviews and attendance of various events. Also, Chinese online news portals based in Albania, such as Radio Ejani and CMG Shqip, are followed by the Albanian minority living in North Macedonia. While there is hardly any Chinese aid assistance to North Macedonia, during the COVID-19 crisis and as a token of support, Beijing has sent some medical supplies to Skopje.[68] Thus China’s visibility in North Macedonia is growing, even if starting from a low base.

Contacts and cooperation in the field of security and technology are also limited.[69] Security cooperation is hard to detect, and NATO membership creates ‘red lines’ that officials and non-officials agree would be very difficult to ignore or overstep. So far, there has been no obvious interest in the acquisition of telecommunication companies. Most companies in the sector have used China’s Huawei for the construction of their base stations. In conclusion, there appears to be a gradual widening of the terrain of interaction and cooperation between China and North Macedonia, and of greater engagement. At the same time, however, this has not led to a notable deepening of relations. North Macedonia clearly sees China as an important but still emerging rising power and as a potential partner in addressing its developmental needs.

2.2 Kosovo

Economic interaction between Kosovo and China is showing some signs of an uptick even if from a low base. One notable feature is that Chinese companies active in Kosovo are often based in other countries, mostly Albania and to some extent Serbia. The level of Chinese FDI, loans or construction contracting remain extremely low. A China-led consortium submitted a bid to construct a new coal-based power plant, Kosovo e Re, but the government selected another company, UK-registered ContourGlobal.[70] An unconvincing environmental track of the consortium members’ record and subtle pressure from Western countries appear to have played a role in the decision. Importantly, there is a rise in the number of visits by Kosovar companies to trade fairs and other forums in China. Tourism is also on the rise. In the coming years, there might be a spillover effect from the construction of the Belgrade–Budapest railway corridor and its extension as trade flows pick up and logistical links improve. China has not had any declared interest or involvement in infrastructure construction, as motorways have been built with national public funds. American and Turkish companies have won the relevant public tenders.

Politically, the bilateral relationship is largely determined by the fact of Beijing’s non-recognition of Kosovo’s independence.[71] China has an informal liaison office with five staff members in Kosovo’s capital, Pristina, while Kosovo does not have any informal governmental representation in China. Yet Pristina does not perceive China to be a ‘hard blocker’ and appreciates that Beijing does not take a similar approach to Russia of actively obstructing recognition of Kosovo. In practice, there are plenty of informal political contacts between the two sides, both in Pristina (outside the premises of the Kosovar foreign ministry) and at the UN in New York. The Kosovar government may seek to forge these informal contacts not only for economic reasons, but also to ensure that China will not obstruct a solution to the Belgrade–Pristina conflict in the UN Security Council. Kosovar officials have also informally communicated to their Chinese counterparts that recognition of Taiwan is forthcoming from Pristina. (Although Taiwan has recognised Kosovo since 2008, Taipei and Pristina have not established formal diplomatic relations.) All in all, Beijing is seen as more neutral and flexible than Russia on most matters of contention.[72] While political realities prevent deeper ties, the local Chinese liaison office is increasingly active socially and at the edges of bilateral dialogue.[73] For instance, its officials are regular attendees of most civil-society events and conferences, even if they rarely engage. There is no evidence of any interaction at the level of political parties and China is also not really ‘on the radar’ of Kosovar public opinion.[74] Furthermore, there is hardly any information about China in the local media and information sphere.

In the field of security and technology, Kosovo’s links to Western powers remain essential and leave very little, if any, space for bilateral cooperation between Kosovo and China. No serious pitch appears to have even been attempted by China. At the same time, there are some signs of rising Chinese interest and activity in telecommunications. The Chinese firm Huawei has a large market share in telephone and related equipment of some mobile and cable operators, with its relatively low prices being seen as a major factor. There is talk of a likely Chinese bid for the state telecommunications company, Vala–Kosovo Telecom, which is soon to be privatised. Moreover, in 2019, China’s Huawei offered a big loan in exchange for permission to build Kosovo’s 5G network. This was apparently declined by the Kosovar authorities. Rising sensitivity to the security implications of such projects was a factor in the decision.

