China’s soft landing in the Balkans

Map of ports and transport corridors in the Western Balkans
China’s Maritime Silk Road leads straight to Balkan ports on the Aegean and Adriatic, requiring high-speed road and rail links with northern Europe (source: macpixxel for GIS)

In the next few years China will be opening an investment bridgehead in the Balkans. Other traditional powers have increased their geopolitical presence in the region, notably Russia and Turkey. China’s expansion will be even stronger, yet different in kind because it will be a “soft,” mostly economic penetration. This push will be all the more powerful if the European Union decides to neglect the region, as seems probable with its decision to delay the next round of accession until 2025. Keeping the Western Balkans out of the EU will provide fertile ground for Chinese ventures such as the “16+1 Initiative” ­– part of the much larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Thus, the next decade promises to open a new sort of geopolitical fault line in the Balkans, alongside traditional interethnic disputes and the larger rivalry between Russia and the West. This time the battlefield will be economic, and the fight will be over Chinese investment capital. Russia and Turkey will keep trying to draw the region into their orbit, meeting opposition from the United States and the EU. That leaves room for China to make inroads in its own quiet fashion.

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