Wed, 22 Sep 2021

Belgrade [Serbia], August 5 (ANI): Over the past decade, Western Balkans have become an increasingly important pit-stop in the Chinese Digital Silk Road, a crucial element of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Stefan Vladisavljev, writing in The Frontier Post said that China has come to the Western Balkans to stay. Western efforts to limit Chinese influence and provide sustainable alternatives should continue, especially in countries like Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina that could be vulnerable to external pressure.

The Digital Silk Road is established in the framework of the wider Belt and Road initiative and includes the global expansion of Chinese technologies to addressable markets previously dominated by local or Western firms, or to developing countries that are only now undergoing technological development.

It ranges from telecommunications networks and smart cities to e-commerce and the Chinese satellite system.

Serbia is China's closest partner in the Western Balkans, and this is reflected in the country's approach to Chinese technology, said Vladisavljev.

Over the past decade, China has made significant inroads among Serbia's political and business elites. In 2016, Serbia and China signed a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement.

Data from 2020 shows that the contracts signed with Chinese banks for the purpose of the upgrade of Serbian infrastructure have surpassed USD 7 billion, reported The Frontier Post.

Moreover, Huawei has built its regional headquarters in Belgrade and is a longstanding partner of the state-owned telecommunications company, Telekom Srbija.

China's digital giant was also seen as a leading contender for the 5G launch in Serbia, before the Serbian government delayed the beginning of the process after pressure from the United States, wrote Vladisavljev.

But now China's efforts in the region are being contested by other geopolitical players. The United States and the European Union are putting pressure on the Western Balkan countries to limit China's presence in their digital infrastructure, reported The Frontier Post.

For the European Union, the region represents both its immediate neighbourhood and also the group of countries that is first in line for future EU membership.

Therefore, China's digital influence in the Western Balkans could potentially be transferred to the European Union as well, if and when those countries become part of the European community.

If China gains ground in the current and future development of digital infrastructure in the region, it could represent a security challenge not only for the region but for the United States as well, explained Vladisavljev.

The Trump administration tried to limit Beijing's outreach via the "Clean Network Initiative," which the State Department defined as "a comprehensive approach to safeguarding [America]'s assets including citizens' privacy and companies' most sensitive information from aggressive intrusions by malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party."President Joe Biden -- who has embraced competition with China -- has not dismissed executive orders in the spheres of data flows and technology supplies that were signed by his predecessor. Several countries in the Western Balkans have signed onto America's Clean Network, including Albania, North Macedonia, and Kosovo, reported The Frontier Post.

Under the new Biden administration, the United States is trying to (re)build a coalition with the European Union to counter China's rising global influence.

The countries of the Western Balkans will face direct pressure coming from Washington on one side, and from the need to align with EU policies on the other, wrote Vladisavljev.

The European Commission itself has taken precautionary measures and instructed member countries to adopt policies that will limit the presence of "high-risk suppliers."Simply put, if the countries of the Western Balkans are serious about continued integration with the European Union, they will need to follow EU rules on digital technology.

Moreover, as per Vladisavljev the West is having greater success in blunting China's digital influence in the rest of the Western Balkans.

The incentives coming from the West (like Clean Network) are making an impact and have contributed to some countries not engaging with China on 5G.

Countries that rely more on the United States for security and are more dedicated to joining the European Union are keener to limit Chinese influence, reported The Frontier Post. (ANI)

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