In conclusion, while China’s non-recognition of Kosovo as an independent state is a fundamental obstacle to a proper bilateral relationship between the two countries, there are some notable emerging shifts. Kosovo perceives China as a potentially beneficial longer-term partner regardless of the recognition issue. Still, given the strong Western involvement in Kosovo, the scope of the relationship with China is likely to remain relatively narrow and constrained.

2.3 Serbia

The economic relationship between Serbia and China is extensive, durable and diversified. China is seen as an important investor, as Western companies have slowly divested their engagement in the sectors of energy and natural resources. The acquisitions of Zelezara Smederevo and RTB Bor by Chinese investors are of structural importance to Serbia’s national economy. Debt sustainability issues are not particularly significant in the case of Serbia, with a budget deficit of about 0.5 per cent and a current debt level of 54 per cent of GDP. In contrast to other countries in the Western Balkans and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, Serbia’s infrastructure cooperation with Beijing predates the BRI (which was launched in 2013) and China’s recent push to enter these markets. The first major loan for the construction of a Belgrade bridge dates back to the late 2000s. Serbia’s shift towards closer economic cooperation with China is largely because of Moscow’s inability to follow through on commitments, while Beijing ramped up its engagement and made financial resources available.[75]

Infrastructure remains a prominent component of China’s presence in Serbia. Joint projects date back more than a decade and China in effect replaced Russia as Serbia’s main counterpart. The much-discussed upgrade of the railway link between Belgrade and Budapest is largely proceeding as planned (apart from delays in regard to the original time schedule) and the focus of Sino–Serbian cooperation is shifting to other projects: modernisation of the rail link between Belgrade and Nis in the south; as well as the rail links to Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Podgorica in Montenegro.[76] From the EU’s standpoint, and increasingly from a local public opinion perspective, the transparency of financial contracts and commitments remains a serious issue, but the problem is not particular to Chinese investors.

Political relations between China and Serbia are also expanding and strengthening. Current political bonds were forged during the Kosovo War in 1998–1999. China has also traditionally been an important ‘vector’ in a foreign policy mindset that emphasises multi-polarity. Its position as a permanent UN Security Council member is likely to be an additional motive for Serbia to develop strong ties with China. The language in political and diplomatic contacts is strikingly warm, with many actors talking of a ‘steely relationship’ in an overt reference to the largest Chinese direct investment in the country, the Chinese acquisition of the Zelezara Smederevo steel company.

While the Serbian government continues to be committed to EU accession, interaction with Beijing is seen as a necessary tool for closing the development gap with the rest of South-East Europe and the EU.[77] In this sense, intense cooperation with China is seen as a way of delivering tangible resources and tools for economic development and political multi-polarity. The intensity of political contacts is remarkably high. Officially, the relationship is defined as a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’.[78] Notably, there are close party-to-party contacts between the Chinese Communist Party and the governing Serbian Progressive Party of President Alexander Vucic. There are reports of exchanges with delegations of party officials travelling to Beijing.[79] People-to-people contacts are picking up quickly as visa liberalisation has facilitated travel and tourism. While Beijing has been slowly increasing its activities in relation to media, there is no marked rise in China-related media coverage in Serbia.[80] Besides being seen as a relevant actor for closing the developmental gap with the EU, China is increasingly also seen as a partner in times of need by Belgrade’s policy circles. While the EU announced up to EUR 15 million in immediate aid for the public health system and EUR 78 million for economic recovery following the COVID-19 outbreak, Serbia was disappointed by the EU’s initial export ban on medical protective equipment, with the Serbian president subsequently claiming that ‘European solidarity is a fairy tale’.[81] The Serbian government welcomed Chinese aid with much more fanfare than it displayed in relation to the EU’s assistance, further aligning the public discourse with its interest in strengthening relations with China.

