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Richard Straka – Center for monitoring, reporting and analysis

Richard Straka is a graduate in International Relations and European Studies at the Comenius University, and currently PhD candidate at the University in Banská Bystrica. His research focuses mainly on conflicts, the far right, disinformation and the geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans. In addition, the author is engaged in non-profit activities in animal protection, where he has his own civic association, namely a shelter for cats.

This contribution is part of the book “The Dragon at the Gates of Europe: Chinese presence in the Balkans and Central-Eastern Europe” (more info here) and has been selected for open access publication on Blue Europe website for a wider reach. Citation:

Straka, Richard, Challenges of Chinese soft power in Western Balkans, in: Andrea Bogoni and Brian F. G. Fabrègue, eds., The Dragon at the Gates of Europe: Chinese Presence in the Balkans and Central-Eastern Europe, Blue Europe, Dec 2023: pp. 101-124. ISBN: 979-8989739806.

Introduction

The Western Balkans, which for the most part is still not integrated into Western economic, political and military structures, has long been a subject of interest for various geopolitical parties. This is not a new trend. The historical experience of the region is that for centuries it has been on the border between several rival world powers, as evidenced by the Congress of Berlin in 1878 (Oxford, 2023). Today, Western allies through the European Union or NATO, the Russian Federation, an independent Turkey, as well as China, vie for influence in the region.

Global actors use a number of tools to spread their influence in the region. During the conflict at the turn of the millennium, some countries also used so-called hard power. NATO’s intervention, which led to the bombing of Yugoslavia in March 1999, is a prime example of the promotion of its own interests in the region through this tool. However, the main tool of geopolitical actors in the region is soft power. Soft power is a concept defined by the American political scientist Joseph Nye. He describes soft power as the ability to obtain preferred outcomes through attraction rather than coercion or payments. Thus, soft power is used to gain influence and trust through diplomacy, cultural tools, and through political values rather than through the use of the military (Nye, 2017).

The countries of the Western Balkans are stereotypically perceived as part of Russia’s sphere of influence. Moscow has been and still is an active presence in the region (De Martini, 2023). Given the significant presence of the Orthodox Church and a shared history of Moscow’s involvement in military conflicts in the region, some of which were aimed at independence, have created a basis for the continued use of soft power. These shared historical and cultural foundations with some regional countries give Russia some advantage over Western countries, but especially over China. Compared to Russia, in the case of China, it is mostly only the last two or three decades that have seen an effort to intensify mutual cooperation between them and the Western Balkan countries. China’s relations with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans have seen an upsurge after the establishment of an economic cooperation framework called the 17+1 in 2012 (Ghincea, Volintiru and Nikolovski, 2021, 8). However, the success of this group has been very limited. The fact that expectations have not been met is confirmed by the fact that the initiative has since been transformed into the 14+1 group and its development has stalled (Lucas, 2022).

In the following sections, we take a closer look at the main soft power tools that China has used in the region, and then at the countries of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, and Kosovo in the context of the reasons why China has been partially successful or unsuccessful in asserting itself through soft power in the region. Older data sources are also used in the text, given that, for example, valuable surveys are usually published only once a year and other research are also relatively infrequent.

Applied soft power tools

One of China’s main and best-known instruments of soft power is the Confucius Institutes. By the end of March 2023, Beijing had opened its institutes in all countries except Kosovo. The establishment of these institutes is usually accompanied by memoranda of mutual understanding, the building of schools and the start of extensive academic exchanges between the countries (Fenkart, 2021). According to experts and Western security services, who have been warning about the influence of this institute for many years, the institutes serve to spread a positive view of China that does not correspond to reality. In other words, it is propaganda. It omits negative aspects such as the issues of the Uyghurs, Hong Kong or the social and political situation in the country when disseminating the image of the country (Edwards, 2017).

As already mentioned, China is investing in student exchange programmes. Scholarships are an essential tool for institutional cooperation between countries (Zeneli and Mejdini, 2022). They are becoming increasingly institutionalized and aim to use this cultural diplomacy to spread a positive image (Fenkart, 2021). Looking at informal cooperation, another tool of Beijing’s soft power is tourism promotion and tourism itself (Edwards, 2022). Reciprocal tourism is currently being developed, especially in countries with established visa-free travel (Zeneli and Mejdini, 2022).

