The Chinese Middle Kingdom Meets the Balkans

China’s rise has shifted global power dynamics in a way that is still yet to be seen, mostly because China is still rising and what it, or other global powers, will do when its power reaches new highs is anyone’s guess. However, China is not a new or unpredictable state in any way. Its behavior can be analyzed through historical Chinese political thought that gives us insight into what we can expect from the rising power. This article will first look at said Chinese political philosophy, then use that frame to look at the historic and contemporary ties between China and the Balkans, and use it as a base to explain its behavior in the global arena.

The first of the two concepts relevant to this study is Tianxia, which is roughly translated as ‘under heaven/sky”. When this concept was formed, the Chinese world consisted of ocean to the East, desert to the West, barbarians to the North, and subordinate states that complied with the Chinese led Tribute System (which will be explained shortly) to the South. Because of this, Tianxia sees China as the center of the world both in terms of importance and location, hence the origins of China’s nickname, the Middle Kingdom. The idea that China is the Middle Kingdom in all that is under heaven is the main takeaway from the term Tianxia.


Another view of the spatial dimensions of Tianxia is that the term defines as far as Confucian principles (such as order and respect for authority) and Chinese imperial conquests can reach. With this in mind, it should be emphasized that Tianxia is the worldview in which China sees itself in relation to the rest of the world. The concept was most relevant when China’s world was small, not yet through the process of globalization, but this does not mean that it cannot theoretically expand in line with China’s current position to the world. This is especially so because of China’s attempt to spread its own culture and ideas to the world as a way of building its own place within the existing order. China’s attempts to do so is evident in many of its actions, most notably refusing to work under the leadership of the USSR, instead choosing to promote its own brand of communism during the cold war. The spatial dimensions of Tianxia create an inner and outer circle, with the civilized Confucius society in the center circle (AKA the Middle Kingdom) and the barbarians in the outer circle. This produced an emphasis on the internal as the sacred and most important because it must be a model of Confucius principles, which will play a role in limiting foreign policy in the early modern Chinese history, as this article will soon explain.


The second concept is the Tribute System. This is an old system of international relations in East Asia. It contained multiple states based around the Confucius principles that Tianxia promotes. Through mutual understanding of values, and acceptance of China as the leader by virtue of being most Confucius of all, the nations were able to maintain peace and prosperity for the majority of 500 years until the Western Westphalia international system came about and disrupted the order within the Tribute System. Supporters of the Tribute System use this to back the claim that a rising China will bring peace to the world. This is because the Tribute System believed that a superior culture and commitment to Confucius values were what made states superior to one another, as opposed to the Western ideas of military and economic strength. This presents the potential future of a peaceful China who will lead the world as a peaceful hegemon, as opposed to one that meddles in the affairs of other states. The critics of this theory claim that it includes a very narrow definition of war that excludes major conflicts with the ‘barbarians’, who were outside the Tribute System. However, those are what in today’s terminology would be called ‘non-state actors’, who are also often left out of Western definitions of war. When it comes to state on state violence, the tribute system undeniably kept major war at a minimum.  


The Tribute System, as an international order,  had two specific characteristics. First, it included China on the top of the pyramid as the undisputed leader in the system. Second, the other nations in the system were ranked in order of their proximity to Confucius ideals. If we want to bring the Tribute System into today’s global world, it would require us to loosen the standards and focus on what the Tribute System means for China, not the ‘barbarians’. There is no practical reason to expect that far away states with their own history, culture, and ideals would compete with one another over who is the most Confucius.


Instead, a more pragmatic way would be to look at it from China’s perspective of the Tribute System. As mentioned, the first characteristic was China’s dominance within the system. If we update the requirements to only accepting China’s major power status, along with being friendly to China and its interests as well as being willing to act in accordance with those interests, then it is possible to bring the Tribute System into the modern globalized world. It is not the traditional Tribute System, but it would be a system in which China is on top and other nations that consent to China’s global leadership will be brought up with it, leaving the outer circle and entering the inner circle (in ways that will be explained later on). Thus, it is more practical to look at the Tribute System today as a return to Chinese hegemony in a consensual hierarchical system where China has earned the right to be on top.  