Cooperation in the areas of security and technology has also been intensifying, especially since 2017. A series of high-level meetings resulted in the signing of a bilateral cooperation plan in 2018 that includes training and defence industry cooperation. Belgrade has purchased nine drones to be employed for surveillance and aerial reconnaissance. These can be fitted with bombs and missiles to hit targets. This makes Serbia the first European country to purchase such equipment from China.[82] Law-enforcement cooperation is also advancing, with the most notable example being joint police patrols in several Serbian cities, as well as the purchase and installation of surveillance technology from Huawei (known as ‘Project Safe City’). Serbian privacy watchdogs and civil-society organisations have raised concerns about what they perceive to be a major infringement on privacy and are fearful that it will open the doors for political abuse by the Serbian government.[83] Huawei is also modernising the fixed network of Telekom Serbia to the tune of EUR 105 million, with lower costs being a major consideration.[84]

In conclusion, Serbia is clearly an outlier among the WB6 in terms of the high level of institutionalisation of its bilateral relations with Beijing, which are on a clear and stable upward trend of deepening ties. Belgrade sees China as a key global actor with important political heft and as a source of investment and trade – a geopolitical ‘heavy weight’ to balance relations with the West and Russia. Beijing is also perceived as a major contributor to Serbia’s economic development after years of isolation and limited ability to tap into the various opportunities to converge economically with the rest of Europe.

2.4 Bosnia and Herzegovina

In economic terms, the Bosnia–China relationship has been intensifying during the last couple of years. Similar to developments in Serbia, China is becoming an important player in sectors where Western companies have slowly divested their engagement. Examples where Chinese construction companies have participated include coal power plants, such as the 300 MW Stanari plant near the town of Doboj, which has been completed, and the 415 Tuzla 7 plant, which is under construction. Similarly, there have been significant developments in infrastructure construction, as outlined in section 1 above.

Politically, relations are slowly evolving in an upward trend. Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and China established bilateral relations back in 1995 and the legal basis and scope of cooperation has been expanding. There is no specific impetus for the bilateral relationship, which has seemingly been developed as a side-effect of China’s overall regional strategy.[85] Bosnian politicians are quite open in their rhetoric and complimentary about the benefits of cooperation, praising China’s lack of conditionality, pragmatism and developmental aspects.[86] The explicitly defined priority areas of cooperation include agriculture, transport and energy. Notably, the Chinese interact across the political spectrum, in contrast to other actors such as Russia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which focus in their dealings on culturally affiliated social groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Russia with actors in the Republika Srpska, and Turkey and the UAE with Bosnian Muslims).[87] Academic and cultural cooperation is also increasing.[88] China’s media presence in BiH is very patchy, predominantly informational, and lacks a coherent narrative.[89] China is also beginning to approach civil-society organisations in order to develop some relationships, even if the process remains slow and seemingly lacking in coherence and ambition.

There are no indications of notable security cooperation, largely because of the impactful engagement of NATO in the area of defence and the EU in the area of law enforcement. China had donated some military equipment to Bosnia and Herzegovina after the end of the Yugoslav War in the mid-1990s.[90] There is a great deal of speculation about a possible deal between the main telecommunications company, BiH Telecom, and China’s Huawei for construction of the 4G network for the entire country. The financial parameters are not known, but at least three options are thought to be under discussion: free supply of equipment in exchange for company shares; acquisition of exclusive rights over the maintenance of the newly built network; and a contract that would oblige BiH Telecom to purchase Huawei equipment for the construction of a future 5G network.

There is a visible uptick in bilateral relations between BiH and China, mostly focused on energy and academic cooperation, but it has not yet reached sufficient breadth and remains under-institutionalised. Bosnia and Herzegovina perceives China as an increasingly central global power and a politically important actor with an enormous economy and investment potential that can help BiH close its economic development gap. There is some divergence between the two constituent parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the Republika Srpska (RS) is more enthusiastic about relations with China than the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (FBiH).