China also uses local media to achieve its goals. In the last decade, Beijing has established several collaborations. It uses them to promote cooperation between countries and also to influence the public (Fenkart, 2021). One of its main goals is to endear the population to economic activities and initiatives such as the One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI) , present itself as an economic miracle maker and spread the mantra of the benefits that come from this initiative for all parties (Zeneli and Mejdini, 2022). According to Garcevic (2021, 6), all Western Balkan countries except Kosovo have signed bilateral BRI agreements with China, and in the case of Kosovo, the signing of such an agreement is not on the table even in 2023. In terms of media tools, China also uses a radio station called China Radio International. They promote breaking news in a factual, neutral tone, mainly oriented towards economic issues. Critical narratives regarding China and its activities are absent (Zeneli and Mejdini, 2022).

Serbia as an example of both, success and destined failure

Serbia is an example of a country that shows signs of the success of Chinese soft power. On the other hand, it is also a country that exemplifies a situation where the historical presence of another global actor, the Russian Federation, is preventing Beijing from achieving higher goals.

China’s main tool for influencing Serbia is economic policy and investment. If we look at soft power tools, they are culture, bilateral meetings and visits, local media, and during the covid-19 pandemic it was mask and vaccine diplomacy (Vladisavljev, 2022), which was an effective tool despite controversies (Standish, 2021). China was one of the first countries to send medical supplies to the region, and it also shipped nearly one and a half million vaccines domestically produced by Sinopharm to Serbia (Garcevic, 2021, 9).

According to Krstinovska and Demjah (2022), Chinese soft power is also present through China’s stance on Kosovo. In 1999, when NATO launched its bombing campaign, it hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and killed three journalists. China does not recognise Kosovo as an independent state and is undermining its position in international institutions. Just as China does not recognise the existence of Kosovo, Serbia does not recognise the existence of Taiwan. In other bilateral relations, there are unusual cases, such as when Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic kissed the Chinese flag when doctors from Beijing arrived in Belgrade (Fenkart, 2021) or when his government called Chinese President Xi Jinping “brother” (Brinza, 2023). Serbia, however, does not extend its relations to South China Sea or Xinjiang issues.

China’s efforts to use the media tool are evidenced by the activities of state institutions in the media sphere, which have been publicly presented in the past (Xin and Yining, 2016). Nevertheless, according to Vladisavljev (2021), direct Chinese pressure on Serbian media is not present. He argues that the positive image of China presented in state and pro-government media is the result of self-censorship and a tendency to view relations between the two states positively. In contrast, the independent media have adopted a rather negative narrative of relations between Belgrade and Beijing. Vladisavljev (2021) in his article also gave several examples of radio stations and media with a pro-Chinese narrative: the Welcome to Fun Radio, the daily Politika or the media outlet Nedeljnik. Jureković (2021, 145) argues that some local NGOs and think tanks are also funded by Beijing in order to promote a positive image of China.

Then there are the Confucius Institutes. Garčević (2021, 9) argues that China exercises its soft power in Serbia through two Confucius Institutes: the first Confucius Institute opened in Belgrade in 2006 and the second at the University of Novi Sad in 2014. The Novi Sad Institute marked its ninth anniversary on 27 May. It was accompanied by a series of cultural activities attended by around 100 people, including Serbian government officials, people from the university and finally representatives from the Chinese embassy and businesses (Xinhua, 2023). The main role of the institutes in Serbia is to spread the Mandarin language among students and children. Since 2011, Mandarin has been offered as a subject in more than sixty public schools in Serbia (Jureković, 2021, 145). Jureković further claims that there are even language schools where it is taught as a compulsory first foreign language. Students at these schools with good language skills are offered scholarships funded by Beijing.

In 2017, the countries introduced a visa-free regime for short-term visits. In 2018, more than 100,000 tourists from China visited Serbia, a 15-fold increase compared to 2011. In 2019, the number almost doubled (Републички Завод За статистику, 2020). However, after the arrival of covid-19, the number of Chinese tourists dropped to a minimum. In 2022, Serbian tourism was dominated by tourists from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey and the Russian Federation (Andrić, 2023). Nevertheless, Serbia expects a record number of Chinese tourists in 2023 due to the opening of the possibility for Chinese citizens to travel to Serbia (Nikolic, 2023).

