Secret Charm - China´s Hidden Influence in Southeast Europe

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This policy paper highlights a case study, which provides useful lessons learned as to Beijing´s broader geopolitical and geo-economic objectives as well as the ambition to increase its economic leverage and political clout. The paper features case studies on China’s influence in eight countries in Southeast Europe, conducted by local experts. The authors assess China’s investments, its image and the appeal of its governance model in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia.

There is an ever-growing body of literature on China’s presence in Southeast Europe (SEE) and, yet, there are several issues that remain under-researched at this stage, namely:

(i) Why does the SEE region - and the Western Balkans in particular – attract the vast majority of Chinese loans and investment capital throughout the whole of Central and Eastern Europe? Can this only be attributed to the fact the Western Balkans are not bound by EU rules and regulations?

(ii) While a long list of Chinese investment projects in the region are marred by controversies, the SEE region appears to be largely out of step with the disillusionment with China in other parts of Europe and the deterioration of China’s image on a global scale.

(iii) There seems to be more to China’s economic presence in the SEE region, e.g. some sort of affinity for the Chinese socio-political model and governance standards. Could it be that in the systemic rivalry between liberal democracies and authoritarian state capitalism the majority of SEE countries feel more at ease with the latter than the former?

(iv) If so, can some patterns be established for the manifestation of China’s “secret charm” in the SEE region? And what would the possible recipe – or recipes – be for an effective response of the liberal world to this secret charm?

The publication, written by an author’s team of local experts, is issued by Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in cooperation with Sofia Security Forum.