The People’s Republic of China’s Early Days


Communist China’s ‘far abroad’ foreign policy before the Sino-Soviet split was virtually nonexistent. Initially, it worked in tandem with the USSR and the Eastern bloc out of solidarity with other socialist and communist nations to push for the global revolution. Instead of focusing its energy on global affairs, it focused on building itself up as a nation. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded in 1949, following what is known as the ‘100 years of humiliation’. These 100 years saw foreign powers taking advantage of their superior capabilities to take advantage of China, which ended with communist victory in a devastating civil war. The nationalists lost the war and fled to Taiwan and established what is officially now called the Republic of China (RoC). These 100 years left scars on China’s national memory that are comparable in many ways to how many of the Balkan states feel about Ottoman rule.


Under the concept of Tianxia, the internal is vastly more important than the external. This explains much of China’s actions during this early period. For example, the Great Leap Forward and China’s many Five Year Plans saw attempts to build up the largely agrarian China into an industrial powerhouse, which would strengthen the internal before it could engage with the external. China threw many of its resources into the Korean and Vietnam wars during this period, but these presented possible existential threats for both China and China’s communist regime. In China’s eyes, these wars were conducted by an unfriendly capitalist country (involved in the 100 years of humiliation) fighting to support capitalist regimes next door to China. Also, the US was doing this in land that was formerly part of China’s sphere of influence. If China’s foreign policy was guided by an internal desire to spread its norms, these wars risked China losing its natural allies, East-Asian Confucian communists.


The 1960s saw the end of this passive foreign policy. Due to differences in interpretation of communism, the Sino-Soviet split forced China to separate itself from the USSR and Eastern Bloc. This was not a sudden change. The Chinese communist leader Mao had often disregarded the USSR strongman Stalin’s instructions because Mao built his ideas of a global revolution from lessons he learned from historical Chinese agrarian peasant revolts as opposed to the instructions Stalin gave, which were influenced by the Bolshevik urban communist experience. As per Tianxia, the Chinese see themselves as leaders and not followers. Mao did not wish to be subordinate to the USSR and instead criticized the Russian communists as straying too far from pure Marxism. This left China without a superpower ally, as the global communist movement was largely subservient to the USSR and the alternative was the ideological enemy. China had no choice but to put more resources into building a working relationship with the external circle, and that is where the Balkan states come into play.


China and the Cold War Balkans


The immediate result of the Sino-Soviet split within the Balkans was Albania siding with China. This was not due to Chinese efforts to win over the Albanian communists, but because the Albanian communist leader Enver Hoxha agreed with the Chinese in their accusations of USSR revisionism and claimed that the USSR was moving too far away from the original Marxist ideology that dominated the state. This presented China with a minor victory, but one that would not last. Albania was a tiny and geopolitically irrelevant country with little to offer China in terms of its goals of global leadership. Though the two were close for over a dozen years, Albania expected a reciprocal relationship with China while offering few tangible benefits. This relationship would end on July 7th, 1978 when China suddenly cut ties with Albania. China had greater ambitions than to tie itself with the smallest Balkan state.

Chairman Mao and Albanian President Enver HoxhA
Chairman Mao Zedong and Albanian President Enver Hoxha

Instead, China’s foreign policy in the Balkans was interested in Yugoslavia. As a market-socialist country, Yugoslavia presented a third way that was not in either major camp, yet was economically successful enough to stand on its own. It presented China with an entry point into building up its credentials with the third world, which consisted of other nations not interested in the bickering of super powers. The key reason why China was so eager to drop Albania was because the tension between it and Yugoslavia over Kosovo, the majority ethnic Albanian  province inside (then) southern Yugoslavia. Tension and distrust between the two made it difficult for China to be allied with both simultaneously. Through building a strong working relationship with various communist states that were not subordinate to the USSR, China could present a valid claim to leadership of the third world and continue being the standard-bearer of the global communist revolution, even after losing favor with the USSR.