Despite all these efforts, opinion polls in Serbia clearly favour the person of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation among the Serbian population. The Belgrade Center for Security Policy (BCSP) published a poll in November 2020 that surveyed attitudes towards international actors. Russia was identified as a traditional ally by 40% of respondents, while only 16% identified China. Despite this, 87% of respondents viewed China’s role in Serbia positively, up from 53% in 2017, while only 72% viewed Russia’s role positively. Also, 57% of respondents thought that Serbia should coordinate its foreign policy with China and Russia (BCSP, 2020). However, it is important to mention that this survey was conducted in 2020, when the pandemic was only in its first year, and it was before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. In the survey conducted in the summer of 2022, 40% of the respondents favoured Vladimir Putin, while only 12% favoured Chinese President Xi Jinping. French President Emmanuel Macron was ranked third with 11% (Savic, 2022). Similar results favouring Russia are provided by the Center for Insights in Survey Research in their polls from 2020 and 2022. There, however, the survey methodology and questions are different (CISR, 2022).

A most recent publication from December 2022 by BCSP which looks at Serbia’s foreign policy stances, shows that Russia remains the dominant soft power player in the country, and China cannot assert itself against it no matter how hard it tries. In their view, Russian influence through soft power has roots too deep to change (BCSP, 2022).

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s division exploited by the Chinese soft power approach

The case of Bosnia and Herzegovina is very specific, because China is taking a two-pronged approach here. This is due to the existence of two entities that make up the country. It has a different approach to the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, with its capital Sarajevo, and a different approach to the Republika Srpska (RS), with its capital Banja Luka. According to Cvjetićanin (2022), the most important tools that Beijing uses in BiH are culture and economic cooperation. The history of current relations dates back to 1995. Since then, mutual cooperation has been regularly strengthened, but it has been a by-product of regional efforts rather than a focused activity (Zweers et al., 2020, 30).

China is trying to use a number of soft power tools here. First of all, these are academic and educational institutions. For these areas, Beijing uses the Confucius Institutes, with two currently operating in the country: the first is located in Sarajevo at the University of Sarajevo and has been in place since 2014 (UNSA, 2018). The second is located at the University of Banja Luka. The institute was established in 2017 (UNIBL, 2023). According to Kovacevic (2019), the more active of the two institutes is the one in Banja Luka. The effectiveness of the institutes is also confirmed by the results of research conducted by Stevic (2022, 119).

China has also sought closer cooperation with religious institutions, NGOs, medical research and institutions, or local media and news outlets. However, according to Zweers et al. (2020, 31), the Chinese media presence in Bosnia has not been effective. It is mainly informational in nature without coherent programs and ideas. There are two non-profit organizations promoting Chinese narratives – the think tank Pojas i put (Belt and Road) and the association Bosansko-kinesko prijateljstvo (Bosnian-Chinese Friendship). Lastly, during the covid pandemic, diplomacy was also active in the field of masks and vaccines (Cvjetićanin, 2022).

Despite the wide range of soft power instruments used, China has failed to gain a dominant positive response in the country. According to the CISR (2022), China lags far behind the US, Turkey or Germany, despite being perceived positively by a slight majority of respondents. According to the details, it also emerged that its main support is among ethnic Serbs. This situation is probably the result of China’s policy in the international environment, in which it favours the RS entity. In 2015, China abstained from voting on the UNSC resolution on the Srebrenica genocide. In addition, Beijing does not recognize the Western-created institution of an international high representative in Bosnia (Cvjetićanin, 2022). Furthermore, the positive views of China in the RS can be explained by the ignorance or attractiveness of the Chinese political system and values for local politicians and population (Stević, 2022, 104). According to Zweers et al. (2020, 19), Sarajevo does not openly support China in its disputes on international soil. While it does take a “one China” approach and thus does not recognize Taiwan, Beijing has otherwise failed to gain an ally here.

Montenegro – probably the best soft power outcome in the region for Beijing

Despite its proclaimed pro-European and pro-Atlantic orientation, Montenegro represents a country where Chinese soft power thrives for many years (Ghincea, Volintiru and Nikolovski, 2021, 12). Beijing has not been badly hurt by scandals over infrastructure investments that ended in fiascos and huge sovereign debt. According to Kovacevic (2020), China is presented and perceived as a constructive player that does not incite or provoke any conflicts. Montenegrins also perceive China as a source of economic development. Moreover, during the covid-19 pandemic, Beijing was one of the first actors to provide assistance to Podgorica. This is reflected in opinion polls in which China may leapfrog Russia or the EU in popularity. According to the polls, only a small part of the population fears China. The CISR poll shows that in 2020, 68% of Montenegrins were favourably disposed towards China, including two positive responses of “very” and “rather“, while in 2022 it was already 79% (CISR, 2020, 2022).

