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Elizabeth Yoneva – University of National and World Economy

Elizabeth Yoneva is Associate Professor in the International Relations Department at the University of National and World Economy, Sofia (Bulgaria). She is also Vice-Dean in Scientific and Research Activity of the Faculty of International Economics and Politics. Her teaching activity and research interests include energy security, European integration and regional cooperation in the Black Sea zone and Central Asia. Elizabeth Yoneva is also a member of the editorial board of the “Bulgarian Journal of International Economics and Politics”.

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:

Yoneva, Elizabeth, China’s energy projects and investments in the Balkan countries: patterns and trends of cooperation within the transition to new energy models, 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. 157-212. ISBN: 979-8989739806.

Abstract

The topic of the multifaceted impact of China’s projects and investments in the energy sector of the Balkan countries provokes special attention not only within Europe, but also on a broader level in the context of the redrawing of the world energy map and the global transformations, generated by the efforts for energy transition. As China itself is also facing the challenge to adapt to the new realities in the energy field, the research will highlight the main vectors in its energy sector with emphasis on contemporary metamorphoses. In the framework of the current energy crisis, especially interesting are the options for energy cooperation between China and Central and Eastern Europe. The paper offers also specific look at the potential of the partnership between the Asian giant and the Balkan countries in line with the drive for green growth.

1. Introduction

In the last decades, the topic of the active dynamics in China’s growing global role has provoked increasing attention, which is particularly glaring in the context of the research in the domain of international relations. In an effort to advance and expand economically along with the demand to cope with the challenges imposed by the need to adapt to changing geopolitical realities, Beijing was focused on planning and implementing measures to optimize its position, which have inevitably transformed its foreign policy. They also generate spillover effects to other continents, inducing specific transformations and rearrangements in the established settings. The broadening involvement and engagement with zones such as Central Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, not only demonstrated the country’s specific interests in them, especially in terms of energy imperatives, but also brought about shifts in the regional composition of trade flows and supply chains, as well as in the patterns of power balance. In the context of its diversification efforts, particularly relevant for PRC are partners with higher potential for strengthening energy ties. The complications, arising from its status as a large-scale consumer of hydrocarbons, provoke an intensification of its activities to add new components to the constellation of its resource providers. However, Beijing’s expansion plans were not limited to this single idea, but were based on a spacious concept for infiltration in the energy sector of several countries through the medium of investments and with acquiring stakes in different projects, ventures or companies. Thus, not only the resource-rich economies, but also these beyond the type of the commodities-abundant realm became alluring and found themselves in the spotlight of the Asian leader.

Southeastern Europe is an interesting case in the second group as it was incorporated into China’s energy cooperation agenda relatively late. This was due to the area becoming progressively attractive within the framework of the launch of the ‘Belt and Road’ Initiative. China employed instruments from its wide range of previously successful approaches and mechanisms to penetrate the region. However, it is also necessary to develop a specific approach that recognizes the intricate nature and unique characteristics of the region, in order to effectively utilize the established partnerships.

Moreover, the Balkan countries went through a painful and distressing wave of political and economic transition after the end of the Cold War, resulting in the restructuring of this crossroad area and modifying the roles and functions of the affiliated states. They were also engaged with the constitution of the regional energy architecture, looking for support according to the correspondent national preferences. With regard to the aspirations to transform this zone into a prosperous energy junction, the metamorphoses sparked considerable ambitions to bolster the Balkan’s capacity to act as a bridge between East and West. Nevertheless, this enthusiasm was humbled with the area undergoing through several crises. During the turbulent times, alternative partners were welcomed and China succeeded in using the momentum to expand its footprint in Southeastern Europe and especially in the Western Balkans. This progress raised diverse concerns on EU level and forced some nations in the region to scale down their passion for collaboration with Beijing.

Over the past decade, the topic of the multifaceted impact of Chinese projects and investments in the energy sector of the Balkan countries has intrigued numerous analysts and experts not only with regard to the modifications within Europe, but also in a broader perspective touching the redrawing of the world energy map and the global transformations, generated by the efforts to embark on the course towards energy transition. Regardless of the polarity in the assessments, the repercussions of the activities of PRC in Southeastern Europe cannot be underestimated.

In light of these issues, the aim of the study is to outline the principal dimensions of the shifts in the energy cooperation of the Asian leader with the Balkan countries, looking through the prism of the various developments and the latest shocks in the resource markets. As China itself is also facing the challenge to adjust to the new configurations in the energy field, the research will highlight the main vectors in its energy sector with emphasis on contemporary metamorphoses, in order to explore, how the evolutions in its own energy policy have paved the way for a new approach towards involvement in other regions. In the spotlight of the analysis is the significant focus on renewable energy in the spirit of EU’s ambitions to switch to a new energy model. In the last decade, China proved as a game-changer in the green technologies industry. In view of these trends, the paper offers also specific look at the potential of the partnership between the Asian giant and the Balkan countries in line with the drive for green growth.

2. China’s energy model: design and rearrangements

Undoubtedly, China’s political ascent is inextricably linked to its impressive economic surge and global export expansion. In 2010, it became the world’s second largest economy and its development strategy rationally prioritized the securing of raw materials and the promotion of new markets to support export-led economic growth. Consequently, these objectives motivate PRC’s march in search of natural resources and energy security. The Asian giant is currently the world’s biggest consumer of energy, with the inability to meet growing fuel demand from domestic production logically leading to increased import dependence. The widespread use of coal reserves, which dominate its energy profile but have a drastic negative environmental impact, is stimulating efforts to replace them with alternatives. Obviously, the country had to face the same problems in energy terms that have long worried the major developed economies, but it should resolve these difficulties in a far more competitive environment. However, China demonstrated its proper skills and capability to identify and implement the suitable maneuvers to improve its energy condition.

The country not only joined the global race for leadership in green energy, but also achieved supremacy in it. The energy reforms found their underpinning not only in the environmental but also in the geopolitical justification. Renewables are seen as an appropriate tool to reduce energy dependence on unstable regions such as the Middle East or North Africa, as well as on choke points in resource transport routes – in the logic of the “Malacca dilemma” (Lanteigne 2008) and other problematic key spots. As maritime routes are vulnerable to blockade by external factors (Ji 2007), limiting import reliance will generate overall benefits, because it will scale down the need for militarization for energy security purposes.

Drawing lessons from the experience gained in the EU and the US with regard to renewable energy, PRC turned the green vector in its energy development into impressive one. With introducing the use of this type of sources and corresponding technologies, it explicated as both a vision and practical platform for their diffusion. A distinctive feature of the Chinese version of renewable energy advancement was the creation of incentives to build its own domestic industry. Starting with the import of components and equipment, it gradually moved towards implementing a plan to build national capacity in the sector (Chiu 2017). Its materialization turned China into the largest global producer and exporter of clean energy technologies, biggest power generator from renewables, and main driver of solar and wind capacity growth. In 2022, the renewable energy generation in the country increased by 18.3%, resulting in a rise in its share in world’s total to 32.3% – compared to 19.3% for the EU and 16.8% for the US. As concerns the global capacity addictions, the largest fragment of wind and solar growth was for the Asian leader with about 41% and 37% respectively (BP 2023).

Additionally, the pandemic raised powerful calls to seize the moment, so that new energy technologies can be mobilized as a source of “green growth” to achieve a “sustainable recovery”. China’s potential to lead the way towards energy transition is extremely promising. Under its targets for the current decade, the Asian giant has set the ambition to increase the share of non-fossil energy in primary energy consumption to 20% by 2030. Renewable energy is planned to reach at least 35% in electricity generation by the end of the same period . Beijing’s targets of peaking carbon dioxide emissions before 2030 and achieving carbon neutrality before 2060 (China’s Mid-Century… 2021) are also remarkable, especially in view of the 30-year interval between them, compared to the distance of 43 years for the US and 71 years for the EU.

