China gained a foothold in the Balkans in the 1970s, when it made an alliance with the Albanian government, led by then-Party of Labour of Albania First Secretary Enver Hoxha. After Hoxha broke relations with China, Beijing developed economic and political relations with the former Yugoslavia and Romania.
Now an economic and military power, China is still interested in Southeast Europe. But its strategy now is shifting to spread influence through increased trade and embryonic political alliances, fostering tighter relations with governments and businesses throughout the region, and having the Chinese language taught in Balkan schools.
China is a bull in a bear market. Despite some slowing, the world's second-largest economy is projecting a 7.5% GDP growth in 2012, dwarfing the performance of European markets. Its tentacles spread far.
China has interest in power plants in Serbia, an automotive plant in Bulgaria, businesses in Bucharest, mines in Albania and is talking to Turkey about improving trade relations. According to a 2011 study, China does 2.6 billion euros in business in Romania, 1.1 billion euros in Croatia and 630m euros in Bulgaria.
Central Europe Watch has qualified China's expansion into the Balkans as the "drafting" of "long-term plans for a modern Silk Road" across Eurasian landmass. It says that Beijing "focused on tapping the Balkan Peninsula's unexploited business potential by making strategic investments in Greece, and drafting long-term plans for a modern Silk Road across the Eurasian landmass."
In Albania, officials hosted a "Night of Beijing" gala in Tirana recently for Liu Qi, a member of the political bureau of the Communist Party of China's (CPC) Central Committee and secretary of the Beijing Municipal Committee of the CPC.
During the March 18th visit, Albania Prime Minister Sali Berisha met with Liu to discuss collaboration in port infrastructure, energy, mines and tourism. Berisha expressed readiness "to support the creation of a free zone for Chinese investments, which can use this favourable position [in Albania] for further penetration in the European markets."
The Chinese official confirmed that a group of 100 companies will visit Albania in May, which recently started teaching Chinese as a foreign language in schools.
"It is necessary that in our education system, in certain percentages, teaching the Chinese language be a second [foreign] language," Berisha said February 15th, when discussing the new law on the pre-university education with his cabinet.
Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Tirana spokesperson Edlira Prenga told SETimes that China is being seen as a serious and long-term partner for Albanian entrepreneurs, "also finding support in this case from the government."
Prenga confirmed that the chamber has had intensive meetings with potential investors from China with an interest on sectors such as electronics, machineries production, energy, cars production.
"The Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Tirana is working with its members to hold a business forum in China [this] fall," Prenga said.
The growing Chinese interest is related to the economic crisis in several states. "The entrepreneurs ask for new possibilities in searching for safe and long-term markets," Prenga told SETimes.
Serbia is also moving forward in tightening its relations with China, as the two countries have a similar political stance -- China has not recognised Kosovo's independence.
Serbian Minister of Education Zarko Obradovic and Chinese Ambassador in Serbia Zhang Wanxue signed a memorandum of co-operation on March 14th to introduce Chinese language classes for 2,462 Serbian students in elementary and high schools.
"The goal of this project is for Serbian students to encounter Chinese tradition and culture. Learning Chinese is important for economic reasons too," Obradovic told Belgrade media, B92 reported.
Chinese language classes started in 31 primary and secondary schools in Serbia. According to Zhang, 14 teachers from China hold the classes for the Serbian students. They are volunteers selected to teach twice a week.
Teacher Mengsuan Guo told Chinese news agency Xinhua that the lessons expose students to Chinese culture and traditions along with the language. She said 260 of the school's 300 students attended her first class.
"They were eager to learn, this made my teaching easier than I expected," Guo told Xinhua.
Although China remains opposed to Kosovo's independence, Chinese businesses in Kosovo flourish. There are 454 Chinese businesses operating, according to the Kosovo Ministry of Trade and Industry.
Arta Istrefi, a political adviser to Trade and Industry Minister Mimoza Kusari-Lila, said that although Kosovo does not have a trade agreement with China, "[The country currently holds] 9% of the general exports [in Kosovo]."
"During 2011, exports reached over 28m euros, with an increase of 90.8% as compared to 2010. Imports from China reached over 169m euros, with an increase of 25.8% compared to 2010," Istrefi told SETimes.
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China's 'Silk Road' in the Balkans is republished via Southeast European Times.