‘If Europe does not provide a prospect for the future [to the six non-EU countries of the Western Balkans], China, Russia or another influential actor will’.[1] This line of thought, in this case expressed by Dutch parliamentarian Kees Verhoeven (D66), has become a dominant discourse among proponents of speeding up the EU’s accession process for the six Western Balkans nations (WB6).[2] An important implication for the European Union (EU) follows from Verhoeven’s statement: an increase in influence by non-EU great powers could create a situation in which some or all of the six Western Balkans governments make policy choices that do not align with the EU’s interests.

In recent years, academic experts have increasingly paid attention to China’s engagement in the Western Balkans. Some authors point at the relevance of an expectation–fulfilment gap: Western Balkans (WB) governments, disappointed by lack of progress with EU accession, welcome greater Chinese economic engagement.[3] However, for a number of regional countries this engagement, too, has started to suffer from an expectation gap, as China seems focused predominantly on Serbia.[4] Another point made by some experts is that despite the many advantages of China’s economic engagement both for China and the EU and WB countries themselves, the model of Chinese state-led engagement can run contrary to the EU’s reform agenda.[5] A further warning for the EU sounded by some researchers is that, although China cannot be held responsible for low environmental standards or high corruption in the Western Balkans, Chinese-funded infrastructure projects may perpetuate local networks of patronage and corruption.[6] European debates on how to deal with Chinese direct investments or large-scale loans in the Western Balkans are connected to broader, fundamental questions on the role of the state versus the private sector, national security versus a commitment to open markets, and to north/south and east/west divides inside the European Union itself.[7]

This Clingendael Report explores whether and how China’s approach to the six non-EU countries of the Western Balkans relates to EU interests. It addresses in particular the question of whether China’s influence affects the behaviour of regional governments in ways that run counter to the EU’s objectives in the region.[8]

Theoretically, the report follows the idea that a great power’s influence over any given state is exercised through linkages. The analysis in this report is focused on political, economic and security linkages. These can either serve as channels for exerting influence (such as political contacts) or as sources of such influence in their own right (for example, trade relations). Influence can moreover either directly shape a country’s conduct (that is, to affect concrete actions or choices), or indirectly by shaping its policy context (to shape the parameters of the choices another country can make). The EU’s ‘soft power’ can be seen as a form of influence that impacts another country’s policy context, as it seeks to shape the parameters of what is socially, politically and economically relevant for the Western Balkans. The extent to which major powers are able to employ linkages with less powerful countries for their purposes depends on a number of contextual factors at the international level (including geography, nature of the international system and availability of alternatives), state level of the small power (for example, the small power’s openness to linkage establishment) and domestic level (political and economic systems). These theoretical underpinnings will feature throughout the report.

Methodically, the research employs a qualitative analysis, based on both desk research (with mixed usage of primary sources, secondary sources and ‘grey literature’), as well as interviews with experts and policy-makers in the six Western Balkans countries. These interviews were conducted in part ‘on the ground’ in the region (in February 2020) and partly online (in March–April 2020), as travelling was then not possible because of measures against the novel coronavirus.

The first chapter of the report focuses on China’s general foreign policy objectives and how China approaches bilateral relations with the Western Balkans. China’s approach to the Western Balkans is assessed through three key spheres of bilateral relations: political; economic; and security. Chapter two examines the perceptions and responses to China of the six Western Balkans countries. Chapter three subsequently assesses how China’s increased presence in the Western Balkans affects the EU’s efforts to draw the region closer, making this assessment on multiple levels, including overall objectives, actual linkages, the standards and values the EU seeks to diffuse, as well as the underlying mechanisms of socialisation and conditionality that are at play in the EU’s enlargement framework.

This report was produced by the Clingendael Institute in cooperation with the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Vladimir Shopov of ECFR conducted field research and wrote chapter two. The other parts of the report were written by Wouter Zweers, Frans-Paul van der Putten, Mirela Petkova and Maarten Lemstra.

Translation by the authors from Tweede Kamer der Staten-Generaal, 21 501-02, Raad Algemene Zaken en Raad Buitenlandse Zaken, Nr. 2031, Verslag van een Algemeen Overleg, 6 June 2010, link. Literally, Verhoeven said ‘a sphere of influence will’.
The so-called ‘Western Balkans Six’, or WB6 for short, comprise the six non-EU countries in the Western Balkans: Albania; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Kosovo; Montenegro; North Macedonia; and Serbia. While geographically ‘Western Balkans’ may refer to a broader region (including in particular also Croatia), in this report it solely refers to the six afore-mentioned countries.
M. Vetrovcova (2018), ‘Towards an “Expectations Fulfilment Gap” in 16+1 Relations? China, the EU and the Central and Eastern European Countries’, in Chen Xin (ed.), 16+1 Cooperation and China–EU Relationship, Budapest: China-CEE Institute, pp. 115–135.
J. Mardell (2020), ‘China's Economic Footprint in the Western Balkans’, Bertelsmann Stiftung, link.’
A. Doehler (2019), ‘How China Challenges the EU in the Western Balkans’, The Diplomat, link (accessed 2 June 2020).
J. Bastian (2019), ‘European Fault Lines and Chinese Crossroads’, link.
The authors are grateful to Maaike Okano-Heijmans and Louise van Schaik for their extremely useful comments on a previous draft of the report.