In the context of the global political consensus to take measures to curb harmful environmental impacts, China has demonstrated a strong determination to overcome the label of global polluter No. 1. To what extent this new inclination towards transformations in its energy model makes it an ally and partner of the EU or a competitor, remains a point for a fierce dispute. Europe has made considerable efforts over the last decade to institute itself as a world forerunner in environmental measures, but it had to face a number of internal difficulties in the last 3 years. The economies of the member states have been much harder hit by the pandemic in 2020, the energy crisis in 2021, and the start of the war in Ukraine in 2022 and especially its repercussions, generating new shocks in the energy industry. In contrast, China demonstrated better resilience in the context of the turbulences and its rapidly recovering economy sets certain prospects for the future development. It remains to be seen, if the European experience in applying green energy technologies as a driver for rehabilitation measures in the face of economic downturns, can be harnessed and refined in a Chinese manner.

At the same time, the evolution of China’s energy policy sets the general principles of the mission of unfolding abroad, endorsing several transformations in the domain of foreign affairs. The approach based on not setting conditions and giving priority to economic over political matters proved not only to be practically useful, but also testified to the country’s determination to defy dominant concepts in international politics. Unraveling its own vision on energy issues had not only economic ramifications, but also pushed up PRC as an alternative hub to the West for a number of developing countries, contributing to its flourishing role across the globe. Beijing’s strategy of orienting itself towards acquiring stakes in energy projects and companies globally, investing in infrastructure, lending funds in exchange for long-term energy supply contracts turned out as more attractive to many partners against the background of the modus operandi applied by the US and the EU. China’s guiding maxims of non-interference in domestic affairs (the so-called “clean hands policy”), the respect for sovereignty and the choice of political system and development path of the respective states is in harmony with the basic preeminence of achieving mutually beneficial economic gain (under the postulate of “getting rich together”).

The “no strings attached” approach triggers the Western criticism, calling against China’s “industrial colonialism” and “unscrupulous behavior”. Nevertheless, such absolute negatively loaded judgements should be treated with precaution, especially in the research realm, as they impose a number of distorted perceptions that hinder the objective examination of the actions of the Asian leader in key zones globally, including within the energy sector, that catalyze changes in the status quo. The Chinese business activities have redesigned the global economic scenery, infusing new trends and empowering rewarding toolset for capturing markets. Beijing’s achievements speak for themselves, as they have kindled a reassessment of the regional dynamics by political elites throughout the world. China’s success in distinct areas could not be explored separately from the topic about the Western failure. As concerns the Balkans, the dynamism of the Asian giant in this subregion is emblematic of the deficiencies plaguing the EU operational capacity. Therefore, the debate over the impact of China on the energy patterns in Southeastern Europe should be far reaching, as to include in its broad spectrum the necessity to rethinking the Union’s concepts and practices.

3. China on the course towards greening the Belt and Road Initiative

Since its start, China’s Belt & Road Initiative has been in the limelight of the public eye, the business and the research circles. Step by step, it was equipped with new dimensions, components, contributors, and participants, adding to its range and capacity and pushing it beyond the orbit of a simple infrastructure development strategy. Over the years since its inception, BRI incorporated different elements such as connectivity and logistics, unimpeded trade, financial integration, policy coordination and people-to-people bonds (the so-called “Five Goals”). With regard to its enriching geographic and thematic scope, the initiative turned into a key branding blueprint for the foreign policy of PRC. However, its energy vectors have drawn relatively lower attention. Regardless of these deficiencies, BRI has supported the bolstering of bilateral and multilateral energy cooperation with the engaged collaborators and stakeholders.

Nonetheless, the emphasis on financing energy infrastructure projects has once again come under blistering criticism for the practices of endorsing dependence on fossil fuels and stimulating the environmentally damaging installations. China’s favoritism of coal was logical as an available domestic source and the energy crisis in the country in 2021 (Inman 2021) demonstrated that in times of energy crunch it turned again towards coal as a panacea (Myllyvirta 2021a). At the initial phase of the chrysalis of BRI, the investment trajectories followed consequently the path of preferential treatment of coal. With the accelerating rhetoric about global warming and climate change concerns, the Asian giant had to reevaluate and amend its policies, as to implement measures in compliance with the frame of sustainable development.

The change of direction and the implemented plans to decarbonize the economy had their consequent impact on Chinese investments and projects abroad, which were supplemented with the renewable plug-in. Resultantly, their imprint on the energy sector of the countries along the “Belt and Road” became more nuanced and complex. China’s efforts for greening the BRI found their fundament in the documents, released in the context of the preparation for the first forum of the initiative in May 2017 – “Guidance on Promoting Green Belt and Road” (Guidance on … 2017), “The Belt and Road Ecological and Environmental Cooperation Plan” (The Belt and Road Ecological… 2017), and “Vision and Actions on Energy Cooperation in Jointly Building Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road” (Vision and Actions … 2017). They accentuated the determination of the country to hype the Paris Agreement and 2030 Sustainable Development Goals in line with the intension to “share the ecological civilization philosophy and achieve sustainable development”. With the integration of these concepts into BRI, the government aims at creating “a favorable pattern of well-grounded cooperation on eco-environmental protection”.

Evidently, this upgrading regulatory framework is a luminous manifestation of the evolving green BRI policy. The Asian leader accepted the mission to rebrand the initiative as environment-friendly. Additionally, a more powerful signal in the same direction was sent with the announcement in 2021, that PRC will quit the building of new coal-fired power plants abroad. The statement of the Chinese president Xi Jinping at the United Nations General Assembly marks the launch of a new code for overseas energy finance. With this move, China enlisted in the faction of states such as South Korea and Japan that have vouched to abandon public financing for new coal power (Myllyvirta 2021b). This pledge elevated to a higher level the expectations for boosting the renewable energy magnitude, as energy investment in BRI economies is expected to total $27 trillion by 2050.

Nonetheless, the efforts of Beijing to dismantle the “non-eco” label of BRI is not obligatory to route towards renewables boom. It is possible, that the new BRI compass will point to hydropower rather than solar and wind energy. Momentarily, hydropower follows coal as the second largest source of global capacity receiving Chinese policy bank finance and FDI. PRC is the leader with respect to hydroelectricity with a share of 30.1% of the world’s total consumption. The country lays a special emphasis on large-scale hydropower deployment (Bin 2021). It has at its disposal the world’s largest hydropower plant – the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River and put into operation in the summer of 2021 the first two generators of the world’s second largest hydropower plant, the Baihetan Dam (Stanway 2021). The Asian colossus is also engaged with the implementation of innovative energy projects such as the construction of world’s largest hybrid energy plant that will combine the output from the Kela Solar Power Station in Sichuan Province with that of the nearby Lianghekou Hydropower Station, located on the Yalong River. The mix between the two categories of plants aims at avoiding the problems with daily and seasonal fluctuations and will function with the help of highly computerized operation platform with self-learning AI (Wei 2022). Such emblematic projects testify to China’s aspirations to serve as an avant-garde power in the field of energy, so there is a viable option for know-how transfer to the participants in BRI.

