China's Ideational Impact in the Western Balkans 2009-2019

Anastas Vangeli / 15 Feb, 2021

The ideational changes induced by China's rise are part of a global trend that unveils across the planet and the Western Balkans is no exception. The paper shows that in the period 2009-2019 China has managed to affect the way Western Balkan elites think of China, but not to the extent Chinese actors originally aimed. While actors from the region have welcomed the idea of regional prosperity under a Belt and Road framework, they do not desire broader global transformations. Moreover, contrary to Beijing’s attempt not to get involved in domestic political debates, China has become an increasingly politicized topic due to both external and internal factors.

As a global actor with a distinct trajectory marked by its economic rise and pro-active approach in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, China already has a significant ideational impact on how elites in various regions think not only of the global political economy, but also their role in it. This is also the case in the Western Balkans, which has noted increased interaction with China not least by being part of the Belt and Road Initiative and China’s platform for cooperation with Central, East and Southeast Europe dubbed “17+1.” However, often, the complexities that characterize the process of ideational impact are overlooked by researchers and policymakers alike.

This study aims to disaggregate different forms of China’s ideational impact. It proposes two criteria that help distinguish between them: the role of China’s intentions (i.e. some forms of impact are intended while others are not), and the degree of mediation (i.e. some forms of impact take place as a result of direct, unmediated interaction, while others are mediated). Such a framework also accounts for the agency of regional actors, as well as for the impacts of other external actors (in the first place, the EU and the US).

The paper shows that in the period 2009-2019 China has managed to affect the way Western Balkan elites think of China, but not to the extent Chinese actors originally aimed. While actors from the region have welcomed the idea of regional prosperity under a Belt and Road framework, they do not desire broader global transformations. Moreover, contrary to Beijing’s attempt not to get involved in domestic political debates, China has become an increasingly politicized topic due to both external and internal factors. Most significantly, as a result of the tensions between the US and China, Western Balkan actors now increasingly subscribe to (and sometimes instrumentalize) a primacist, zero-sum vision of global politics. A key contradiction that is shaping the attitude of Western Balkan actors, is the belief (or rather desire) that growing Sino- Balkan economic cooperation can be achieved in isolation from any significant disturbances in the geopolitical status quo. Referring briefly to the dynamics that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about, the paper concludes that external inputs will remain the key variable that shapes the thinking on China among Western Balkan elites.