The Chinese presence and influence in Albania is not a phenomenon of the communist past, as can be perceived by those who are familiar with the splendor and decline of relations during the dictatorship. The considerable number of strategic, cultural projects, etc. is a significant indicator of the increased interest that China has in the Balkans and especially in Albania. Faktoje brings an analysis based on data and studies on both sides of the coin and what role the lack of interest from the West, or fatigue with the prolonged process of integration into the European Union plays in China’s strategy for increasing its influence.
In November, Si Newspaper published an article pointing out the high number of works that Fan Noli publishing house has brought into Albanian. Based on an article published on the Chinese portal Global Times , the first part of the article speaks in a neutral and almost positive way about the growing interest of Albanian readers in books on Chinese culture. But it is immediately followed by the summary of a report prepared by CEPA (Center for European Policy Analysis) which analyzes the long-term strategy of the Chinese government to increase its influence in Albania. One of the phases of this strategy is to increase cultural influence through the promotion of Chinese history, literature, and language.
Source : Si Newspaper
But how extensive is the Chinese influence on the Albanian society and economy? Faktoje’s research shows that China has a strategic interest in Albania as well as the Western Balkans. And this interest has led China to make some key economic and diplomatic investments in the region. However, in the case of Albania, these investments have not had the expected results. In general, Albania has rejected China’s efforts to become one of the main investors in the country, and its cultural influence (both in the field of education and in the media) continues to be limited.
However, our investigations also show that China is implementing a long-term plan in Albania and may use the lack of interest from the West, as well as fatigue with the protracted process of integration into the European Union, to present itself as a possible alternative.
China’s Economic and Diplomatic Strategy in the Balkans
China has a strategic and geographic interest in the Western Balkans, as a key trade hub through which it can expand its market towards Europe. According to an article published in Per Concordiam , an academic journal that focuses on security and defense issues in Europe, China could use trade agreements with the Western Balkans to enable Chinese companies to bypass trade restrictions and export products directly to the EU market of 800 million inhabitants, thanks to the free trade agreements that the countries of the Western Balkans enjoy with the EU.
In order to achieve this goal, as well as its broader economic goals, China follows a policy that some referr to as a “debt-trap diplomacy,” that is, a diplomacy that is based on investments and tricky loans. As a European Parliament report puts it: “The amount of loans and the low return on investment make it difficult for countries to fulfill their contractual relations [with China]. [This] makes those small economies dependent on China if they cannot repay the loans.” In fact, the same report shows how contracts signed between the governments of small states (such as those in the Western Balkans) include clauses that trap the states, requiring them to transfer ownership to the state or Chinese companies in case of default. This was the case with Montenegro, where both the port of Bari and a major highway for which the country borrowed 1 billion dollars from China are still unfinished and risk destroying the Montenegrin economy.
In fact, infrastructure investment has always been China’s target in the region, given the urgency for investment in this sector, as well as the lack of cash. A BIRN investigation shows that China has invested some €32 billion in the region between 2009 and 2021, most of it in major infrastructure projects. It has also tried to expand influence through initiatives such as ” One Belt One Road ” (also known as the New Silk Road) or the 16+1 initiative, a wider cooperation system between China and the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Per Concordiam describes the latter as an initiative that supports Beijing’s diversified strategy in Europe by allowing it to focus its capital investment in strategic assets and new technologies in key EU countries, complemented by major infrastructure projects in its suburbs.
Source : The Diplomat
The authors of the study published in Per Concordiam share the conclusion reached by other studies (such as that of the European Parliament and CEPA) on the risks of this strategy: “Although very necessary, these infrastructure projects and agreements with China for lending are burdening poor governments in the region with huge debt obligations and unsustainable deals. Lack of due diligence results in sovereign guarantees that shift risk onto borrowing countries at the expense of their financial stability.”
Investments in Albania
Although China has invested a large amount in the Western Balkans, these investments have not affected all countries equally. The vast majority, in fact, has been dedicated to Serbia which has benefited $21 billion, while Albania only $0.74 billion in 8 projects in total—some of which have been dissolved.
Source : Per Concordiam / United Nations Conference on Trade and Development
Beyond China’s overall strategy for influence in the Balkans, various reports on the subject also show that these efforts have not had the same results in Albania, where the government has largely resisted Chinese money. For example, direct investments (FDI) from China constitute only 2.27% of all these investments in Albania, while in Serbia this number is 15.7%.