However, the analysis of the activity within the initiative displays the picture of uneven regional energy investments. As concerns Europe, it shows that it has received policy bank finance exclusively for coal and gas, while Chinese FDI were split between natural gas plants and wind generation, with a small amount of solar (Chen and Springer 2021). With the altering energy setting, it is likely that the current pattern will change in favor of renewable energy. Potential complications for the fulfillment of this scenario could be generated with respect to the several barriers that still exist to increasing investment in renewable energy. Especially in the developing countries, outdated or underdeveloped grid infrastructure will be a limiting factor for the expansion of renewables. Experts support the view that renewable energy cooperation within the BRI “faces myriad challenges, including financing difficulties, low electricity pricing, and inadequate policy support” (Chen 2019). Obviously, the broader political and economic context should also be considered, as to identify the obstacles for the development of the renewable energy vector of the initiative.

4. The Balkans in China’s energy expansion blueprint

The changing energy setting in Southeastern Europe is product of a distinct endogenous and exogenous dynamics. The countries in the region made considerable efforts to unlock its potential as a stable partner after the turbulent and violent transition period that started with the end of the Cold War. The growing importance of the area on the international scene multiplies its chances to play a key role as a bridge between East and West in terms of trade flows, transport, energy, etc. The Balkans became a subject of flourishing attention from external sources, transforming them into a strategic realm of competing interests and deepening rivalry. The traditional mise-en-scene was enriched with the overlapping ambitions and interventions of new players. The zone acquired a greater importance following the accession of Bulgaria, Romania and Croatia to the EU. Nonetheless, the energy landscape in Southeastern Europe is particularly heterogeneous, and further complicated namely by the different stages of the Balkan countries on their EU integration path – along with several member states, there are such with candidate status and in negotiation mode, as well as participants in the stabilization and association processes.

At the same time, the EU itself is experiencing serious difficulties in deploying efficient energy measures in a situation of severe import dependency and an intensifying battle for securing resource flows. There are various complications in the development of both the internal and external dimensions of European energy policy, which have their spill-over effects on the Balkans. The difficult balance between the miscellaneous and often contrasted interests, and individual needs of all member states in the field of energy additionally impedes the implementation of mechanisms to address the challenges with common solutions (Zachmann 2015). The role of the Balkans for Europe’s energy security could be unraveled namely in the context of the objective to achieve diversification in terms of supply routes, as well as an important element in the construction of the European energy networks. However, the extremely limited wealth of energy resources in this zone induces high levels of energy dependency. Clearly, the key topic for the countries in the region remains how to secure extensive support for their diversification push.

China is a relatively new factor in the Balkan energy domain, compared to more classic players such as the EU, Russia and the US. The resulting implications of their involvement in this zone had a complex impact on the establishment of regional patterns of energy cooperation or competition. Furthermore, with the involvement of the Asian colossus the energy mosaic in Southeastern Europe became more entangled. PRC has no strong historical ties or deep-rooted collaboration with the Balkans despite the exploited mantras of “traditional friendship” and “shared past” in the geopolitical narrative, referring to the former socialist times. Contrary to other new players, Beijing’s broader engagement with the region has not started with the end of the Cold War, but almost 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Generally, China’s advances in the region correspond with the periods of different internal or external crises, which affected this area. The repercussions of the 2008 economic and financial crisis in Southeastern Europe resulted in the withdrawal of Western investors, and the emerging vacuum was quickly filled by PRC. Many Balkan countries were looking for substitute funds, so they accepted enthusiastically the offers of the Asian giant. In 2011, Beijing started the China-CEE Economic and Trade Forum, which was transformed into the “16+1” (“17+1” after the accession of Greece in 2019, currently 14+1 after the leave of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia) cooperation format, providing additional mechanisms for dialogue and interaction between PRC and the countries and Central and Eastern Europe. It grew into a crucial element of BRI, encompassing collaboration with the EU member states in the zone and the five Western Balkan countries (excluding Kosovo). Although “16+1” was designed as a multilateral configuration, Beijing showed its preferences to implement concrete projects through rather bilateral approach.

Specific cases also helped the Asian leader to spread its economic and political roots in the zone. For example, the Greek government-debt crisis represents an illustration for this type of breakthrough for PRC after the Western companies turned away from the country. Experts underline that “back then, a lot of people – both the elite and general public – believed that Greece was betrayed by the West and they were looking for alternative sources of capital and alternative political allies. /…/ And this is how China stepped in.” (Stojkovski et al. 2021).

In 2020, when the pandemic crisis hit the world and began to spread through the Balkans, it clearly exposed the vulnerability of the region. The reactions to the economic and political shock waves demonstrated once again the scheme of competing external interests in this area. The new terms “political pandemic” and “pandemic geopolitics”, which have gained particular popularity in the turbulent times, could easily be applied to describe a number of phenomena in the region. The Western Balkan countries have received foreign aid from various sources, with China being distinctly an active one (Reka 2020). Moreover, the pandemic blows on the world energy sector produced devastating effects on the investment activity. Globally, it declined in its energy dimension by an unprecedented 20% in 2020 (International Energy Agency 2020). The negative repercussions were axiomatically more brutal for the less developed areas, which struggled to find the needed funds for their diversification quest. For the Balkan countries, the unfolding of the energy crisis in 2021 meant again concerns about EU’s refocusing on its internal drama. In 2022, the start of the war in Ukraine accelerated the European course towards achieving energy independence. However, it served also as a catalyst for the reconsidering of the partnerships with China for many Balkan countries. There are several registered cases of withdrawal from previously announced projects. The leave of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia from the “17+1” mechanism was also a clear signal for the shift. A significant number of the EU member states became reluctant to accept Chinese investments in critical segments of the economy. This reserved approach displays the clash between the economic and political inclinations, as the recovery of the Asian leader awakes the anticipations for fresh investment funds. However, as regarded by an extreme viewpoint, “China is just not in the picture anymore; it is not a security provider” (Stojkovski et al. 2021).

Despite recent transformations, looking at the landscape of current Chinese engagement in the Balkans, it appears extensive and multi-layered. According to the interactive map on the site of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), the involvement of the Asian leader scores 136 major projects in the region, amounting to over €32 billion for the period 2009-2021. Their scope encompasses miscellaneous sectors such as transport, energy, mining, metallurgy, communications, etc. In the spotlight of the research attention are obviously the Western Balkan countries. According to the experts, there is a specific pattern for this area, as “the level of engagement varies – from a great number of projects in Serbia and Montenegro to fewer projects in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina and North Macedonia, and a very limited presence in Kosovo” (Stanicek and Tarpova 2022). With regard to trade, the exchanged volumes between PRC and the six countries increased rapidly over the past decade, reaching almost 10% (between 6-10% imports and only 2-4% exports) of the total trade of the subregion, but the EU remains the main partner for them with almost 70%. However, they represent a small market for the Asian giant, when comparing them with the whole CEE area. In 2020, the Western Balkans accounted for less than 5% of China’s total trade with the 17+1 countries (Zeneli and Mejdini 2022).

With the rising economic presence of the Asian leader in the region, to the forefront were brought discussions about its political dimensions. After several Western Balkan states embraced the proposed infrastructure projects, many experts expressed their concerns that “this also makes China a political and normative threat to the European Union’s position in the Balkans, weakening these countries’ political resolve to follow the European Union’s lead” (Vuksanovic 2017), Analysts took the view that these projects open the door for solidifying the Chinese state-led model and “in the Balkans, it also increases the risk of undermining the EU’s reformist agenda” (Makocki 2017). The apple of discord became the offered Chinese funds for construction of coal plants in the Balkans because they were seen as breaching the EU environmental goals and delaying the phase-out plans, thus hindering the progress of the zone away from fossil fuels. However, with the new course of Beijing towards greening the BRI, these arguments lose their validity.

