The coronavirus outbreak has inflicted damage on China’s international prestige, prompting it to engage in a global public diplomacy campaign aimed at repairing its image and improving its soft power credentials. This policy became known as “mask diplomacy” in which China acts as a donor and, more frequently, a paid supplier of medical equipment to the countries impacted by the outbreak. The Balkans have also been involved in this new policy. Nevertheless, there is no proof that this policy has had a major success in the Balkans with the exception of the region’s pivotal country, Serbia, but for reasons that have nothing to do with China, but rather with Belgrade’s foreign policy.
There is no proof that the Chinese had any meaningful effect in the Balkans. The Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment donated 5,000 protective masks to Montenegro. The Montenegrin government also purchased two tons of medical equipment but this achieved nothing with the Montenegrin public except that the government had to deny rumours of the shipment’s disappearance. Bosnia and Herzegovina also received Chinese aid but nothing appears to have come of it, except verbal gratitude to Chinese diplomats. In North Macedonia, the Chinese embassy donated 30,000 euros to the Health Ministry but this is nothing compared to the 160 million euros that the EU intended for this country to help limit the economic fallout of the outbreak.
The list goes on. In Greece, China donated one million medical masks, a donation to which large Chinese companies, like the tech giant Huawei, contributed. However, if medical deliveries are meant to shape a positive image of China, then the Greeks are not buying it. Instead, there is a strong perception in the Greek media that China has great responsibility for the outbreak and that the medical deliveries are nothing more than reputational damage control. The health authorities in Turkey openly stated that the Chinese masks and testing kits are below standard or faulty. The question remains whether this problem will emerge in other Balkan countries too.
The one place where China’s “mask diplomacy” really made a difference is Serbia, the region’s strategic centre. On 21 March, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić greeted at the Belgrade airport an aircraft carrying Chinese medical aid. On that occassion, President Vučić kissed the Chinese flag, while Belgrade landmarks were lit up in the red colour of the Chinese flag, showing that China scored big on soft power and public diplomacy. These exchanges were precedeed by a press conference a couple of days earlier in which Vučić stated: “I believe in my friend and my brother, Xi Jinping, and I believe in Chinese help. The only country that can help us is China”. There are three reasons why Chinese “mask diplomacy” had such an effect in Serbia that have nothing to do with Chinese diplomatic prowess but with current trends in Serbian foreign policy.
First, ever since the financial crisis of 2008 there has been a power vacuum in the Balkans caused by the fact that the priorities of the EU and the West were directed elsewhere. In this new environment, non-Western powers have stepped in and this list includes not just China, but also Russia, Turkey, the UAE and Israel. Serbia has been engaged in cooperation with all of these countries as a way of hedging and diversifying partnerships vis-à-vis the West. One can see the logic of partnership diversification in the economic domain, where China provided Serbia with $US 4 billion in direct investments and slightly over $US 5 billion in loans and infrastructure projects.
Secondly, Serbian leaders see China as a useful way of decreasing the leverage that the EU has over them, downplaying the EU’s ability to convert economic heft into political influence. Namely, Chinese financing is badly needed in areas like infrastructure, and unlike the strict EU standards it is initiated swiftly based on political criteria. As such, Serbia does not need to apply standards that are difficult and expensive to implement like environmental standards, or the ones that Serbian politicians are not fond of, like transparency. Instead of being leveraged by the EU, by playing the China card, Serbian leaders can leverage the EU and the West, as we have seen during the pandemic. Vučić’s overture towards China came after the EU ban on the export of medical and protective equipment outside the EU, leading Vučić to say that “European solidarity does not exist” calling it “a fairy tale on paper”. The EU afterwards provided 93 million euros of aid to Serbia, showing up the Serbian tendency to play external great powers against each other to extract political and economic gains from both.
The third reason concerns the nexus between foreign policy and domestic party politics in Serbia. Namely, for Vučić and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), China is a good marketing point to score in domestic politics. Chinese financing, unlike that from the EU, can be timed to correspond with the local political and electoral cycles allowing Vučić and the SNS to promote themselves as enablers of Chinese capital influx. On that front, the Belgrade leadership tends to supress any critical information about the nature of Chinese financing, while, unlike the Europeans, the Chinese “are not asking a lot of questions”, including about the declining rule of law in Serbia. Non-transparency remains the norm as full data is not released on how much equipment China donated to Serbia and how much Serbia paid for. This answers the question posed by the former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt and the EU Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi as to why Serbia does not thank the EU the same way as it does China although it is a bigger donor than China.
The “mask diplomacy” in the Balkans, just like anywhere else, appears to be based on the fact that the countries affected by the outbreak are beggars who cannot be choosers. However, outside of Serbia there is no game-changing effect of China's public diplomacy gambit, and even in Serbia this effect is the product of Belgrade’s foreign policy opportunism.