Chairman Deng Xiaoping and Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito
Chairman Deng Xiaoping and Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito

Similarly, China was interested in winning over countries from the Eastern Bloc that would tilt the balance of power between it and the USSR in its favor. The most successful target of this policy was Romania, who was also interested in asserting its independence from the USSR. It was a slow process, but it was fruitful in the end. In the 1978 Warsaw Pact meeting held in Moscow, Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu refused to support the USSR in many anti-China platforms, most notably denouncing the Chinese invasion of Vietnam. During the same time, Hua Guofeng was the first Chinese leader to travel west of Moscow and visit the Balkans in 1978 during a trip to Yugoslavia.


China was not interested in spreading its influence only into Yugoslavia and Romania. In 1965, a failed pro-China coup occurred in Bulgaria. The military officers that were involved in the coup attempt were pro-Mao hardliners that too were unhappy with Nikita Khrushchev’s reforms that followed Stalin’s death. These were the same ideas that won over Albania, but the coup in Bulgaria was unsuccessful and Bulgaria remained one of the USSR’s most loyal allies,  if not the most loyal. Though Bulgaria was the second nation to recognize the People’s Republic of China following its civil war (the first being the USSR), their relationship soured and would not improve for decades.


The Balkan states at the end of the Cold War presented a learning experience for China. Yugoslavia was suffering from social unrest as the socialist country’s many ethnic groups were starting to raise their voices and agitate for the establishment of independent ethnic republics. While the PRC’s population is primarily ethnic Han Chinese, there were still various restive ethnic groups. Xinjiang and Tibet are filled with populations that would be happy with a Balkanization of China, or the breakdown of a country along ethnic lines. Romania also showed the Chinese Communist Party what could happen if they go the wrong direction. The televised execution of Communist Romania’s leader Romanian Ceaușescu only months after China’s own Tiananmen Square protests showed an interesting contrast. It gave the Chinese communists a look at a possible future in which they are punished for their inability to listen to the voices of civil society. The day after the execution, the Chinese Communists Party held a meeting in which they watched the footage of the Romanian revolution. During this meeting, Deng Xiaoping, the highest ranked Chinese communist of that time, stated “We’ll be like this, if we don’t carry out reforms and bring about benefits to the people”.


China and the Balkans After the Cold War


Following the demise of the USSR, China was the sole communist major power in the world. This period in history was the end of the communist imagination for many, as it meant that the global communist revolution lost. Since then, China has been growing and utilizing its own economic success to pursue its interests. However, since this period the interests seemed to minimize the importance of global communist revolution in favor of making the world hospitable to China’s rapid rise. This resulted in China again learning from the events that took place in the Balkans, as well as building up a coherent strategy around the world, and thus the region.


The first major events relevant to China and the Balkans were the wars following the breakdown of Yugoslavia. Even before the cold war ended, Yugoslavia was in turmoil. Nationalism was making a return and debt was running high. In the early 1990s, nearly each republic tried to succeed from the multi-ethnic state to form ethnic nation states. This resulted in many complex ethnic wars that created international precedents that made China very unhappy.


From the beginning of the conflict, China was supportive of what was left of Yugoslavia, which had quickly lost its credibility as a multiethnic nation when the only republics that stayed in the federal union (during the wars) were Serbia and Montenegro. However, to China this conflict was not about ethnic self-determination. The main Chinese narrative of the conflict was about the importance of the right to defend state sovereignty and territorial integrity, in light of China’s own ethnic rebels.


However, the real problem for China wasn’t the conflict itself but the Western power structure’s response. With the USSR gone, the US was the unchallenged hegemon with free reign to act in the world. This resulted in the US bombing Serbia/Yugoslavia during the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts. One notable incident occurred during the Kosovo war when NATO inadvertently hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade with an air strike, severely straining US-Chinese relations. However, the worst effect of the conflict in regards to China’s interests was the successful effort to turn Kosovo from a Serbian province to an independent state without any form of Serbian input in the process. In states that spent decades promoting anti-imperialism as a global norm, such as China and the USSR, this was presented as the US and NATO literally ripping Kosovo out of Serbian hands. This created a very, very dangerous precedent for China. As far as it was concerned, this meant that the US was not above using military force to violate China’s sovereignty. This was particularly important regarding Taiwan, and to a lesser extent Tibet and Xinjiang. China’s relationship with Taiwan is complex as both see themselves as rightful heirs of China, culturally, historically, and physically. The PRC sees Taiwan not as a separate state but as the remains of an unfinished war that will finish only with reunification, be it peaceful or not. The issue is that Taiwan had already achieved a large degree of autonomy and had a strong multifaceted relationship with the US. This event led to Chinese distrust in the US’ global order and it fueled fears of the US’ intentions in Taiwan, even though the US was quick to assure China that Kosovo was an exception and that it was not establishing a precedent.