Nevertheless, the topic of PRC’s motivations for involvement in the region is still controversial. The viewpoint, that the Asian giant is focused only on trade and connectivity, and has no alternative political vision for the Western Balkans, is based on the assumptions that this area is appealing for Beijing only due to its strategic location and proximity to EU’s markets, so its role as mostly as EU’s backyard. Thus, this zone “can be seen as a testing ground for China’s growing European ambitions”, so it is more appropriate to consider the Asian giant “as a complement to, rather than a substitute” for the Western Balkans’ European partners, because “it is not yet an institutional replacement or a new economic point of reference for any of the countries in the region” (Martino 2017). Going on the same tune, “China, contrarily to Russia, is not opposing the EU-path of the Western Balkan countries simply because the EU prospect creates more stability in the region which is important for Chinese investments” (Fenkart 2021).

The opposite vision rests on the idea, that China is a more convenient partner for the Western Balkan countries with regard to its image as a strategic investor, who does not intervene in internal political affairs. Beijing has learned valuable lessons from the “South-South” cooperation with Africa and Latin America, so it can use its proven instruments in Southeastern Europe. The Asian leader appears as preferable ally namely owing to its “no strings attached” approach. Furthermore, experts underline that “the appeal of Beijing to many Western Balkan countries is largely that, as a newcomer, China lacks the historical baggage that accompany relations with “the West” (Mardell 2020). In contrast, EU acts logically more like a mentor and not as a partner with regard to its ambition to be a transformative force. In such manner, it applies conditionality, which reinforces the hierarchical relationships with the region. Accordingly, with PRC interfering “the effectiveness of the EU’s conditionality is reduced because of the availability of alternatives” (Zweers 2020). Simultaneously, the EU itself had to face several internal and external challenges (such as Brexit, migration influx, instabilities in the neighborhood zones, etc.) in the last decades that reduced its absorption capacity and shrink the enlargement enthusiasm. Nonetheless, for the Western Balkans as a region, that feels severely the gap in socio-economic development with the member states, the slowly advancing integration process creates an “enlargement fatigue”, inducing not only disappointment and frustration but also desire to delve into options for softer powers. According to the experts, “as long as the European Union is unable or unwilling to integrate these countries, however, they will gain further incentive to pursue closer ties with China” (Vuksanovic 2017).

Definitely, Beijing is trying to portray itself as an equal partner to the Balkans, but the emerging international supply chains do not operate with an identical two-way traffic. Analysts accentuate that “while exports from the Western Balkans to China have increased over the years, the actual trade balance favors China — by almost 90%“ (Zeneli and Mejdini 2022). Notable is also the profile of Chinese engagement in the area. BRI’s emphasis on infrastructure is attractive, because this component is central from the perspective of the nations in Southeastern Europe. Generally, the countries located along the BRI corridors are ill-served by existing infrastructure and the investment gaps in this department motivates them to participate in the initiative (Xiheng 2019). In principle, as infrastructure is perceived as a public good, the Chinese investments in such projects should not generate problems. Logically, the region should profit from them, having in mind the infrastructure deficits in the region and especially in the Western Balkans.

However, some researchers reject the narrative for “win-win” relations and mutually beneficial economic interactions. They emphasize that Beijing’s approach is generally based not on actual FDI, but on loans, making China “a “lending-power” not an “investment-power” (Fenkart 2021). PRC’s apparatus for this purpose includes state-owned banks and financial entities such as China Development Bank, the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim Bank), the Silk Road Fund and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This provides a fundament for the assumption that the small economies become dependent on the Asian giant through the medium of this “checkbook diplomacy” or “debt-trap diplomacy”. Moreover, it creates a donor-recipient relationship, reminding on the Chinese proverb “A loan is never a gift”. The notion of Chinese fast money is additionally underpinned by the quicker realization of the projects, facilitated by the lesser bureaucratic hurdles. Usually, they are implemented on the basis of interstate agreements and “would not have been possible without direct interventions by the ruling elites and bypassing or changing the legal provisions” (Novaković 2020).

Nonetheless, time is a crucial factor, when it comes to the construction of critical infrastructure. This statement is exclusively valid in the field of energy, where the Balkans are considered a vulnerable area. Focusing on the infrastructure component, it is evident, that the countries in the region are not particularly successful in mobilizing support for large-scale projects. Over the last decades, there were many cancelled, abandoned or postponed endeavors. Presumably, such void raises the curtain for infiltration of new players, offering a helping hand. Taking into account the Chinese energy technology and expertise level, the Asian leader has at its disposal huge potential to assist in upgrading the Balkan energy architecture. It is noteworthy that under the framework of the “16+1” cooperation format, Beijing established in 2016 Center for Dialogue and Cooperation on Energy Projects 16+1 (CDCEP). It is “hosted by Romania and provides an effective platform for cooperation in the energy field between China and the CEE countries, including the Balkan ones” (Habova 2020).

Bearing in mind PRC’s enduring favoritism of coal, it easily found a ground to being on the same wavelength with some of the Balkan countries, as a distinguishing trait of the energy profile of the region is the wide use of coal. Despite being identified as an important energy resource, contributing to the competitiveness of the economies of a several Southeast European states, coal faces a complicated situation in view of the commitments to comply with the European standards in the environmental realm. In the last decades, countries such as Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, etc. developed plans to exploit their coal reserves and to build power plants based on their employment. Consequently, they had to rely on external investment, which was mainly offered by China. Gradually, the renewable vogue generated the formation of a “two-speed energy transition” in the Western Balkans. The first group included countries such as Montenegro, Albania and North Macedonia, which demonstrated a greater propensity to promote renewable energy in line with the European calls. The second group encompassed Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, which took firmer positions on coal, leaning on Beijing’s investment support (CEE Bankwatch Network 2020).

For the Western Balkan countries, the path of energy transformation will undoubtedly be thorny. A shift away from coal could have serious social effects – on the one hand in terms of job losses in the mining and generating departments, and on the other in terms of dropping a lower-cost option and an available domestic resource. At the same time, environmental imperatives cannot be ignored, since emissions from the 16 coal-fired power plants in the region are estimated to exceed those of all 250 in the EU combined (Garosi 2022). However, the extent to which this may prove to be a factor in their elimination is not entirely clear, as such a choice would deprive the countries of a significant pillar in ensuring energy self-sufficiency. The preference for other options beyond renewables such as natural gas will in turn increase their import dependence.

Another important dimension of Chinese energy involvement in the Balkans is associated with hydroelectricity. On the one hand, the wealth of water resources in the region could be further mobilized to increase the potential in this field. In total, around 3 000 hydropower plants are planned for construction within Southeastern Europe. On the other hand, there is a growing criticism of the coming “tsunami” of hydropower facilities that will destroy the biodiversity in this zone. The hydropower boom also threatens the population’s access to water resources, which are needed for agriculture, fishing and drinking. Investment in such projects is increasing globally in line with ecological regulations and commitments. However, their deployment could also have negative effects on the environment, as most of the plans to build new facilities in the region are on a small scale, so diverting water resources for these purposes would put a number of protected areas and national parks at risk (Bacchi 2018).

