In May this year, the first Balkans and Black Sea Cooperation Forum took place in Greece with the aim to strengthen cooperation throughout the region. One of the topics discussed was the role of China and its Belt and Road initiative (OBOR) to build a modern-day Silk Road. It is in the Balkans where the contemporary equivalents of the Silk Road on land and the Silk Road by sea meet and connect to Europe. A land route via the region would provide Beijing with a transport corridor to the continent that avoids areas that are militarily controlled either by the United States or Russia. It is in China’s strategic interest to decrease its dependence on something that could be easily disrupted by these two powers.
Beijing engages with the Balkan countries mostly bilaterally. There exists a platform for cooperation between China and the region’s 16 countries that strongly focuses on the OBOR. A similar platform also exists between the Black Sea region and China. The key focus areas for Chinese businesses and the Chinese government in the Balkans and the Black Sea region are port management in Greece, infrastructure construction in the Western Balkans and Turkey, the energy sector in Romania and Greece as well as agricultural production in Ukraine. In addition, Chinese companies are also active in the region in banking, manufacturing and communication.
The two key countries are Serbia and Greece and both of them have been visited by President Xi Jinping in recent years. Serbia and Greece constitute a springboard for China to expand into the region but the progress is slow. For example, the privatization of the key project – the port of Piraeus – met with substantial delays and the construction of a new railway track between Belgrade and Budapest is also being delayed. The latter was caused by the concerns of the European Commission as to whether the deal between Hungary and China is in line with EU government procurement rules.
The new Silk Road will undoubtedly boost China’s influence in the region, which could further complicate the already unstable relationship between the West and Russia. In the long-term perspective, US-China geopolitical competition could destabilize the Balkans, although Beijing is trying to avoid this outcome. In fact, China’s growing influence increasingly provides new opportunities for the US, the EU and Russia to work together towards regional stability. Some believe that the strategy used to stabilize Central Asia could pay off in the Balkans as well.
When it comes to the EU, Brussels needs to clearly state that it is in favor of regional development including cooperation with China. If the OBOR can help the region to develop sustainably, the EU should be active and seek to maximize this contribution within its strategic interests. There is, however, a danger that countries in Southeast Europe and around the Black Sea, will feel neglected within the geopolitical and economic framework between the EU and China. If these sentiments are not adequately addressed, this region will be susceptible to destabilizing forces such as great power competition and conflict in the Middle East.
‘The Balkans, the Black Sea Region and China’ – Opinion by Frans-Paul van der Putten – Clingendael / Netherlands Institute of International Relations.