In the course of the past decade, China has opened an investment bridgehead and is building a transport infrastructure network in Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe. The level of engagement by Chinese state-owned companies, political leaders, diplomatic representatives, lending institutions, universities, and cultural organisations is gradually redefining the relationships between China and these regions of the European continent.
In countries comprising the Western Balkans in particular, China is identifying opportunities, while various EU member states continue to regard the region through the prism of political instability, primarily defined by references to refugees and migration challenges. Other traditional powers have a geopolitical presence and strategic interests in the region, notably Russia and Turkey. In that respect, China’s emerging footprint in the Western Balkans appears to be of a more recent nature.
But is that really the case? Is China a newcomer to this volatile region in Europe? In the interest of historical accuracy, it is important to highlight two exceptions to such an interpretation, namely China’s decades-long relationship with Albania under Enver Hoxha until the late 1970s and Beijing’s level of cooperation with Yugoslavia prior to and after its disintegration in the early 1990s. In particular, the long-standing collaboration between Maoist China and Hoxha’s isolationist Albania stands out as peculiar, while diplomatic relations and commercial ties between Beijing and Belgrade intensified under president Slobodan Milošević.
China and Yugoslavia
In the case of the Yugoslav Federation, president Marshal Tito visited China for the first time in 1977, followed by a return visit of Chinese premier Hua Guofeng to Yugoslavia in 1978. Travel diplomacy continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, with the Chinese premier Zhao Ziyang visiting Belgrade in 1986, and President Milošević visiting China in 1997.
The 1997 visit to Beijing yielded an important breakthrough in Sino-Yugoslav relations. Two years after the Dayton peace agreement in 1995, Milošević’s China visit was portrayed as a success story in Belgrade, lending evidence to claims that the international isolation of the Yugoslav Federation could be overcome. The diplomatic breakthrough for Milošević allowed him to challenge the Pariah status in Europe with political support from his traditional ally Russia and supplement it through his Chinese interlocutors.
There was also material progress on the ground. Visa regulations between both countries were liberalized, allowing Chinese immigrants the opportunity to settle in Serbia. Many of the Chinese citizens visiting Yugoslavia in the late 1990s started small businesses in an area of Belgrade known as Blok 70. Over time, this local business scene grew into a microcosm of Chinese migrant culture in Serbia and became known as Belgrade’s Chinatown.
Official municipal census data is difficult to identify, but some estimates put the number of Chinese citizens in Serbia in 2010 at 40,000. With Serbia having to re-invent itself, the arrival of Chinese citizens as merchants, restaurant owners, shopkeepers, and open-market dealers in and around Blok 70 gave the neighborhood an orientalist feel and Mandarin voice from the late 1990s onwards.
The Sino-Yugoslav cooperation during the different Milošević presidencies from 1989 to 2000 helped steady his support in the UN Security Council. Both countries’ sense of grievance over the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, which included the destruction of the embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the district of New Belgrade on May 7, 1999, strongly influenced diplomatic engagement. The accidental bombing killed three Chinese reporters inside the embassy and injured 27 citizens.
After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Serbia’s foreign economic policy was primarily defined by its reliance on the “four pillars of diplomacy.” Former president Boris Tadić (2004-2012) and his foreign minister Vuk Jeremić proclaimed that the four pillars of Serbia’s foreign policy rested on the EU (Brussels), the United States (Washington), Russia (Moscow) and China (Beijing). The principal goal of that foreign policy supported joining the EU. However, complimentary to that principal objective were “strategic partnerships” with the United States, Russia, and China. These partnerships, according to President Tadić would “not get in the way of that goal.”
Travel diplomacy between Belgrade and Beijing intensified under President Tadić. In February 2005 Boris Tadić first met with president Hu Jintao in Beijing. A year later the first Confucius Institute was opened in Belgrade, followed by a second in Novi Sad. A further visit to Beijing by Tadić took place in August 2009. On that occasion, the establishment of a strategic partnership between China and Serbia was officially agreed upon. A return visit by president Xi Jinping to Belgrade took place in June 2016 with then president Tomislav Nikolić. Both countries established a visa free regime in November 2016, which came into effect in January 2017. It is the only one that China has signed with a country in the Western Balkans.
China and Albania
The case of Albania’s relations with China consisted of a rather different nature. Over the course of almost 30 years – between 1949 and 1978 – the Sino-Albanian relationship can be characterized as the latter playing proxy for the former. The nature of their ideological, diplomatic, and economic partnership was such that it gave Albania an importance on the international stage of communist party leaders that never corresponded to the country’s size or economic performance in the region.
Both countries established diplomatic relations in November 1949. In fact, Albania was the first country to recognize the People’s Republic of China. They proceeded with the creation of the China – Albania Friendship Association which sought to strengthen bilateral relations. Both states joined as brothers in ideological arms to denounce ‘Soviet revisionism’ in the then-existing Soviet Union after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A further cornerstone of their ideological cooperation consisted in the condemnation of Tito’s Yugoslavia undertaking a “separate road to socialism”.
Until 1961, the Albanian Party of Labor (APL) had sought an ideological co-existence with the Soviet Union and China. The former, under the leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, regarded Albania as an economy primarily based on agricultural production. Soviet lines of credit, construction assistance, and grain deliveries to Albania characterized the nature of imbalance and dependence in the bilateral relations between Moscow and Tirana. But with the APL’s Fourth Party Congress in early 1961, APL’s leader Enver Hoxha introduced a Five-Year Plan (1961-1965) which sought to radically change course with a new emphasis on the rapid industrialization of the country.