2.5 Montenegro

Economic relations between Montenegro and China are dominated by infrastructure, in particular the construction of the first section of the Bar–Boljare motorway, which links the Adriatic Sea and Serbia. Two feasibility studies in 2006 and 2012 concluded that the project lacked economic viability and both the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) expressed no interest.[91] There is a great deal of public discussion in Montenegro about future construction of the two remaining sections of the motorway. Governmental financing is thought to be out of the question as the level of indebtedness has risen. Montenegro has thus sought to develop its maritime and coastal capacity and has turned to China. A couple of years ago, Montenegro borrowed over EUR 45 million from the Chinese Exim Bank to order two bulk cargo transportation ships, which were built by Chinese shipyards.[92] Two more ships have since been ordered in order to develop maritime shipping and develop the port of Bar, in which Beijing is perceived to be very interested.[93]

Debt sustainability has been a major issue in Montenegro, emerging in the last few years without, however, dramatically changing attitudes towards China. The debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 57 per cent in 2012, rose to 69 per cent in 2015 and then to almost 73 per cent in 2018.[94] Tourism is an increasingly important sector, with the number of Chinese tourists to Montenegro increasing, which is seen very positively by local actors. In the field of energy, the Mozura Wind Park opened in November 2019, built by a consortium between the Maltese company Enemalta and the Shanghai Electric Power Company.[95] In November 2019, a Chinese consortium led by Dongfang Electric won the tender for reconstruction of the Pljevlja thermal power plant, in line with new EU directives on harmful emissions.

Political relations are also on the rise. Cooperation at the level of public administration appears to be slowly expanding. Politically, the government is quite firm in its defence of the motorway project, with its main arguments including connectivity, development of the northern part of Montenegro, trade and logistics benefits, as well as the integration of agricultural producers into regional and world markets.[96] Chinese diplomacy is more visible and rising in presence and confidence. Academic cooperation is picking up as well, with local universities signing memorandums of cooperation with China, including student and lecturer exchanges, as well as study visits,[97] and there is a Confucius Institute at the University of Podgorica. The Chinese Embassy in Podgorica has made several financial donations, including to a primary school and the health sector.[98] There are also some instances of town-twinning arrangements with Chinese cities. There is quite a bit of interest in this, but the level of expectations for deep cooperation appears low. Moreover, there has been some criticism of Chinese involvement in Montenegro among civil-society organisations. The anti-corruption watch dog ‘MANS’ has criticised the motorway project on the grounds of lack of transparency, inefficient use of resources, corruption and environmental standards violations.[99]

There is little in the way of security and technology cooperation between Montenegro and China. Montenegro is a member of NATO and contacts confirm that this severely limits any opportunities for security-related cooperation with China.[100] In the last few years, Montenegro has procured new military equipment, bought primarily from Canada and the United States.[101] Huawei is commercially present in Montenegro, but there is no information about any further involvement, more specifically in relation to 5G. Technology and the development of new technological products are elements of academic cooperation, but on a small scale.[102]

In conclusion, bilateral relations are visibly expanding, with a clear trend of gradual institutionalisation. Like the other WB6 countries, Montenegro sees China as a rising global power that brings new economic and financing opportunities. Local institutions and actors in Montenegro are positively disposed and keen to develop and deepen bilateral relations. Expectations continue to prevail over critical attitudes because of a perceived imperative to address the country’s development needs.

2.6 Albania

The bilateral economic relationship between China and Albania is slowly expanding and widening. Albania has a relatively high debt-to-GDP ratio, but this has stabilised over the past few years.[103] By far the most significant economic linkage between Albania and China is embodied by Geo-Jade, the Chinese company that operates the Patos-Marinza oil field. China also seems to welcome Albania’s increased export of agricultural products to China and has increased its investments and cooperation in the Albanian agricultural sector.[104] Furthermore, in 2017, the Ocean Alliance of major container carriers, within which China COSCO Shipping is the largest participant, included the Albanian port of Durrës in its network. Via major trans-shipment hubs such as Piraeus in Greece, Durrës is thus linked to various ports in China.[105] Tourism is beginning to rise as visa restrictions are lifted. Some 17,000 Chinese tourists visited Albania in 2018, a rise of 60 per cent vis-à-vis 2017. The concession to operate Tirana International Airport that has been held by China Everbright Group since 2016 has recently been extended to 2027 in exchange for an upgrade of Kukës Airport to receive international flights.[106] There is speculation that the concession agreement contains clauses allowing a further extension if the Chinese side upgrades other airports in the country. There is a pending tender for the airport of Vlorë.

