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Structural power and the China-EU-Western Balkans triangular relations


Narratives about the challenges of China’s growing involvement with Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) for the region and the EU are exponentially proliferating and have already effectively monopolized the understanding of this relationship among scholars, analysts, media, and policy-makers in the Western European capitals. The Western Balkans, as a sub-region of CEE, are thought of as particularly prone to Chinese influence—the countries in this geographical area are not EU members nor are fully integrated in the EU’s policy and legislative frameworks and initiatives yet are interested in maximizing the economic benefits of their relationship with China. By strategically developing ties with the Western Balkans, China is understood to have, or is well on the way to achieve, profound impact in this region. This paper focuses on three policy areas perceived to be both the most important channels and the clearest expressions of China’s influence in the Western Balkans—foreign policy, physical infrastructure and connectivity, and investment. Using the notion of the structural power for its analytical framework, this study finds that while the attention has been on China’s growing presence in the region, the extent to which the EU has since moved to re-assert its leadership in the Balkans has gone under the radar. The paper concludes that in recent years Brussels has reformulated its agenda so as to bind the Balkan states to its own policies and objectives, constraining their ability to independently shape their relationship with Beijing.

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  1. 1.

    Hence, the Western Balkans in this article refers to these five countries, and the study does not encompass Kosovo, which is one of the six Western Balkan’s members which the EU engages through the “Berlin Process.” China does not recognize Kosovo’s independence from Serbia and does not have official relations with Kosovo.

  2. 2.

    In 2019, Greece has joined “16 + 1”. At the time of the writing, it is unclear whether “16 + 1” will be consequently referred to as “17 + 1”.

  3. 3.

    Author’s observation, there is no related official or public data available.

  4. 4.

    Author wishes to thank an anonymous reviewer for this remark.


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Correspondence to Dragan Pavlićević.

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Pavlićević, D. Structural power and the China-EU-Western Balkans triangular relations. Asia Eur J 17, 453–468 (2019).

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