China is thriving on the Montenegrin campus despite the fact that there is only one Confucius Institute. This institute opened in 2015 and is hosted by the University of Montenegro in the capital city of Podgorica (Kovačević, 2020). Kovačević claims that in 2019 alone, 5,000 people have enrolled in courses and more than a hundred civil servants have travelled to China as part of various exchange programmes. China is also pouring donations to the University of Donja Gorica (UDG), which has signed separate agreements with 10 universities in China and several Chinese enterprises (UDG, 2023). According to Shopov (2021), the founder of UDG is close to former President Milo Dukanovic, who had a friendly attitude towards China. This indicates China’s successful approach through soft power to politics in Montenegro. Tončev (2020, 11) also points out that some Montenegrin cities have been hosting cultural events related to Chinese culture for several years, usually attended by diplomatic representatives.

The local media also helps create positive narratives and sentiments about China. Ramusovic (2021) conducted an analysis of more than 100 texts over the past decade. Her findings point to the creation of an image of a benevolent actor in order to build peaceful cooperation through economic and cultural cooperation. Due to the absence of correspondents in China, the Montenegrin media usually present only official positions, which, of course, leave out problematic issues.

China’s success in the popularity stakes may be partly related to Moscow’s possible efforts to directly influence political events in the country. As Garcevic (2021) puts it, Montenegro is a complex country. In 2014, it adopted sanctions, which in the following years saw leading parties branded “pro-Russian“, but the sanctions have not been lifted. When it comes to China and its problems, such as Xinjiang, Podgorica is neutral and does not criticize China. This can be seen as a success of soft power.

As Ghincea, Volintiru, and Nikolovski (2021, 12) argue, Montenegro’s active EU accession process, along with its current NATO membership, may affect the relationship between Beijing and Podgorica. In other words, it may bring a strong defeat for Chinese soft power influence if applied correctly and effectively in the future. So far, however, Beijing seems to be able to assert itself in the country.

North Macedonia is still considering its approach towards China

After the break-up of Yugoslavia, Skopje recognised Taiwan’s independence in 1999. One of the reasons was to obtain sufficient funds for reconstruction and economic development. However, these expectations were not met with reality, which led to the re-recognition and relations with Beijing were disrupted in 2001 (Khaze, Wang, 2020, 11). Despite long-standing diplomatic relations, Chinese soft power activities in North Macedonia are at a low level. At least that is how it is presented in the available literature and research, of which there is not much.

As in other countries, the main instrument is the Confucius Institute at The Saints Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje (Krstinovska, 2022). Krstinovska argues that not many students, civil servants, or business people participate in regular travel and exchange programs, but some of these select groups tend to have the potential to become future decision makers. Tonchev (2020, 9) argues that the General Secretariat, the Ministries of Defense, Foreign Affairs and Interior, the Secretariat for European Affairs, and government agencies send people on exchange programs with China.

Zweers et. al. al. al (2020, 25) argue that there is neither a visible deeper connection and influence of China on local media nor a visible increase in narratives. Compared to others, the Albanian population has access to online news portals based in Albania: Radio Ejani and CMG Shqip. Krstinovska (2022) says that there is a lack of analytical approach to China, but in general the North Macedonian media adheres to a general code of ethics. On the other hand, she argues that social media, such as Facebook, are used by Chinese institutions to spread positive narratives in the local information space.

According to the CISR survey, North Macedonians generally do not like China very much. They consider China to be their country’s fifth largest donor. Their opinion of China seems to be almost identical to that of the US or Russia, with around 60% positive responses. Nevertheless, the perception of China as a threat more than doubled between 2020 and 2022, from 11% to 25% (CISR, 2020, 2022). Kalinsky (2022) cites a different, more specific survey, where in 2018 25% of respondents had a positive view of China, while in 2021 it was 38%. One of the main reasons for this increase was supposed to be China’s diplomacy in conjunction with covid-19. That said, the recent poll asking about the threat with a very large drop can be seen as a spectacular failure of soft power in this period despite covid-19 diplomacy.

Kosovo has non-existent Chinese soft power and presence

In the case of Kosovo, it is not possible to assess to what extent Chinese soft power has been successful because Beijing is not active in Kosovo. This has to do with the fact that China has refused to recognise Kosovo’s existence on the international stage and Pristina has largely rejected any rapprochement with these countries. The views of the Kosovars towards China in the light of its non-recognition speak for themselves. According to CISR surveys (2020, 2022), only 14% and 15% of citizens think favourably of China, respectively. These figures are almost identical to those on the popularity of Serbia or the Russian Federation.