Mineral extraction is another area of Chinese involvement – chromite, copper and ferro-nickel, etc. Some smaller Chinese companies own operations in the sector (such as at Bulqizë and Kukës) and in many cases China is a monopoly buyer. Still, most companies in the sector are Albanian-owned.[107] There is rising interest in investment in renewable energy, but little has been done thus far in Albania. Chinese investors were interested in developing an economic zone around the port city of Durrës to the tune of EUR 1.3 billion, but the project stalled in 2016–2017 and has not moved forward. Bilateral trade is also rising markedly. In 2018, China became the second largest importer to Albania, on a par with Turkey (8.4 per cent share) and behind Italy (with a share of 27 per cent). There are a few instances of initial Chinese interest that have not materialised on the basis of insufficient protection of Albanian interests, such as the number of local workers employed in the projects.[108] One such proposal was for the construction and operation of Kalivac hydro-power plant in 2017, when the tender was won by a consortium of Turkish and Albanian companies;[109] another is a two-lane road project worth EUR 269 million, linking Tirana to North Macedonia, construction of which was awarded in 2018 to the Albanian company Gjoka Konstruktion. There are no notable greenfield investments by Chinese companies.

Political ties have a deeper historical context. Albania and China had close relations after the abrupt disruption of Tirana’s relations with the Soviet Union in 1961. Close ties at the elite level between the Chinese and Albanian communist parties have played a facilitating role over the years, with contacts also reporting various rumours implying improper practices.[110] Albania is a member of NATO and just received an invitation to start EU accession negotiations. There has been interest from local political elites in Chinese involvement in large-scale projects, but little in the way of specific commitments and proper project preparation. Media cooperation is slowly picking up.

China’s posture is predominantly non-conflictual in contrast to other actors, which is well received by the Albanians.[111] At this stage, Chinese efforts appear to be mainly ‘image polishing’ rather than a systematic moulding of perceptions,[112] but they do not yet appear to be filtering down from the elite to public perceptions. Notably, cooperation at the level of political parties dates back to at least 2013, when the Socialist Party of Albania, the Democratic Party of Albania and the Socialist Movement for Integration attended the 4th China–Europe High-level Political Parties Forum in China, but there has been little beyond that. Attempts at wider academic cooperation are picking up, with some exchange programmes and emerging links with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, structured around BRI-related research. Academic cooperation has been mostly with Albania’s main state university, the University of Tirana,[113] where a Confucius Institute has been in operation since 2013.

There have been some developments in the areas of security and technology. Albania’s NATO membership significantly narrows the potential for cooperation in security and defence matters.[114] There is anecdotal evidence of strong United States (US) and other allies’ pressure on these issues. Albania’s Ministry of Defence has now proposed that major Albanian ports become NATO bases and NATO is currently building a large base in southern Albania, near the town of Berat. The United States has lately been very active locally in highlighting the risks of deeper engagement by Albania with China. The local authorities are so far heeding this advice. Huawei is key to the operation of Albania’s 4G networks and its phones and equipment have an extensive market share. In November 2019, Vodafone Albania ran a 5G network test in Tirana amid particular interest and scrutiny. Huawei components were used, but the company denies having a contract to establish and operate the entire network (although Vodafone Albania’s ‘mother company’ in the UK has such a contract for Britain). The US Embassy in Tirana and the US Secretary of State responded publicly to the event, highlighting the risks of operating such a network constructed by Chinese companies.[115] Albania’s opposition parties also criticised the government for jeopardising the country’s national security and potentially undermining NATO, but this appears to be just an element of normal political bickering and not a sign of a geopolitical shift. After all, Huawei’s presence in Albania goes all the way back to 2009.

In conclusion, bilateral relations are gradually intensifying but in a patchy and seemingly incoherent manner at a rather low level of institutionalisation. Albania’s NATO membership seems to be blocking the way for deeper security and technology ties with China. There is rising awareness, however, of the central importance of China in the emerging geopolitical context and its potential contribution to Albania’s economic development. Local political actors are keen to explore investment and trade opportunities, but appear increasingly aware of the challenges of balancing these with NATO membership and EU accession negotiations. Non-state actors remain interested in cooperation with Chinese entities, but show no particular intention and drive to institutionalise them.