Exactly what does this mean for Tianxia and the Tribute System? Is there even a connection to be made? It is uncertain. Aside from the embassy bombing and its ties to the Yugoslav state, China had no direct link to the conflict. But it was another learning experience for China that affected the Chinese view of the US led power structure. This power structure had supported  secession movements from Yugoslavia that tore apart the state, as well as unilaterally declaring Kosovo independent from Serbia.


Following the wars and a painful transition to Western style democracies, the Balkan states were looking to build themselves up instead of working on their foreign policies concerning far away nations. The primary goal for many of these states was to gain entrance into the EU and to build up their economies. This is when China returned to the Balkans.

As a growing economic power, China has become more intertwined with the world economy than ever. It has set out on improving its export economy through building up trade relationships with countries from all over the world, as well as building up its global infrastructure to optimize that trade. The poor Balkan countries were very eager to accept help from China, and those relationships are now becoming stronger as Chinese investments in the region continue.


With this goal, China has been pouring money to spread its influence over the Balkan states. The most relevant diplomatic forum for this cause is the “16+1” initiative through China-CEEC, in which China meets with the 16 Central and Eastern European countries, including all the Balkan countries. This has resulted in annual meetings usually held with each nation’s top leader since 2013, which are aimed at emphasizing successful cooperative events in the past year as well as planning future initiatives that coordinate infrastructure, cultural exchanges, and import tariffs, among other issues.


What is interesting about this group is the membership of the 16 CEEC countries. It transcends the major dichotomy within the region as it includes both EU and non-EU states while it excludes any of the major EU players such as Germany or France. This is good insight into China’s views on its global partners, which is the emphasis on a “peaceful pluralism” which helps China maintain mutually beneficial relations with nations of all political backgrounds as long as they are friendly to China’s interests. The concept of peaceful pluralism is the closest modern idea to come from China in terms of the tribute system. While the US and the liberal power structure isolate nations because they do not value Western norms such as human rights or democratic freedoms, China is more concerned with whether or not the nation is ‘peaceful’ in terms of recognizing Chinese leadership and not causing problems for the global order. Many nations it has built up relationships with were previously offered loans from the US and what could be described as its ideological institutions such as the World Bank, which usually come with conditions focused on reforms of the state of the country’s political, economic, and social rights. Meanwhile China’s offers focus on economics and mutual profit instead of try and change the internal politics of the recipient nation. China’s newfound wealth is thus used to build up relationships with other nations that could benefit from a share of China’s surplus wealth, resulting in the recipient countries being ‘brought up’ with China. This creates an inner-outer system similar to the ancient tribute system. China is still the middle kingdom, nations that it has helped that are now in some way friendly to China are the inner circle, and the outer circle is nation that have yet to sign up to the new Chinese system.


There has also been much Chinese involvement specifically in the Balkans as a major route through what is called the “New Silk Road” or the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. China has invested in the infrastructure all throughout the region (along with many other parts of the world) which will allow for optimizing its trade routes to make them as efficient as possible. This has included improving railways even in the smaller Balkan countries, such as Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro. All this would enable it to ship goods by water into the region through the Suez Canal and transport them throughout Europe. When all the infrastructural projects are finished, the time goods spend in transport from China to Europe would be significantly cut, from roughly 30 days to 20.

