Sino-Russian strategic intentions
Western Balkans as a springboard for Russia’s and China’s geostrategic positioning vis-à-vis EU and NATO
/ By Elmas Hasanovikj*, Adviser for Defense Policy, Ministry of Defense, Republic of North Macedonia
This article was originally published as part of the 2021 edition of Bled Strategic Times, the official gazette of the Bled Strategic Forum (BSF) international conference. You can access the full version of this and other BSF publications by visiting our official website.
The security threats are the same for both sides of the Atlantic. Adversaries, either state or non-state actors or both, do not need to carry out deliberate attacks to cause damage. Nowadays, state and non-state actors are exploiting all opportunities to undermine the deterrence and defense capabilities of NATO member-states and the EU, to create distrust and undermine the unity among the allies. To that end, both NATO and EU need a shared understanding of the security challenges within and outside the regions. In the 1990s, Russia was treated as a partner in all NATO operations in the Western Balkans and China did not project its interests into the European space.
Today both China and Russia are actively pursuing their interests in Europe and Western Balkans region and these interest are not aligned with ours. Both China and Russia have expressed willingness to invest in the strategic infrastructure in Europe and in Western Balkan countries. Russia has a long-standing political and strategic interest in Western Balkans region.
Russia considers itself as natural ally and ‘savior’ of the Orthodox Slavs through which it exerts its political influence in the region. Most importantly, Russia considers the Western Balkans as a geo-strategically important transport hub for the supply of gas and oil to Europe. Most of the EU and Western Balkan countries mark an increase of natural gas dependency, which is dominantly imported from Russia. Natural gas dependency in EU reached 89.5% in 2019 which is an increase of +5.7% compared to 2018, by having Russia as the main supplier of natural gas, crude oil and hard coal to the EU for the period 2009–2019. While diversification of the energy market contributes towards reducing the prices of energy commodities, however, the other hand, with the new operational gas pipeline systems (Balkan Stream and Turk Stream) Russia’s political influence in the Central and South-Eastern Europe is likely to grow.
China has expressed willingness to invest in strategic infrastructure across EU, whereas the Western Balkans region is of particular interest for China because it lies between the port of Piraeus in Greece (67% of which was acquired by the Chinese stateowned company COSCO in 2016) and the European Common Market. Chinese companies control significant amounts of transportation infrastructure systems in Europe, and heavily invest in the Belgrade-Budapest railway, highways that connect Belgrade with Sarajevo, Montenegro’s Port of Bar with Belgrade, as well as the international airport in Tirana. Another key interest is the Port of Durres. For the period 2007–2017, the construction projects as part of the China’s 17+1 initiative were worth EUR 12.2bn in loans for 16 CESEE countries, out of which 29.4% goes to Serbia, 20.7% goes to Bosnia and Herzegovina and 7.5% goes to Montenegro.
The huge loans offered by Chinese banks increase the debt-to-GDP ratio for many countries, leading to political dependency. Like Russia, China has expressed interests for investment in the energy sector too. One of the largest Chinese investments in Albania is the investment in the largest oil company, Bankers Petroleum, as well as investments in the energy sector (coal and hydro power plants) in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia. However, serious environmental concerns have been raised on the operation of the coal plants by Chinese companies, because they do not comply with the EU environmental standards and are contributing towards the air pollution in the region.
The EU and Western Balkan countries have to recognize that China is not only a trade partner, but a security challenge as well. Russia and China are currently acting in a synchronized manner and it looks like they are complementary in their efforts to take control over the crucial transportation (land, sea, air) and energy supply networks in EU and the Western Balkans. It goes without saying that keeping Western Balkan countries outside of the European Union heats-up the ‘Euroscepticism’ in the region, thereby opening the door a greater influence not only by Russia and China, but also by other non-state actors. In the future, the Western Balkans will be the main battlefield in defense of the common democratic values from the Sino-Russian attempts to undermine it. The EU and Western Balkan countries must set the rules and principles of action (restriction) limiting the extent China and Russia can invest and penetrate in the region. Additionally, strict controls and procedures should be imposed and greater accountability and responsibility should be demanded from the Chinese and Russian companies when operating in the Euro-Atlantic area. To that end, the countries from the Euro-Atlantic area should strengthen the national and collective resilience through the implementation of the whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach: in the first step the civil-military cooperation should be strengthened to include civilian and military actors, bodies and organizations in the civil preparedness and defense policy planning. Additionally, by establishing an effective and rapid communication tools in peace, crisis and conflict situations, the cyber resilience would be strengthened. This can be achieved through a collective engagement, by sharing knowledge and expertise and execution of joint exercises and trainings for strengthening the interoperability of resilience. Finally, neither Russia nor China can provide Western Balkan countries with a long-term viable alternative to their EU and NATO membership. Russia and China are just exploiting the current situation, and they use the Western Balkans as a tool for geo-strategic positioning and as a bargaining chip vis-à-vis the EU, NATO and the United States. Now, it is on the political leadership of the EU and the Western Balkan countries to decide which path they would like to take!
*The opinions and comments expressed in this article are personal opinions of the author, and not necessarily reflects the interest and position of the institution where the author works.
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