Until Beijing decides to recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, it is unlikely that any change can be expected. Moreover, China has given no indication that Beijing is interested in asserting itself in Kosovo. Nor is there any willingness on the other side.

Albania with positive view but without interest in China

Relations between Tirana and Beijing began many decades ago in 1961. After some time, however, Tirana began to orient itself towards the West and Western structures. Albania is currently a member of NATO and negotiations are underway to join the EU (Zweers et. al, 2020, 34). With China unable to offer Albania better options, Beijing is again using mainly economic and soft power tools in the country.

China’s soft power activities in Albania rely on the Confucius Institute and the positive image built through the media. The Institute has been hosted by the University of Tirana since 2013. It offers the same opportunities as in previous cases – Mandarin language, student exchanges, cultural trips or cultural events in Albania (Feta, 2022).

Chinese and Albanian state broadcasters have openly confirmed an agreement made in 2019 that allows Albanian public television to broadcast Chinese content. Several years ago, there was also cooperation through trips, training and exchange programs between local and Chinese media workers (Xinhua, 2019). The effectiveness of Chinese activities in the media environment was monitored in a research from 2020. More than 1,000 China-related articles were analysed and 47% of them portrayed China in a positive light, 38% in a negative light and the remaining 15% were neutral (Shopov, 2021).

The Centre for the Study of Democracy and Governance (CSDG) regularly conducts surveys on Albania’s security. Results from 2019 and 2020 show that 54.9% of Albanian citizens perceive China’s influence on their country positively. These numbers doubled between 2019 and 2020, when in 2020 only 23.5% of respondents were concerned (CSDG, 2020). However, the CSDG has changed its questions in the 2022 survey, therefore we can no longer compare them with the actual situation. Based on the latest survey, up to 76.6% of respondents do not perceive China as a threat (CSDG, 2022). This is definitely a very positive soft power impact given the ongoing debate in the West regarding China. On the other hand, when asked which country respondents think should be preferred in foreign policy, China ranked sixth with only 0.6% of respondents as their first choice. For the second choice, China was chosen by 3% of respondents. In the survey, the US clearly leads with 70.1% as the first choice, followed by Germany with 15.7% and Turkey with 6.9% (CSDG, 2022). If the first result was positive, this result shows that although China has gained a position in which it does not pose a threat to the citizens of Albania, the respondents do not consider China as a real partner in the international arena.

Of course, it is not possible to generalise or fully analyse the situation in the country on the basis of opinion polls, but it gives a good idea of how successful soft power is. It seems that the West is still the dominant player in Albania, even in the area of soft power. Feta (2022) argues that Albania tries to avoid rapprochement with China so as not to jeopardize its Western orientation and integration. According to Zweers et. al (2020, 21) NATO membership blocks any deeper cooperation with China, especially in the security field. However, they register a growing awareness of the economic importance of Chinese investment for the development of the region.

Conclusion and future perspectives

A closer look at the instruments and likely level of effectiveness of Chinese soft power in the Western Balkans can give us a picture of the main obstacles Beijing faces in this area. As discussed through the text and as portrayed in the literature, the presence of the Russian Federation, supported by history and through culture, and the active efforts of Western allies to integrate the region into their political, economic, and military structures, and ultimately misguided or insufficient Chinese tactics, are the primary and underlying reasons for China’s general failure in the region in terms of soft power.

According to Ghince, Volintir and Nikolovsky (2021, 13), one of the main reasons why China has failed to assert itself in the region is the fact that regional countries are moving closer to Western structures, some of them even being NATO members and EU membership candidates. According to Lucas (2022), China has chosen an opportunistic approach in the case of the Western Balkans region, where Beijing has tried to focus on specific political, cultural or economic objectives. However, its minimal efforts to understand local realities and culture, the cores of soft power, led to the failure of the initiative after initial successes. China has also used tactics to present itself as a strategic economic investor. Beijing has expressed reluctance to interfere in internal political affairs by turning a blind eye to certain aspects such as corruption or labour law (European Parliament, 2021).

Ghincea, Volintiru, and Nikolovski (2021, 5) further argue that China’s potential to be successful in the region politically and economically is exaggerated. They argue that unless there is a strong Western presence and integration into Western structures takes place, Beijing is unable to offer a more interesting and attractive alternative. Beijing is also aware that if it tried to impose its domestic policies, it could not succeed in the Western Balkans as the region seeks to be part of the democratic world. China is therefore unable to effectively harness the potential of political values as part of soft power unless local countries follow their current path.

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