China's Game and Balkan Politics

 

Photo source: CSIS

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

When Kosovo declared independence in 2008, it marked the beginning of diplomatic efforts by Serbia to dispute Kosovo’s statehood, leading Belgrade to establish unexpected partnerships with countries around the globe.

Out of those efforts, and with the new agenda of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to extend its global outreach, came the partnership between Serbia and China.

Fifteen years after the separation from Serbia, Kosovo finds that its independence is still a thing of interest – not only to the parties directly involved but also to great powers trying to cement their positions on the question of territorial integrity and sovereignty.

The official position of Belgrade regarding Kosovo’s status, defined by United Nations Resolution 1244, is that Kosovo is not an independent country. The institutionalised process of dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina is led under the framework of the European Union and supported by the United States. However, Serbia has turned to partners in Moscow and Beijing to ensure that, if nothing else, Kosovo will not become a member of the United Nations, and that those partners will be ready to use their UN Security Council veto right to prevent that from happening.

Serbia, a country with EU membership candidate status, has not followed European countries and transatlantic partners in formally distancing itself from Russia. But, at least unofficially, Belgrade has turned to other partners to foster strategic interests, including the dispute over Kosovo’s independence.

Under these circumstances, the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty have started playing a more significant role in the communications coming from the meetings between Serbian and Chinese officials.

During the Third Belt and Road Forum in October 2023, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, after a meeting, with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, that Serbia was ‘an ironclad friend’ of China. Xi also noted that ‘China firmly supports Serbia in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity,’ and is ready to strengthen strategic synergy with Serbia and translate ‘the traditional friendship between the two countries into more practical cooperation results.’

For Kosovo, the strength of the China-Serbia relationship is yet another obstacle to achieving full international recognition. The partnership between Serbia and China might not be at the top of the list of issues burdening the Kosovars, but it could have great relevance, especially for the aspirations of Kosovo to join the United Nations one day.

According to a former minister of foreign affairs of Kosovo, ‘the only way for Kosovo to impose itself successfully in Brussels or Berlin is as a solution, not as a problem.’ Recently, however, the government in Pristina has increasingly been seen as a challenging partner by officials in Brussels and Washington.

A preference for Euro-Atlantic integration has played a significant role in the politics of Pristina. Pristina is clearly with the West, and the fact that Serbia has partnered with the East to dispute the goal of fully recognised independence has not lessened Kosovo’s dedication to European integration.

However, in recent years, Kosovo’s Euro-Atlantic consensus has faced challenges due to the rise of populism. A former senior government official from Kosovo said, ‘Everyone likes the idea of membership in the EU, but no one cares about the obligations that come with the process. For example, Kosovo lost four years in the border demarcation with Montenegro.’ On several occasions, representatives from both the US government and the EU have publicly criticised the Kosovo government’s positions, citing a lack of coordination with the United States and European Union.

The slowing of the process for normalisation of relations between Kosovo and Serbia, facilitated by the EU and supported by the US, has instilled several challenges in the Western Balkans. According to Agon Maliqi, EU policy toward the region is often described as being on autopilot and characterised as ‘containment’ for the past decade. These things have only intensified the challenges.

Maliqi argued that the absence of a clear EU perspective has played a significant role in the escalation of ethnic border issues and heightened security concerns, particularly for NATO. From Kosovo’s perspective, an ineffective EU is welcomed by China, because this situation presents an opportunity for China to position itself as a more ‘capable and reliable’ partner. Notably, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there has been an observable positive shift in the EU’s approach to the Western Balkans, particularly about the enlargement perspective.

Cooperation between China and Kosovo remains almost non-existent. Technically, China has not recognised Kosovo as an independent country and has not involved it in the regional cooperation platform that gathers countries from Central and Eastern Europe. Although China keeps a representative office in Pristina, diplomatic relations have not developed. If it weren’t for Beijing’s relationship with Belgrade, China would not be a topic that most Kosovars think or care about.

However, even if Serbia had not developed such strong ties with China, Beijing’s position on the topic of territorial integrity would still be an issue to consider. The de facto independent status of Taiwan and Beijing’s ambitions for unification are the main reasons that China sends such a strong message on territorial integrity and considers Serbia to be a partner facing similar problems.

Kosovo has understood that there is not much hope when it comes to cooperation with Beijing, so after some initial hesitance, cooperation slowly developed with Taipei. The Kosovo-Taiwan Friendship Group was proposed by the Kosovan Assembly’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and Diaspora following a proposal from members of the Assembly from the Self-Determination Movement. The inaugural meeting of this group was held in December 2021 online, with the participation of thirty-nine legislators from Taiwan’s two major political parties. Blerta Deliu-Kodra, a member of Kosovo’s Assembly and also a member of the Kosovo-Taiwan Friendship Group, said that the establishment of the group is important for opening bilateral relations between Kosovo and Taiwan as two democracies.

The most important development in Kosovo-Taiwan Cooperation was the March 2023 visit by an eight-member delegation from the Kosovo Assembly to Taipei, led by former Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti, which included a meeting with President Tsai Ing-wen. During this meeting, Hoti said that Kosovo fully understands Taiwan’s position and that Taiwan should consider Kosovo a friend in the Balkans, adding that the country is ready to serve as a hub for Taiwan in the region.

The political logic behind Kosovo’s outreach to Taiwan becomes clearer in Hoti’s statement. By considering Taiwan a friend in the Balkans, he implies that this relationship is not solely symbolic but carries strategic significance. As Kosovo navigates its path on the global stage, the alliance with Taiwan emerges as a strategic move, contributing to its diplomatic diversification.

Kosovo’s position on China will continue to be defined by the relationship between Beijing and Belgrade, especially if the EU-facilitated normalisation dialogue process does not produce any results and Serbia continues to dispute the country’s independence.

 

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