China’s power with regard to renewable energy investment should not be underestimated as well. As a world forerunner on this arena, PRC is also the dominating exporter of green technologies. Furthermore, the interest of the Balkan countries in renewable energy is evident in the plans for increasing its share in the overall energy mix. Renewables also appear attractive in terms of their specificity, allowing the construction of decentralized energy systems that are less vulnerable to external shocks – a feature whose importance is proven in the context of last crises. Moreover, the geographical location of the Western Balkans corresponds to a good potential for wind and solar energy, which can be exploited and developed. The relatively smaller population of the region (around 18 million people) does not imply in turn large-scale energy needs of the households. Last but not least, the lack of strong industrialization is also seen as a positive for an easier transition to the use of green technologies. Additionally, they are recognized as an important tool to stimulate the economy and achieve sustainable development. Currently, in the context of the effects of the post-pandemic turbulences they are also crucial instrument for economic recovery. There are expectations that investment in renewable energy will support local job creation. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates that, with a successful energy transition in Southeastern Europe, aggregate output will be around €430 billion by 2050. (International Renewable Energy Agency 2019). With regard to Beijing’s ambition for greening the BRI, it could have a positive influence on the environmental pattern in the Balkans.

5. National profiles of China’s energy engagement with the Western Balkan countries

The profiles of China’s energy engagement with the countries in the subregion are contrasting, so by assessing the crucial similarities and differences between them, it is feasible to showcase their advantages and limitations, in order to draw conclusions about the potential capacity of the Asian leader to play a major role in their energy sectors in the future. With regards to the increased research focus on the Western Balkans, their national profiles of cooperation with Beijing will be presented ahead of those of the EU member-states in Southeastern Europe.

Albania

Albania is one of the Balkan countries with a long history of collaboration with China. During the rule of Enver Hoxha, the deterioration of the relations with the Soviet Union in the early 1960s pushed the communist state towards partnership with China. Mao Zedong prioritized the isolated country as a recipient of foreign aid and supported it with loans, which were used for the purposes of developing the heavy and military industries. Beijing offered also technical assistance for the construction of plants in branches such as the chemical, textile, construction, food and other industries. Albania exported to PRC energy resources (oil) and raw materials such as chrome and copper (Musabelliu 2019). After nearly 20 years of multidimensional cooperation, the ideological controversies terminated the intense dialogue in 1978. The end of the isolation of the Balkan state in 1991 generated high expectations that the old allies could form new ties. The renewed bond was credited with the rise in popularity of predictions that Beijing’s interest are long-term and strategic in style, and will induce a wave of gradual penetration in the Albanian economy.

China’s investments in the country were devoted to the energy and transport sectors. In 2016, the Chinese firm Geo-Jade Petroleum acquired the Canadian company Bankers Petroleum for $575 million. With this move, the Shanghai-based and privately-owned company took the control over two oilfields – Patos-Marinza and Kucova, producing in total around 13,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Patos-Marinza field near the city of Fier is the largest domestic oil field, generating 95% of Albanian crude oil and accounting for 11% of its export. It is also one of the largest onshore oil fields in Southeastern Europe. The scope of this purchase is visible by the status of Bankers Petroleum as the biggest foreign investor and taxpayer in Albania.

Another important Chinese investment in the Balkan state was the taking over of the Tirana International Airport “Mother Teresa” in 2017 by the Hong Kong-based company China Everbright. However, the pandemic complications motivated it to sell the concession to the local Kastrati Group. This act definitely crushed the perceptions about the sustainability of Chinese engagement. Additional vectors of involvement could be found in the mining sector, where the largest copper producer in the Asian country Jiangxi Copper Corp. bought in 2014 a 50% stake in the Turkish company Ekin Maden Tic. San. A.S. for $65 million. The formed joint venture has concession for a few copper mines and plants in Albania.

As concerns the energy sector, the Balkan state is also attractive with regard to hydropower. Albania is one of the examples of almost total dependence on water resources for electricity generation, which on the one hand is a positive element in terms of the environmental situation, but on the other hand puts it in a vulnerable position in terms of weather conditions, which often leads to the need to import electricity. China also assisted in the development of this energy segment by providing support for the construction of the Bushat hydropower station in the northern part of the country. Beijing offered a $126 million preferential loan and the project was finished in 2008, when the station was completed by China International Water and Electricity Corp.

Another important project in the energy department is the collaboration with Huawei for Power Transmission Network. Undoubtedly, diversification is an important task for Tirana, but in the case of renewables there are more active players than China. For example, in 2018 the company India Power won a tender to build a solar plant near Vlora (Spasić 2018a). The developments in the last years serve as an indicator of a decline in Chinese investment in Albania. Despite the fact, that around 150 companies are present in the country, obviously the accent is on trade, as the Asian leader is the third largest export partner for the Balkan state. However, it remains to be seen, if China will reinforce its energy links with Albania in the coming years or will freeze them on the levels of its current involvement.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

The energy profile of Bosnia and Herzegovina reveals that it generates nearly 60% of its electricity from coal-fired power plants, with the second important segment being the hydropower. Accordingly, these are also the sections captivating China’s attention. In September 2018, the power utility EPBiH gave green light for the construction of the lignite-fired 450-megawatt unit 7 of the thermal power plant in Tuzla. Representing one of the largest postwar energy project in the country, the facility at a cost of $1.1 billion is financed by a loan from the state-funded Export-Import Bank of China and implemented by China Gezhouba Group (part of China Energy Engineering Corp.) and Guandong Electric Power Design. The project was expected to be completed within 56 months, in order to increase EPBiH’s power generating capacity by 26.7% (Zuvela 2018). However, the pandemic forced a postponement of the plans. At the same time, additional complications brought the withdrawal from the project of General Electric, based on the argumentation that it will put an end of its involvement in the construction of coal-based power plants and will refocus its activity towards renewable energy (Campbell and Sito-Sucic 2021). This example was followed by Siemens, provoking the need for a broader engagement of Chinese companies, as Shanghai Boiler Works and Shanghai Electric Group took charge of the manufacturing and delivery of the equipment. The building of Tuzla Block 7 is promoted as an important endeavor because the new facility should replace the three ageing units of the 715 MW plant in one of the largest cities in the country. Nonetheless, the China-backed project is opposed by environmentalists on the grounds that it does not comply with the EU standards. Further concern relates to the future of the plant with regard to the progress of Bosnia and Herzegovina toward membership.

Another significant joint project is the Stanari lignite thermal power plant – a product of the China-CEEC /Central and Eastern European Countries/ cooperation. The 300-megawatt facility is financed by a $400 million loan from China Development Bank and the ownership is in the hands of a private firm from Republika Srpska and a consortium of companies from the Asian leader. The Tuzla and Stanari projects piled up a debt of over $1.2 billion for the Balkan state, equal to 13% of its external debt. As important energy projects with Chinese involvement in Bosnia and Herzegovina could be identified the construction as well of Banovici thermal power plant, Gacko 2 lignite thermal power plant, the Kamengrad mine and thermal power plant. With investment from China Electric and the Polish-Chinese company Sunningwell International should be built the Ugljevik 3 thermal power plant, for which China Development Bank provides a $782 million loan.

Chinese companies demonstrated also activism in the field of hydroelectric energy. In 2020, China Gezhouba Group signed an agreement with the government of Republika Srpska for a $216 million investment in the construction of the Dabar hydropower plant. Additionally, China Development Bank supported the build of the Ulog hydropower plant, constructed by Sinohydro. A relevant joint project represents also the Bistrica hydropower plant.

