In the past decade China has significantly increased its presence in the Balkans, strengthening relations with various governments, targeting specific sectors of cooperation and offering economic incentives in the form of market access, development finance and investments. Yet one country has remained conspicuously absent from this pattern: Kosovo. China does not recognize Kosovo’s independence and has not established diplomatic ties.
China’s official position is that it respects Serbia’s territorial integrity and the Chinese state media still describes Kosovo as “an autonomous province” under Serbian sovereignty. Despite the official party line, many in China are aware that “Kosovo’s independence as a state has become an irreversible fact.”
While China’s position on Kosovo has been constant throughout the years, the changing geopolitical landscape and the increasing polarization between East and West could lead to China engaging more with Kosovo for a number of reasons.
First, China’s economic ascent and increased global influence has led to a more assertive foreign policy. Second, the supposed similarity of Kosovo and Taiwan’s international statuses may lead to China increasing its resistance to Kosovo gaining more international recognition as a proxy attempt to prevent Taiwan from making similar gains. Third, as the war in Ukraine continues, there is a chance Serbia may seek other international partners besides Russia in its quest to oppose Kosovo’s full entry into international institutions; China would be an obvious choice. Finally, Chinese domestic opinion towards Kosovo is not positive and largely favors Serbia.
Until recently, China perceived Kosovo as a European issue and was happy for the European Union (EU) to lead the mediation, declaring they were ready to accept any solution that is acceptable to both sides. Unlike Russia, which evidence suggests has actively supported Serbia in lobbying third countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo, China has avoided entering the issue so directly. However, it is not out of the question that Kosovo could become a bargaining chip for Beijing in its quest to gain control of Taiwan or in future aspects of China’s relations with the United States or the EU.
Ties with Taiwan
Though Taiwan immediately recognized Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008, Kosovo has been reluctant to allow even informal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. According to some Kosovar diplomats, the country’s attitude was so cautious that even economic relations and other types of informal exchange, which could have been beneficial to Kosovo and uncontroversial in China, have also been ruled out.
The 2021 elections in Kosovo and the resulting parliamentary majority may lead to changes in this policy. In December 2021, parliamentary friendship groups were established in both the Taiwanese and Kosovar assemblies with the goal “to increase parliamentary exchanges, improve mutual understanding between the people of Taiwan and Kosovo, and jointly expand the two countries’ international space.” If Kosovo’s government opts to further increase its cooperation with Taiwan, or even go as far as establishing official relations, they could inadvertently draw China into taking a harder stance on Kosovo.
Should Kosovo choose increased cooperation with Taiwan over China, it could feasibly strengthen ties with like-minded liberal democracies, as Taiwan is attempting to renew and refresh its relationships with a number of countries in Europe and across the world. However, since it is not a member of the U.N., EU, NATO or other similar institutions, Kosovo will not be able to count on other countries to ease tensions with China and to mitigate the potentially negative consequences of going against China’s official stance that Taiwan is part of China.
China’s Kosovo policy
To date there is no evidence that China has supported any activities aimed at undermining international recognition of Kosovo’s independence. If China were to start trying to undermine Kosovo’s statehood, they might exacerbate tensions between China and the West, particularly the U.S.
China’s role regarding Kosovo will largely depend on the relations between Beijing and Washington. If the two sides manage to set boundaries to their disagreements and start looking for ways to overcome them, it is possible that they may discuss Kosovo and strike a bargain in relation to other open issues of mutual and global interest. Should Sino-American tensions continue to spill over onto seemingly unrelated issues (such as the war in Ukraine), at some point Kosovo may find that it becomes collateral damage.
Kosovo’s fate will also depend on Serbia’s relationship both with China and the West. As long as Serbia courts China, it will leverage China’s goodwill for domestic political messaging. Only if Serbia looks more towards the West could it be deprived of China’s tacit support regarding Kosovo.
The other direction for Kosovar authorities would be to try and engage informally with China, bilaterally through its liaison office in Prishtina or multilaterally in organizations where both countries are members and through intermediaries — first and foremost Albania. This, however, would be contingent upon stronger Sino-Albanian relations, which at the moment are largely ceremonial.
Alternative diplomatic strategies are also an option. They could take the form of strengthened people-to-people ties or cultural and sports diplomacy as means to change the largely negative domestic Chinese perception of Kosovo. Given China’s preference for economic diplomacy, it would presumably be interested in finding a way to economically engage with Kosovo. Nevertheless, given Kosovo’s strong pro-Western stance, it is unclear to what extent it would be willing to accept China’s economic involvement.
China’s role in the issue of Kosovo’s international status does not depend only on Kosovo or Serbia, but is connected to the broader global geopolitical landscape. So given the chess-like complexity of the potential scenarios, Kosovar authorities should think carefully about all the potential options, and potential consequences, of their foreign policy choices.
Feature image: AK Rockefeller via CC.