This Clingendael Report explores whether and how China’s approach to the six non-European Union (EU) countries of the Western Balkans (the WB6) relates to EU interests. It focuses in particular on the question of whether China’s influence affects the behaviour of the WB6 governments in ways that run counter to the EU’s objectives in the region. China engages with the Western Balkans primarily as a financier of infrastructure and a source of direct investment. This is in line with China’s main strategic objective for the Western Balkans – that is, to develop the Land–Sea Express Corridor, a component of its Belt and Road Initiative, aimed at improving China–EU connectivity.

China is not pursuing a common regional strategy for the Western Balkans. Instead, it has embedded its bilateral ties with the region in the 17+1 cooperation platform, which involves the EU’s Central and Eastern European countries, plus Greece. There is substantial differentiation among the WB6 when it comes to the level of linkage formation with China, with Serbia clearly being China’s preferred partner, and relations with Kosovo being the least developed.

The effectiveness of Chinese attempts to forge relations with the WB6 depends on how these attempts, and China itself, are perceived in the individual countries of the region. While the WB6 recognise China as a significant source of infrastructure financing, there appears to be a sense of disappointment among regional governments regarding foreign direct investments (FDI). Major instances of Chinese FDI remain limited and involve mainly acquisitions of existing companies rather than the creation of new companies (through so-called greenfield investments). At the same time, governments in the Western Balkans welcome the limited conditionality in economic cooperation with China. As elsewhere in the world, the Chinese government’s main condition is that its counterparts refrain from maintaining diplomatic ties with or providing any kind of political support to Taiwan. Even Kosovo, despite not being recognised as a state by China, maintains no diplomatic or political ties with Taiwan.

Among the countries of the Western Balkans, Serbia in particular has sought to employ increasing political and economic linkages with China to balance against the EU and great powers. While increasingly aware of risks related to large-scale lending from China, the will to converge economically with the EU and others has stimulated politicians in the WB6 to step up cooperation and will likely continue to do so in the future. However, linkages on the cultural and civil-society levels have not yet developed to a significant level and are not expected to do so in the near future. Similarly, a real public discourse on China remains little developed in the region, with the potential exception, again, of Serbia.

In terms of overall objectives, Chinese and EU engagements do not constitute a zero-sum game. However, the actual way in which China operates is not always comparable to the vast and highly institutionalised relations of the EU and the WB6 countries, as embedded in the Stabilisation and Association Agreements (SAAs) and enlargement frameworks. Despite the size and intensity of linkages clearly playing out to the advantage of the EU, China’s mere presence in the WB6 obstructs EU norm diffusion in political, economic and security terms. The legal approximation of the WB6 with the EU, as required in their path towards EU membership, requires the full adoption and implementation of EU standards on good governance, macro-economic stability, environmental protection, public procurement (transparency), corruption, human rights, privacy and data protection. In all these fields, engagements between China and the WB6 have frequently caused the latter to drift away from EU-intended reforms. As well as confronting the WB6 with deviating standards, China’s increased role in the Western Balkans has furthermore undermined the mechanisms of socialisation and conditionality through which the EU has sought to draw the region closer.

For the EU to address these issues, this Clingendael Report proposes a number of actions. These should be based on recognising the developmental needs of countries in the Western Balkans, and accepting that China’s economic involvement is inevitable and potentially beneficial for such developmental needs. In particular, the EU should maximise accession conditionality as a tool to influence the conditions under which China is involved in the region.