China in Bosnia and Herzegovina: an increasingly strong presence in a fragile state


The recent resurgence of tensions in several Western Balkan states, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina in Kosovo and Montenegro, raises the specter of a new inter-community war in the region.

In addition to these tensions, a new player, in this case China, interferes in the backyard of the European Union, and this presence significantly changes the political configuration of the Western Balkans. Attempt to decipher in three questions, with Bosnia and Herzegovina as a case study.

What interests does China pursue in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

At first glance, the presence of China in this country of 3,5 million inhabitants with a political structure that is atypical to say the least may come as a surprise.

Bosnia is gained independence in 1992, following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. At that time, the Muslim populations, the vast majority of whom were Bosnians, suffered a large-scale ethnic cleansing and more than 100 people, soldiers and civilians alike, lost their lives. In 1995, the international community succeeded in finalizing the Dayton Accords, thus ending three years of inter-community warfare in the territory concerned.

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Composed of three main ethnic groups (48% Bosniaks, 14% Croats and 37% Serbs), Bosnia and Herzegovina was then divided, from a political point of view, into two federated entities of similar size: the Federation Bosnian Croat and the Republika Srpska. Few interactions remain between the two entities and common projects are rare in a country with a weak central power and, for the most part, delegated to the federated entities. Only one High Representative of the international community, a role currently played by the German Christian Schmidt, oversees the application of the agreements concluded between them.

Throughout the negotiations that led to the creation of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, China remained in the background, adopting a “low profile” position on the international scene following the violent crackdown on protests in Tian'anmen Square. It was only in 2012, with the official launch of the 16+1 format - an initiative of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs to promote trade and investment relations between China and 16 states of Central and Eastern Europe - that China shows its interest in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the first time.

Two major explanations for this sudden and now growing interest can be put forward: on the one hand, Bosnia and Herzegovina is part of the immense project of the New Silk Roads intended to link Asia to the African and European continents; on the other hand, it is located at the gates of the European common market and is candidate for the European Union, even if joining is not a discernible prospect in the short or medium term.

Does China receive support from local authorities?

Since Bosnia and Herzegovina remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, all investments, including from China, are welcome there.

To date, the Republika Srpska seems to be the main recipient region, with the Bosnian-Croat Federation finding itself relegated to the background by the Chinese authorities. Several examples illustrate this. The Chinese state-owned enterprise “China State Construction Engineering Corporation” has recently obtained a market organized by “Autoputevi Republike Srpske”, the road company controlled by the local authorities of the entity. This is a contract worth more than 335 million euros which should, by 2030, lead to the commissioning of a 33 km motorway segment connecting the territory of the RS with that of Serbia and symbolically called the “January 9 highway” (date of the creation of the Republika Srpska in 1992).

Furthermore, the construction of the Stanari Thermal Power Station, funded by China, is of strategic importance for the Republika Srpska. Capable of producing up to 300 megawatts and estimated at 530 million euros, this installation is the result of the "China Energy Engineering Corporation" program, led by a consortium of Chinese public companies in collaboration with the Ministry of Economy, Energy and Mining of the Republika Srpska.

At the cultural level, the city of Banja Luka, administrative center of the Republika Srpska, hosts Confucius Institute the largest in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mandarin lessons are given there by videoconference and professors from the local university carry out regular missions to the universities of Beijing.

Milorad Dodik was present at the opening of the Confucius Institute in Banja Luka on January 21, 2018.
Website of the Chinese Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Finally, the “Radio Televizija Republike Srpske” (local radio-television) also broadcasts a number of programs that promote Chinese culture.

Does the Chinese presence influence the political life of Bosnia and Herzegovina?

La privileged relation that China maintains with the Republika Srpska at the expense of the Croat-Bosnian Federation reinforces the tensions between the communities of the two federated entities.

Inevitably, these tensions have repercussions on local politics, as evidenced by the protests of Bosnian leaders - the majority of whom are Muslims - in the face of China's abstention in the vote on the United Nations Security Council resolution reconsidering the crimes committed. towards the Muslim population of Srebrenica as a genocide.

Moreover, by promoting the development of the Republika Srpska, China implicitly supports the separatist tendencies of its nationalist-led government. Milorad Dodik. Indeed, by maintaining an economic, political and cultural imbalance within Bosnia-Herzegovina, China allows Dodik and his party to suggest that greater autonomy, or even complete independence for the Republika Srpska, could not be of benefit to its population.

In this context of intense tensions, the presidential and legislative elections last October were of paramount importance for the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The results also confirm the country's inter-community divisions.

Indeed, while the Bosnian and Croatian majorities both elected members of the Social Democratic Party (progressive, socialist and pro-European party), Milorad Dodik, the pro-Serb leader and critic of the European Union , strengthened spell of this electoral sequence.

In addition, the second consecutive participation of Chinese representatives in the celebrations organized on January 9 in honor of the creation of the Republika Srpska (January 9, 1992) greatly irritates the representatives of the Croat-Bosnian Federation. Deemed to discriminate against other ethnic groups in Bosnia and Herzegovina by the constitutional Court, this festival aims to strengthen the patriotic feeling of the local population and illustrates in itself the inter-community tensions that are tearing the country apart.

And the European perspective?

Can the European Union contribute to reopening the dialogue between the communities? Although the relative withdrawals of the traditional powers (European Union and the United States) seem to leave the field open to the new powers (China, Russia and Turkey) in the Western Balkans, the very recent decision of European leaders to grant Bosnia- Herzegovina the status of candidate country for EU membership relaunches a process that has been stagnating for several years.

Conditional on a series of reforms, in particular with regard to the centralization of power and cooperation between entities, membership must improve the functioning of a weakened state. Nevertheless, existing tensions and the growing influence of external actors, particularly China, promise a long and winding road to greater stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Without any guarantee of success.

Robert Doppie, Political Science, International Relations, European Policy, Western Balkans, university of Liege

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.



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