In the context of the ambition of greening the BRI, there are notable deals in the renewable energy dimension. The companies China National Technical Import & Export Corporation and PowerChina Resources LTD are engaged through a €130 million investment in the construction of a wind farm in Ivovik. Illustrious for China’s green energy course in the Balkan country is also the project for a wind farm near Tomislavgrad (Gradina). Additionally, China’s Hareon Solar Technology and the Swiss company Prinz Karl Thurn und Taxis Management, Solbus, formed a joint venture to build a 450 MW solar park in the area of the Bosnian town Livno (Dimitrievska 2014).

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chinese companies are involved in energy projects worth around €3.8 billion. Obviously, they are more active in Republika Srpska – one of the two political entities, which after the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia formed the complex structure of the state. The Chinese preferences are logical, as they symbolize a kind of projection of the flourishing relations of the Asian giant with Serbia. Nevertheless, the expanding presence of China in the energy sector of the country is variegated and encompassing different components, among which the green ones are especially promising in the light of the modern trends.

North Macedonia

Compared to other countries in the region, Chinese influence in North Macedonia is relatively limited, because it is focused predominantly on transport infrastructure with regard to the reconstruction of the railway network and the highway complex. These interests are linked to the concept for the development of the Piraeus–Budapest corridor in the framework of BRI. There are also registered activities in the context of the energy sector. In North Macedonia, electricity generation is based mainly on coal and hydro, along with the use of natural gas in smaller volumes, secured through imports. However, the country is dependent on imported electricity to meet over 40% of its national consumption. It was the first of the six states in the region with officially announced deadlines for decommissioning of coal-fired power plants, thus confirming its orientation towards the European commitments on renewable energy. In 2015, it became also the first country in the Western Balkans with a functioning wind power installation – a 36.8 MW farm in Bogdanci, financed by a loan from the German development bank KFW (Todorović 2015). With a financing package totaling EUR 51 million from the Vienna-based Erste Group, in 2021 began the construction of the second wind farm – the 36 MW Bogoslovec project (Spasić 2021). This new vector opens also the door for eventual involvement of Chinese companies, but they obviously will have to face the competition of Western firms. North Macedonia’s accession to NATO in 2020 transformed the political and economic positioning of the country, and this could add to the reserved calculations of Beijing for cooperation.

For now, the Asian giant’s engagement is more visible in the hydropower sector, where the Kozjak power plant was built by the Chinese Water International and Electric Corp. (CWE) (Dimitrievska 2009). In 2011, the Macedonian government signed Memorandum of Understanding with CWE and China Development Bank on another project – “Vardarska dolina”, foreseeing the construction of 12 hydropower plants on the Vardar River along the border with Greece. Its diapason for completion is 12-15 years. CDB will provide a loan of €1.275 billion for financing 85% of the needed amount for the facilities, and the rest will come from the budget of the Balkan state (Serbia Energy News 2016). However, the implementation of the project was put on hold.

Kosovo

The energy profile of Kosovo manifests several complications. It has remarkable resource potential in the form of over 14 billion tons of proven lignite reserves – the fifth largest in the world. Despite this abundance, the population of the country has to deal with power shortages. Moreover, the small Balkan state is described vulnerable in energy terms, as 90% of the electricity is generated by two ailing coal-fired plants, with one of them – Kosova B considered as the most polluting facility of these type in the Western Balkans. Consequently, Pristina is facing a difficult energy dilemma because an eventual sizable extension of coal use will cause damaging environmental effects. The desired construction of new coal power plant was ruined at the start of the pandemic, as in March 2020 the U.S.-based power generator ContourGlobal announced its withdrawal from the major energy project (Todorović 2020a). Accordingly, Kosovo is in search for alternative energy endeavors, especially with regard to its ambition to raise the share of renewables in its energy mix. This represents an important aim, because the country has no available massive hydro-power capabilities and its plans in this department rest on the concept for the construction of small hydroelectric plants. However, the cooperation perspectives with Beijing are not bright at all. The relations between the two countries are classified as frosty, because Kosovo is not recognized as an independent state by China and there are no official diplomatic relations. For that reason, it is not part of the BRI and the “16+1” cooperation format. Nevertheless, Chinese companies tried to bid unsuccessfully for some relevant projects in the Balkan country, directed towards the construction of coal-based power plant (Kosova C) and road infrastructure. These actions demonstrate that China’s interests in Kosovo’s energy sector are existent, but blocked by the political context.

Montenegro

Since its independence in 2006, the smallest country in the Balkans was principally motivated to institute a solid base of multidimensional political and economic links, and to solidify its role in the setting of international relations. The need to attract enormous inflow of foreign investment from assorted sources drew it closer to China. The footprint of the Asian leader in Montenegro is far-reaching, encompassing sectors such as energy, rail, road and ports infrastructure, etc. One of the emblems of the bilateral cooperation is the so-called “Project of the Century”- the construction of the Bar-Boljare highway. Beside the motorway, Chinese firms are involved in the upgrading of the railway network. China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation (CCECC) finished in 2017 the reconstruction of segment of the Kolašin-Kos railway for $8 million – a crucial step in Europe, as it was the first railway project on the continent implemented by Chinese company utilizing EU funds. Especially appealing for Beijing is the Montenegrin port infrastructure. In the context of the maritime collaboration, the Balkan state also bought from the Asian colossus numerous bulk carrier merchant ships.

As concerns the energy sector, noteworthy is the selection of Dongfang Electric Corporation for the upgrade of the Pljevlja I coal-based thermal power plant. The ecological reconstruction has to be completed by 2023, but the political turbulences in the country contributed to a standstill of the project. However, it is an important one, as Montenegro covers its electricity needs through the power generation from Pljevlja and the hydro plants Perućica and Piva. Although the country’s dependence on hydropower is not as extensive as in the case of Albania, it is still significant, which predetermines the import of electricity under adverse conditions in years with a lack of precipitation. Chinese interest was also registered in this department, with Norinco International Ltd.’s bid for the project for construction of hydropower plant in Morača. The company was also involved in the project for the hydropower plant Komarnica, but it fell under the severe opposition from environmentalists (Electricity SEE 2016).

Furthermore, the small state is attempting to start its energy transition and this enthusiasm will derail the plans for construction of new coal-fired power plants. The course towards renewables could be supported by China as well. For example, the Možura wind power plant in the Ulcinj municipality was built by the company Enemalta PLC, where the majority owner is the Government of Malta, but 33% are in the hands of Shanghai Electric Power (Kovačević 2021). With its 23 turbines and an installed capacity of 46 MW, Možura is the second largest wind farm in the country. It was officially inaugurated in November 2019, following a €90 million investment (Spasić 2019). Notable is also the detail that the consortium will run the facility for 20 years and after this period it will become property of the Balkan state. The wind farm received special attention, as it was a result of the implementation of BRI. According to Dragica Sekulic, Montenegro’s Minister of Economy, “this Chinese-Maltese partnership also showcases a new level of relationship between China and the European Union” (Xinhua 2019). However, the Možura wind farm turned soon into case of major international scandal with regard to the investigation into allegations of corruption surrounding the construction of the facility. In December 2021, the parliament of Montenegro started an inquiry into the deal (Koseva 2021).

A relevant embodiment of the bilateral cooperation is also the project for the construction of the first kinetic-powered power plant in the country in the municipality of Nikšić. The plan of the Montenegrin company World Vision Corp (WVC) to build the 100 MW facility is supported by the state-owned China Rainbow International Investment (CRIIC). Their partnership was based on the monitoring of the development of the kinetic energy project of the German-Swiss holding Save the Planet, a subsidiary of Swiss-based company Rosch Innovations, which launched a kinetic power plant at its laboratory in Belgrade (Ralev 2019).