However, China has had some achievements in the Albanian economy that have allowed it to become the country’s third trading partner, after Turkey and Italy. In 2016, the Chinese company Geo-Jade Petroleum bought the Canadian company Bankers Petroleum, thereby obtaining the concession worth $450 million for the largest oil fields in Albania in Patos Marinzë. This field produces about 95% of the oil that comes from Albania, and 11% of exports. Also, in 2014, Jiangxi Copper Corp bought a 50% stake in the Turkish company Ekin Maden Tic. Together, they have a concession until 2043 to operate in several copper mines in Albania, thus becoming one of the leading firms in this field.
Despite these economic victories, other efforts to extend economic influence in Albania have largely failed. China has not made a significant economic investment in Albania since 2016. In fact, a study commissioned by the Chinese government and published on the website of the 16+1 initiative, shows China’s dissatisfaction with numerous failed projects in Albania. This includes the failed bid to build the Arbri road (2014), a memorandum signed for a highway connecting Trieste and Greece through Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia (2015), the failed Tirana Airport concession which was approved in 2016 and sold to Kastrati company in December 2020, as well as the inability of the Huawei company to expand further in the Albanian electronic market. For all these failures, China blames the corruption of the Albanian government, even though other studies show that China presents itself as a simpler alternative for investments in countries like the Western Balkans, precisely because it is ready to turn a blind eye in terms of bribery, as well as violations of labor and environmental laws.
Beyond the economy, the Chinese state has made great efforts to extend its cultural influence in the Balkans, and especially in Albania. Even in this aspect, the results have been somewhat average and the victories few.
For example, in 2013, the Chinese government opened as part of the University of Tirana a Confucius Institute where Chinese language and history are taught. According to a study by the European Council on foreign relations, the number of students has reached 600. Moreover, China is expected to open a Chinese cultural center in Tirana as well (which will focus on arts and literature), as it has started plans for the first one in Belgrade. In addition, Beijing has been twinned with Tirana since 2016, and the Chinese embassy has made several gifts in the field of culture, including a donation to the film archive.
According to a study by Konrad Adenauer, since 2012, the Chinese news agency Xinhua has increased cooperation with ATSH and RTSH, giving the latter free materials on the history and culture of China for national broadcasting. However, at the moment no Chinese company seems to own any media in the country. Based on the same study, this has coincided with an increase in articles on Chinese economic initiatives that went from 42 in 2016 to 184 in 2019. These articles have been characterized as stories “mainly factual and neutral in tone and oriented toward economic issues, but they generally lack critical assessments of China’s activities.”
These are some efforts of the Chinese government to extend the Chinese cultural influence in Albania. And according to the CEPA study , these efforts have had a positive impact on China. Citing a study conducted by the Security Barometer, there was a significant increase from 2019 to 2020 in the number of people who thought that China had a positive influence on Albania: from 23.5 to 54.9%. In 2022, a similar survey showed that 76.6% of Albanians did not think that China poses a danger to Albania.
At the same time, Konrad Adenuer’s study shows that Albanian politicians have tried to stay away from events with the Chinese ambassador or representatives from China.
Various studies conducted on Chinese influence in Albania, such as economic, cultural or diplomatic influence, show Albania as a special case that has mostly rejected Beijing’s efforts to become part of the circle of Chinese influence. The study of the European Council on Foreign Relations writes that Albania “does not want to disrupt the good relations with the Western powers and is therefore unlikely to make any dramatic change in its approach [with China], especially if the EU enlargement process regains momentum,” as has happened with the opening of negotiations in 2022 and the restart of the Berlin Process.
Albania’s western orientation is also seen in relations with the United States. According to Foreign Policy, the US has increased investments in the country precisely in an effort to oppose the growth of Chinese influence.
However, this does not mean that the situation cannot change. Even though Albania has taken the next step for integration into the European Union with the opening of negotiations, these negotiations will take years, if not decades, to be postponed further. The European Parliament itself warns about what it calls “enlargement fatigue,” that is, the fatigue that comes from the many years of waiting to become part of the European Union without concrete results, can tire the candidates and their citizens. In these moments of weakness, China will be ready to provide a simpler, but also more dangerous, alternative.
Edited by: Viola Keta & Aimona Vogli