The strongest political connection that China has in the Balkan is with Serbia. During the wars, Serbia tried to maintain the Yugoslav identity, which was a lie within a truth; it was the last major ethnic group left within the federal union and so it maintained even after it too became an independent state. This helped maintain the long standing ideological ties between the two nations, much like Serbia’s very positive ties to Palestine because of the socialist history of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. During and after the Kosovo crisis, China maintained support for Serbia’s control over the region. Today, it is Serbia’s turn to stand alongside its partner. It refuses to criticize China for its actions and has acted for China’s interests in the international sphere many times, such as boycotting the Chinese dissident Lui Xiaobo’s nobel prize winning ceremony. This relationship has strengthened over time, surpassing the original ideological ties in favor of more pragmatic economic and political ties. The two nations have signed a joint declaration of “overall strategic partnership” that has even extended to Chinese investments specifically in the Serb majority territory in Bosnia, Republika Srpska. This is an important note because Republika Srpska is part of Bosnia and Herzegovina and has few bilateral ties outside of the Bosnia and Herzegovina framework. Such a relationship is a perfect example of how a hypothetical relationship between China, the hegemon, and a second-tier state within a modern equivalent of the Tribute System would work. Both states maintain support for one another in their dealings with the ‘outer’ states that are not inside the system, as well as having a healthy trade relationship with a significant amount of Chinese investments into Serbia.


Another noteworthy relationship is that between China and Greece. Relations between it and China were at a minimum until China’s current global strategy of building up economic ties to countries around the world started. The last few years saw Greece almost drop out of the EU because of its inability to pay its debts to European institutions, which led to it turning to others for much needed funds. China was one of the major outsiders that responded to this need. This is seen through the multibillion dollar deal in which the Chinese government owned COSCO, China Ocean Shipping Company, has bought, upgraded, and is currently helping run the Greek port of Piraeus. This has resulted in Chinese companies reducing their dependence on other major ports in the region. It benefits both countries as many taxable goods headed for mainland Europe pass through Greek lands, while Chinese chains of production are optimized. It is also major contrast to China’s relations with Greece during the cold war, which were mostly limited to the two sides being on opposing battlefields during the Korean War.


Macedonia also presents an interesting look at Chinese foreign doctrine. In 1999, Macedonia established diplomatic relations with Taiwan. By having relations with both the PRC and the RoC, Macedonia put into question the ‘One China policy’ that both the PRC and RoC value. This was supposed to result in major investments from Taiwan, which never materialized. Two years later, Macedonia reneged on this decision and its ties with Taiwan were cut, which was followed by a step back into the inner circle of the Tribute System. Even though this decision had a devastating immediate effect on Macedonian-PRC relations, China has forgiven Macedonia and incorporated it into the One Belt One Road initiative today along with its other partners in the region.


China’s behavior also represents a nation utilizing its economic power to spread its influence. By building up its relationship across the world, China is investing in nations that it can then turn to strategic partners whenever it needs them. This is clear with Serbia, who benefits much from Chinese trade and often sides with it on international issues. However, this strategy is a long term one whose key benefits will be felt much later on, when these countries join the EU and China decides to call in its favors. Through putting money into the weaker and more vulnerable Balkan EU states, China could be able to disrupt the EU’s ability to make a unified and comprehensive Chinese strategy by dividing the Union from within, much like it has been able to do with Cambodia within the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) framework.


If there were an attempt to build up a hierarchical system based off China’s economic strength, enmeshing itself to the world would be very important for China especially since the only justification for a Chinese led system would be through that economic strength. Longtime allies such as Serbia that have a mutually beneficial relationship with the rising power and countries that are economically dependent on Chinese money such as Greece  are nations that could be willing supporters of a rising China because this offers them a chance to rise as well. These countries accept Chinese assistance with few strings aside from the Chinese immigrants, investments, and political ties which later present China with a straightforward way to spread its culture and political influence. This can be then used to help Chinese create its own world order, much like today’s global system as formed by the US following the steps that it took at the end of WWII, as the sole super power not destroyed by the war, and after the Cold War when no nation had the capacity to compete with the US economically, politically, or militarily. This may be a stretch for some. But those who doubt that change is coming should remember that any attempt to build up a new international system, regardless of who is leading the effort, would take years of sowing seeds before any flowers bloom


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  1. Bobe 4 months ago

    A very good written analysis

    Reply Like Dislike