2.7 Conclusions

China is gradually but consistently laying the groundwork for a long-term, extensive and deep presence in the WB region. Interaction between Chinese and regional actors ranges from ad-hoc personal and institutional opportunities in various sectors to the gradual building of nascent relationships and even emerging linkages. From a regional perspective, a change in China’s overall style and posture is evident, shifting towards greater confidence, visibility and assertion. For observers in the WB region, the strategy underpinning Chinese initiatives such as the BRI and the 17+1 platform is perceived as aimed at gaining a foothold on the periphery of Europe and the EU.

China has established an image of itself as an economic superpower, seeking to seduce and attract on the promise of economic opportunity and mutual benefit. Yet for the most part, and as seen through the predominant experiences of the WB6, China could more accurately be construed as an infrastructure and lending power. China is starting to face a number of challenges and obstacles complicating its entry, positioning and influence on the WB. There is a degree of disappointment at China’s unwillingness to become a contributing actor to the region’s wider economic development. The low level of greenfield investments is clearly being noticed and disapproved of throughout the region. In addition, the NATO membership of several WB6 countries is complicating security cooperation with China.

Still, China will continue to benefit from some important positive perceptions. It is viewed as a strong and attractive source of economic growth. An enormous market with rising consumer demand and capital pools, the so-called ‘Middle Kingdom’ is widely expected to play an ever more central role in international affairs and economics. Developmental needs in the WB will persist and need addressing, and China is bound to remain a significant partner in this respect. Being able to cooperate with Chinese investors under less transparent conditions may remain an attractive option for WB regional governments, but slowly rising scrutiny could somewhat hinder that temptation. A degree of affinity with the Chinese political culture exists among WB local elites, most visibly in Serbia, where authoritarian approaches are making headway. There is little sign of an established pro-China versus anti-China political cleavage among political elites in the region.

China is perceived as supportive of the WB countries’ geopolitical goals and cooperation does not appear, so far, to have a high political price. The general lack of conditionality in interaction with China is bound to remain a strong point for many in the region. The fact that China is seen as an opportunity for faster development has not translated into an institutionalised preference for China’s political–economic model of state-led development. Furthermore, local elites continue to be under pressure to pursue national development. To achieve rapid convergence with the EU’s overall level of development, they will remain open to Chinese and other opportunities for economic engagement and investment.

On the basis of this research, an initial, tentative ranking by degree and depth of engagement and presence of China may be defined in a descending order: Serbia; Montenegro; Bosnia and Herzegovina; North Macedonia; Albania; and Kosovo.

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Online interview with Dr Altin Hoti, Lecturer in Economics, Mediterranean University of Albania, 25 March 2020, Tirana, Albania.
Online interview with Ilir Aliaj, Executive Director, Centre for Development and Democratisation of Institutions, and Lecturer in Geopolitics of Europe, Mediterranean University of Albania, 25 March 2020, Tirana, Albania.
Balkan Green Energy News, ‘Energy Community Receives Complaint against Albania over Kalivac, Pocem Hydropower Plants’, link (accessed 20 May 2020).
Online interview with Ledion Krisafi, Senior Researcher, Albanian Institute for International Studies, 25 March 2020, Tirana, Albania.
Xinhuanet, ‘Albania, China Sign Agreement on Broadcasting of Television Programs’, link (accessed 20 May 2020).
Online interview with Roland Gjoni, legal and political scientist and consultant to the World Bank, UN and US Aid, 27 March 2020, Tirana, Albania.
Online interview with Dr Enri Hide, Associate Professor in International Relations and Security, European University of Tirana, 26 March 2020, Tirana, Albania.
Online interview with Andi Dobrushi, Executive Director, European Roma Rights Centre, 25 March 2020, Tirana, Albania.
Albania News, ‘Albania, US Embassy Pushes Back against Huawei 5G Ambitions’, link (accessed 20 May 2020).