Meanwhile, the growing Chinese record in the Montenegrin economy has generated alarms about the completely asymmetrical relationship between the two countries. Podgorica is highlighted as an example of a victim of Beijing’s “debt-trap diplomacy” with regard to its accumulated obligations to Chinese lenders. The taking of the €800-million loan from China’s Exim Bank in relation to the first section of the afore-mentioned highway, increased the country’s debt to a total of 103% of economic output. The economic disturbances during the pandemic crisis urged China to delay the first payback of the debt, but even the renegotiation of the repayment conditions have not induced the desirable ease, so Montenegro looked for help in European and US banks to refinance the loan. These events sparked concern about the vulnerability of the Balkan state in a situation, when it owes 39% of its national debt to China. However, the political framework should not be underestimated, as with the country’s nearing towards EU membership, some partnerships could be reevaluated.

Serbia

As concerns the collaboration between China and Serbia, their relationship is described as the most developed, because it goes beyond industrial and even overall economic cooperation to forge synchronically strong political bond. Resting on the historical ground of the active diplomatic interactions with Yugoslavia (especially during the 1960s and 1970s), they received new impetus in the dramatic 1990s during the period of the Yugoslav Wars. The NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 drew the two states closer with regard to the accident with the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Different labels such as “360 degree” foreign policy and “multi-vector” diplomacy try to explain the new course of the Balkan state, supporting its transformation into the main playground of China in the region. The Asian giant forms one of the “four pillars” in Serbian foreign affairs along with the EU, Russia and the US. In 2016, as a next level in the strengthening ties was announced the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership”.

In the last decades, Beijing assembled an immense portfolio of investments, accumulating participation in more than 60 projects worth over $21 billion. As a symbolic one is highlighted the modernization of the Belgrade-Budapest railway, which serves Beijing’s plans to use Serbia as an important European transportation focal point. Another indicative endeavor was the construction of the Pupin Bridge over the Danube River, as it was China’s first completed infrastructure project in Europe. Other targets for Chinese investors became motorways, mining industry, energy, tire manufacturing, military drone production, smart surveillance systems etc.

Thus, Serbia became the largest recipient of Chinese finance in the Balkans. The Covid-19 pandemic solidified the relations between the two states in the context of the so-called “mask diplomacy” and later “’vaccine diplomacy”. The images of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić kissing the Chinese flag (Kau 2020) were combined with billboards across the country with slogans such as “Iron friends, together through good and bad!”. His words that European solidarity is “a fairy tale that does not exist in reality” (Keşvelioğlu 2020) serve as a proof for the orientation of the country in the framework of the “pandemic geopolitics”.

These events signify not only the strong Sino-Serbian bond but also the loss of popularity and prestige for the EU. In January 2021, a group of 26 MEPs sent a letter to Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, as a warning of the growing Chinese influence in the Balkan country, emphasizing the environmental damage, caused by the common industrial projects (Gislam 2021). They mention explicitly the cases of Smederevo, Bor, Kostolac and Zrenjanin. The inclusion of projects in the energy sector clearly illuminates the concerns that the reset of the bilateral relationship will pave the way for more extensive synergy in this field.

Serbia’s energy profile exemplifies the wide use of coal – 2/3 of the electricity generation is based on this resource, and the rest is obtained from hydropower. Thus, it ranks second in the region in terms of dependence on coal – just after Kosovo. The ageing infrastructure activated the shaping of vibrant partnership with Beijing. Its banner became the comprehensive deal for upgrade of the capacity of the Kostolac complex, complemented by arrangements for the expansion of the nearby Drmno open cast lignite mine – with regard to a flooding in 2014 its production was reduced, generating disruptions in the Serbian energy sector. Kostolac is the second largest thermal coal-fired power plant in the country and the 2017 start of the construction of a new 350-megawatt unit was assigned to China Machinery Engineering Corp. China’s Export-Import Bank secured 80% of the funding for the project through a $600 million loan (Bjelotomic 2017). Kostolac B3 represents the first electricity capacity addition in the Balkan state in nearly 30 years.

Another marker for the Sino-Serbian cooperation is the agreement, signed in March 2020 with the company PowerChina for “resurrection” of the plans for the coal-fired power plant Kolubara B (Todorović 2020b). After the project’s start in the 1980s, there were numerous attempts to revive the failed venture, with the last of them going wrong in 2013 following the withdrawal of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. However, in the context of the formed conglomerate with the Asian leader, the old concept found new options for implementation. Nevertheless, Serbian Ministry of Mining and Energy decided to revise its position and to redirect the partnership with PowerChina towards renewable energy (Balkan Green Energy News 2021).

Involvement of Chinese firms (China Huadian Hong Kong Company Limited and Tianjin Dredging Corporation) could also be observed in the framework of the project for the Kovin energy complex. It promotes the expansion of an underwater coal mine and the construction of a thermal power plant with an installed capacity of 700 MW. The lignite, excavated from the riverbed of the Danube, is expected to reach annual production of 3 million tons (Serbia Energy Magazine 2022). Notable is also the Chinese engagement in important projects in the energy sector such as Bistrica hydropower plant, Loznica natural gas power plant, Pancevo Waste-to-Energy Plant, the district heating pipeline project Obrenovac – Novi Beograd, etc.

6. On EU ground: Chinese energy investment in the member states in Southeastern Europe

Romania

An obvious target for Chinese investments in Romania was initially the coal sector. In 2012, with the launch of the plans for the expansion of the Rovinari thermal power plant with additional 600MW, China Huadian Engineering Company (CHEC) won the tender, outrunning the other bidder – the Japanese Marubeni Corporation. In 2017, the Chinese company and the state-owned Complexul Energetic Oltenia, operating 4 power plants and 10 lignite mines in the Balkan state, announced the establishment of a joint venture, in which CHEC is the majority shareholder with 91.06%. However, in September 2020, the Rovinari project was removed from the National Energy Strategy. In November, the Romanian government declared that no new coal units will be built in the country (Mustață 2020). In tune with the EU ambitions to reduce coal consumption, all plants of this type in Romania should be decommissioned by 2030.

The nuclear sector of Romania is also appealing for Chinese firms. The country has its sole nuclear plant in Cernavoda. In May 2019, the plant’s operator Nuclearelectrica and the state-owned China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) signed the preliminary agreement for the construction and operation of two new reactors at the nuclear plant – units 3 and 4. However, these initial plans were abandoned and in 2020 Romania announced its indenture with the US, opening the gate for access to American nuclear technology. The deal is based on two contracted loans from the US (for $50 million and $3 billion) for financing the construction of the two additional reactors. US firms will be as well engaged in the refurbishment of reactor 1 of the plant. Furthermore, in November 2021, another important step was made with the signing with the agreement between Nuclearelectrica and the private US company NuScale Power for small nuclear reactors (Necsutu 2022). Obviously, the start of the war in Ukraine provided impulses for distancing from the energy partnerships with China.

Moreover, Chinese interests in the hydroelectricity realm should not be ignored as well. An interesting case represents the project for the construction of a 1GW hydro pumped storage facility Tarnița – Lăpuștești on the Someșul Cald River in Cluj County. In the preliminary bids phase, such was filed by five potential Chinese investors. Among them were big dam builders such as China Gezhouba Group, involved in the Three Gorges project, and Wuling Power Corporation (Jovičić, 2015). According to a previously signed agreement between the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and the Romanian government, the bank is engaged in financing such projects of Chinese companies. Nonetheless, in 2016, the authorities began to look for alternatives and suggested an option to switch to several small hydropower plants. The prospects for building the facility turned into a point of controversy during the campaign for the European Parliament elections in 2019 with ALDE promising to support the construction of Tarnița – Lăpuștești. In July 2021, the discussion was resurrected with regard of the declarations of four South Korean companies that they are interested in getting involved in the energy project (Budescu 2023). However, the idea dating back to the Ceausescu era remains on paper.

