Although the COVID-19 pandemic began in China, this country was seen as one of the few potential sources of assistance to vulnerable countries today due to the fact that it was the first to control the infection. The President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic said, while declaring the state of emergency, that China is “the only country that can help Serbia,” and in the meantime, Chinese doctors have begun to arrive both to Serbia and the EU member states.
The Europe Western Balkans website (EWB) has talked about China-Serbia relations and Chinese foreign policy during the pandemic with Vuk Vuksanovic, PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and an expert on China’s influence in the Western Balkans.
Vuksanovic says:” I would say that China has embraced this with open arms, because they now need to engage in a very broad campaign in the field of public diplomacy and soft power instruments in order to be able to repair the image of China, which is obviously very seriously damaged.
This crisis was caused by China covering up information about the severity of the initial situation and the epidemic that had arisen in Wuhan, and consequently, this threatened, on the one hand, the question of the credibility and capabilities of the ruling Communist Party. Also, we have a whole series of analyses that talk about whether this could jeopardize other projects, such as the “Belt and Road” initiative.
China reacted very quickly with the announcements, but also with measures. We can see even some other small but important indicators such as WEIBO accounts set up by the Government and the Ministry, which received a large number of supporters and a large number of donations from Chinese citizens. The Chinese certainly responded quickly, but they had their calculations for why they did it, but of course, evidently, Serbia has set itself up as a country which China’s foreign policy elite counts on. It is all a product of these intertwined factors.”
He adds: “Serbia is perceived as a kind of bridge or an open door for China towards Europe. Of course, the main goal in China’s whole project is the European Union and, above all, countries like Germany.
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But the Western Balkans certainly plays a role because of its geography, as its entire infrastructure has to pass through the Balkans. Of course, Serbia and the Western Balkans have also proven to be potentially useful as a way to test China’s soft power, but also as a way for China to test some of its individual branches of industries, such as construction and telecommunications.
For them, Serbia and the Balkans are very useful as a way to test how far they can go in their efforts to conquer the markets of European countries. Western Balkans, despite its small size, still has a surprising degree of Chinese attention.”
EWB then asked Vuksanovic the following: “Do you expect China’s influence to be greater in the Western Balkans region after this crisis is over, considering how China is positioned here today and how it is perceived?”
He replied with: “I can’t talk about the whole region yet because we still have to see how China will treat other countries. There is talk of some packages of relevant medical products that China will send to North Macedonia, but we still have to look at how it will behave towards the whole region.
But when it comes to Serbia, I believe that Chinese influence will certainly grow after this crisis. It is a paradox, one might expect that it could decline after such a pandemic that originated from China, however, China reacted very quickly and took advantage of the inaction of the western and all other players and made an additional plus for themselves in Belgrade.
Answering the question about China’s influence in the region creating more space for corruption, Vuksanovic said:” I would say that there is this fundamental problem. The issue of corruption and the question of the declining rule of law in the Western Balkans are not the product of Chinese practices. It is first and foremost a product of the actions of local actors and local political circumstances.
However, China has, in a paradoxical way, profited from such a state of declining rule of law, and is in some way helping the process indirectly. The situation where there are no adequate legal mechanisms for audit or adequate screening, suits China really well, that it is enough for China to knock on one door and get the green light for any project based solely on a political blessing from one relevant person or one relevant power centre. China is thus profiting from the illiberal political environment in the Western Balkans.”
(Novi Magazin, 24.03.2020)
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