The reaction from Moscow was swift and uncompromising. Throughout 1961, promised wheat shipments were cancelled, financial assistance terminated, and Soviet construction workers withdrawn. In December of that year, Soviet diplomatic relations with Albania were broken off. This unprecedented rupture between former close allies put Albania in a precarious economic situation, most acutely regarding its foreign trade reliance with the Comecon trading bloc. It was China that came to its rescue, compensating “for the loss of Soviet economic support, supplying about 90 percent of the parts, foodstuffs, and other goods the Soviet Union had promised”.
Sino-Albanian relations gradually deteriorated from the early 1970s onwards. Albania’s leadership under Enver Hoxha disagreed with certain aspects of Chinese foreign policy making, particularly the pathbreaking visit of U.S. president Richard Nixon to China in February 1972. Hoxha also distanced himself from the Chinese “Three Worlds Theory”. The breakup finally arrived in 1978 when China under Deng Xiaoping terminated its special trade relations and diplomatic tête-à-tête with Albania.
This history helps contextualize China’s engagement today. For one, it is important to emphasize that a certain level of continuity exists in the nexus of relations between China and countries comprising the Western Balkans. China is not a newcomer to this region. Secondly, the Sino-Balkans cooperation was initialized during the Cold War. The historical ties between Maoist China and the Albania of Hoxha offer a window into an era where ideological alliances could shift dramatically. But their underlying reasons were about political economy and how Beijing could establish a strategic footprint in southeast Europe.
The question seeking an answer is this: Why did China involve itself so closely with a country on the southeast European periphery that was more than six thousand miles away from Beijing and had hardly anything to offer in economic terms, apart from limitless ideological praise for Mao Zedong? Political geography is part of the explanation. Despite the distance, for 30 years Albania could provide China with an entry point to Europe, a landmark for reaching out to other countries in the region and leaders on the continent. From Beijing’s perspective, Albania’s key asset was its strategic location in southeast Europe.
The Sino-Yugoslav cooperation starting in the late seventies of the past century cannot be seen in isolation from the Albanian case. As relations deteriorated with Tirana, travel diplomacy from and to Belgrade increased significantly. In some respects, Yugoslavia under Marshall Tito gradually replaced Albania as the lead country and interlocutor for Chinese authorities from 1977 onwards. This strategic recalibration was supplemented by the Chinese “Three Worlds Theory” and bilateral economic diplomacy that sought to export Chinese labor and products. Only against the background of such developments can we fully comprehend the emergence of what came to be known as Chinatown on the Danube.
Fifty years later, this strategy has parallels with China’s current engagement. Today, China’s countries of choice are the EU member states Greece and Hungary as well as the EU candidate country Serbia. Albania does figure into China’s investment radar in southeast Europe, but with a far lower ranking than in the ideological halcyon days of the 1960s. The need to build diplomatic bridges in the Western Balkans remains high and the importance of stable political geography features prominently in the Belt and Road Initiative.
The manner in which the Chinese authorities seek to shape this narrative today is global, with varying regional emphasis. No one in Beijing, Tirana, and Belgrade wants a return to Cold War mentalities. But historical ties can bind and make the present-day activities of China in the region all the more comprehensible. In reconnecting with former peers, Beijing can use its newfound political capital and find willing collaborators who have not completely forgotten past alliances.
Dr. Jens Bastian is an independent economic consultant based in Athens, Greece specializing on investment in Southeast Europe.
See “China: A New Global Player in the Balkans”, in: Helsinki Bulletin, No. 138, January 2018.
See Mona Mangat, “East Meets West in Blok 70”, BalkanInsight, 22. March 2010.
Milošević was President of Serbia from 1989 to 1997 and President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1997 to 2000.
Until June 2006 Tadić was president of Serbia and Montenegro. Montenegro’s parliament declared independence from Serbia following the narrowly won referendum in May 2006.
See “Tadić on Serbia’s “four pillars of diplomacy”, interview for Belgrade daily Politika, 30th August 2009, https://www.b92.net/eng/news/politics.php?yyyy=2009&mm=08&dd=30&nav_id=61454.
China currently operates nine Confucius Institutes in the Western Balkans. The only country with two Institutes is Serbia. Albania’s Confucius Institute was opened in June 2013 and is located at the University of Tirana.
See Raymond Zickel and Walter R. Iwaskiw, editors, Albania: A Country Study. Washington: GPO for the Library of Congress, 1994.
The irony of that criticism is that the politburo of the APL initially approved in March 1948 a union between Albania and Yugoslavia. It was withdrawn three months later when Stalin denounced Yugoslavia for trying to set up a regional power-house linking Albania, Bulgaria and Greece, see Jonathan Steele, “Enver Hoxha: The Iron Fist of Albania by Blendi Fevziu review – the People’s Republic Tyrant”, The Guardian, 30. April 2016.
See the biography of Blendi Fevziu, Enver Hoxha. The Iron Fist of Albania, London: I.B.Tauris, 2016.
See Zickel and Iwaskiw, 1994, footnote 7.
The Three Worlds Theory was advocated by Mao Zedong. It argued that the international relations of China are characterized by three political economy worlds: the first world consisting of superpowers, i.e. the United States and the Soviet Union, the second world of lesser powers (which included China), and the third world of exploited nations. The Three Worlds Theory also served to justify the deepening of Sino-US diplomatic and commercial relations following President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972.