Bulgaria

Chinese investments in Bulgaria have been rather limited and sporadic, as they were mainly concentrated in the agriculture and the renewables sectors. The first successful example of Sino-Bulgarian cooperation in the energy domain represents the launch of the first photovoltaic plant, financed and build by Chinese companies in the country. The 2MW facility is located in the mountain area near Ihtiman. The Chinese companies Polar Photovoltaics and Wiscom invested $7 million in the project (Xinhua 2010). In 2012, China Sunergy Co., a specialized solar cell and module manufacturer, delivered 5MW in solar modules for the Yerussalimovo Solar Park. They were sold to Mitsubishi International GmbH and the installation and managing activities were performed by Helios Power. The Chinese company was announced as a strategic partner for the series of PV projects of Helios Power (Georgiev 2012).

Gradually, the Bulgarian energy sector entered Chinese investors such as Astronergy/Chint Solar, ReneSola, Sky Solar, ILB Helios/Hareon, etc. The firms of the Asian leader were especially intrigued by the preferential prices for renewable energy but after the drop of the feed-in tariff, many of them looked for more lucrative markets. However, Chinese companies built over 150MW in solar capacity, corresponding with 15% of all solar installations in the Balkan country. For the period 2000-2020, China Development Bank provided $248 million for three solar parks in Bulgaria with total capacity addition of 91MW.

In 2018, the Chinese electric vehicles producer Cenntro Automotive Corporation and its partner, Luxembourg-based SEVIC eMobility announced their plan to invest €10 million euro in an assembly plant for small electric utility vehicles in the Thracian economic zone near the city of Plovdiv. The two companies demonstrated their aspirations to move beyond the assembling activities and transform as a next stage the plant into a regional center for production of parts for electric utility vehicles (Mihaylov 2018).

Attractive for Beijing’s energy expansion is also the nuclear sector in Bulgaria. In 2019, energy companies from China (namely China National Nuclear Corp /CNNC/), South Korea, Russia, etc. were announced as interested in becoming strategic investors in the Belene project (World Nuclear News 2019). Nevertheless, after the project was frozen several times, in March 2023 the Bulgarian government decided to sign an engineering contract with Electricite de France (EDF) on the construction of two units at Belene and with the US company Westinghouse for two reactors at the Kozloduy nuclear power plant.

Greece

Greece is recognized as a point of entry to the Balkans for the Chinese business and as a transshipment hub with regard to the expanding economic activities of the Asian giant in Europe within the framework of BRI. Over 10 Chinese projects were implemented in the country. Emblematic investment became the state-owned shipping and logistics giant COSCO’s (China Ocean Shipping Company) acquisition of 64% of the Aegean port of Piraeus. Away from the maritime focal point, Chinese capitals were also directed towards the telecommunications, tourism and energy sector. In 2016, China’s State Grid Corporation, the world’s biggest utility, purchased a 24%-stake in Greece’s power grid operator ADMIE (Independent Power Transmission Operator S.A.) for $356 million. The Chinese company contributed to the implementation of the grid connectivity project for linking mainland Greece and the island group Cyclades. In 2017, the China Development Bank revealed its intention to bolster its activeness in the country, especially with regard to financing energy infrastructure projects.

The green energy vector stimulated the unfolding of important partnerships. In 2018, China Energy Investment Corporation signed a cooperation agreement with Greece’s Copelouzos Group for renewable energy and conventional electricity. The deal marks a €3 billion investment in the domestic market and aims at expansion of the joint endeavors in the Balkans and in Europe in general. Additionally, the Chinese company acquired a 75%-share in the pipeline of four wind farms, build by the Greek investment group – in Thrace, Trikorfo (Karystos area, Evia), Mani and Crete. The business partners forged their collaboration in the times of the Greece’s debt crisis, when the funds for the energy sector were scarce and the offers from the Asian leader were accepted as a “timely rain” for the struggling companies (Tian2019).

Chinese investment is also visible in the solar energy department. The Sino-Greek cooperation is exemplified in the MINOS project in Crete. Greece’s largest island in the Eastern Mediterranean is considered one of the first-rate areas in Europe for high potential solar energy generation. The official visit to Athens of the Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019 resulted in the signing of 16 agreements deepening bilateral cooperation in the field of transport, energy, agriculture, culture, etc. The Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis expressed his vision for aggrandizing the common goals, highlighting that “the road we open will become a boulevard” (Stamouli 2019). After the high-profile meetings, the two countries joined to form the Minimum Intermittency Operating System (MINOS) 50MW solar thermal project in Crete. The construction is backed by consortium formed by China Gezhouba Group International Engineering Co.,Ltd, Energy China Group and Zhejiang Supcon Solar Technology Co., Ltd. China ICBC is engaged with providing financing support for the project. The facility is based on the concentrated solar power technology with a 5-hour molten salt heat storage system (CSP Focus 2019. The relevance of the project is illustrated by the need for lowering the island’s dependence on diesel consumption.

Croatia

Another target for green investment is Croatia. In 2018, the Chinese company Norinco International Cooperation started the construction of a 156 MW wind farm near the city of Senj on the Adriatic coast. The state-owned firm will invest €180 million in the installation of 39 wind turbines. The project was agreed at a 16+1 summit and became possible after Norinco bought 76% of Croatia-based Energija Projekt for €32 million in 2017 (Spasić 2018b).

7. Conclusion

In the context of the European energy security, the rising significance of the Balkans generates novel options for the region to turn its crossroad location into economic and political capital. At the same time, the intensification of the efforts to shape a new energy architecture in Southeastern Europe is enriched by the activities of new players. Consequently, this zone, considered until recently only with peripheral attention, is acquiring an increasingly high-ranking status in view of the dynamics of its energy development, especially in the light of the overlapping configurations of the pursuits of the intervening powers. However, the existing political complications in this area, provoked by both endogenous and exogenous factors, are preventing the effective exploitation of its capacity.

The multifaceted and ever-deeper Chinese footprint in the Balkans and especially in its energy sector is observed with increasing concentration. On the background of Beijing’s accumulated experience with investments in zones such as Africa and Latin America, Southeastern Europe is a relatively new destination for the PRC’s capitals. However, it represents an important testing ground for the vitality and endurance of BRI. With its internationalization quest, Beijing tries to expand its global presence. The developments in its energy endeavors are only symptomatic of the broader geopolitical scenery. Furthermore, the Asian leader showed that success means firstly growing yourself. The metamorphoses in China’s energy policy demonstrate that it won the renewable energy race by a combination of stamina and strategy. As a next phase, it was already possible to transform the green technologies in an export product.

However, stepping in the Balkan energy sector, the Asian leader applied an approach of mixing support for traditional and more innovative energy. Welcomed with euphoria and enormous expectations, it soon had to experience the effects of the cyclone of disenchantment, storming through the region. Nonetheless, the recent turbulences in the security realm will serve as a litmus test for evaluating China’s will and determination for captivating the countries in Southeastern Europe in its orbit of magnetism. The mode, which Beijing will use for this purpose, will define the durability of its leadership. For the Balkan countries, the optimal result of their cooperation with China could be on such horizon, where they could confirm the words of wisdom of Lao Tzu that “a leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves”.

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