Anastas Vangeli / 23 Feb, 2021
This paper explores how discourses on China in the Western Balkans have been (re)shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, China was seen through the prism of the chaos in Wuhan and global skepticism; in the “mask diplomacy” stage, it was seen as an external actor that could be a source of assistance or source of trouble (or both); and in the “vaccine diplomacy” stage, it has been seen as a partner in the attempt to immunize the population of the region against COVID-19. The paper also looks into variations across countries, and in particular the difference between Serbia’s approach of active opportunity-seeking, and the under-the-radar approach of other governments, which altered between opportunism and cautiousness.
The COVID-19 pandemic has placed China in the spotlight in global news, intensifying the already vibrant discussion on its rise around the world – and in the Western Balkans as well. For the Western Balkan countries, China has overall been far from the main concern as COVID-19 swept through the region. However, the association of COVID-19 with the outbreak in Hubei Province was too strong for China to be disregarded. Later on, China itself was proactive, and over time positioned itself as a significant external actor in the region during the pandemic, while attracting the attention of concerned observers in the West, who have also had an impact on how regional actors have seen and positioned themselves in relation to China.
The discourses on China in the Western Balkans during the COVID-19 pandemic went through three stages. In the early stage (roughly January – March 2020), the central topic was the onset of the outbreak in China; later on, as the outbreak in China dwindled and outbreaks elsewhere spiked (roughly April – September 2020), including in the Western Balkans, the debates centered on so-called “mask diplomacy” and geopolitical competition with regards to the response to the pandemic; and finally, the debate entered the “vaccine diplomacy” stage once COVID-19 vaccines became yet another subject of geopolitical competition, with ripple effects also felt in the Western Balkans (since October 2020, and escalating in early 2021). Initially, China was seen through the prism of the chaos in Wuhan and the global skepticism about its handling of the crisis; in the “mask diplomacy” stage, it was seen as an external actor that could be a source of assistance or source of trouble (or both); and in the “vaccine diplomacy” stage, it has become seen as a partner in efforts to immunize the population of the region against COVID-19. The attitudes of regional actors have not been uniform. Serbia's approach of active opportunity-seeking has stood out, as opposed to the under-the-radar approach of other governments, which altered between opportunism and cautiousness. There have been vigilant alarmists about China's role in the region too, but not among ruling elites.
Developments during the COVID-19 pandemic reaffirmed that as a highly asymmetrical relationship, Western Balkans-China relations depend greatly on the standing and actions of Beijing at the world stage. Currently, China is the sole external actor in the Western Balkans that is not facing deep uncertainty on the domestic front, and has the luxury to plan the future on the external one. In some ways, this is an instance of history repeating itself, as what facilitated China's arrival as an actor in the region in the past decade to begin with was its emergence in better shape than the West in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.