This article was originally published in The Diplomat and is reposted here with the permission of the author with minor changes.
On May 7, 1999, during NATO’s Operation Allied Force that put an end to the Serbian bloodshed in Kosovo, an air missile accidentally hit China’s Embassy in Belgrade causing the death of three Chinese journalists. Beijing viewed the bombing as an event paving the way for “gunboat diplomacy” and a potential precedent for US interference in the Taiwan issue. More than two decades later, the unfortunate event continues to fuel China’s anti-US sentiment and its support for Serbia, including on the issue of Kosovo.
Farewell Moscow, Welcome Beijing
China’s position on the Kosovo issue has been constant throughout the years. It reflects the key principles which underpin China’s foreign policy on the basis of (China’s interpretation of) international law: protection of state sovereignty, inviolability of territorial integrity and self-determination, based on a restrictive interpretation only in the context of colonial rule or foreign occupation – thus ruling out this right for the people of Kosovo. Hence, for China, the Kosovo issue is ultimately very similar to the Taiwan issue.
At the same time, with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Serbia may be losing its main ally on the Kosovo issue – Russia. Moscow, which has been directly involved in the recent derecognition campaign that Serbia led against Kosovo, will arguably have less time and resources to devote to the protection of Serbia’s national interests. Moreover, recently discussed scenarios where Russia could potentially ‘trade’ Kosovo for Crimea have additionally caused alarm in Belgrade.
As China and Serbia have been developing an ever-closer partnership in recent years, Serbia has become increasingly vocal in its requests for China to play a more prominent role in the Kosovo issue. Furthermore, according to Serbian diplomats, China’s behavior clearly demonstrates its increasing willingness to engage on issues that cannot be resolved by the US alone, such as the protection of Serbia’s territorial integrity. In his recent statement regarding Kosovo’s potential bid to join NATO, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić advanced the narrative that it is not Kosovo itself, but the US pushing the agenda forward. Such a narrative exploits China’s increased willingness to stand up to the US and “protect international law and the UN Charter,” especially in light of China’s accusations that NATO and the US are the main culprits behind the war in Ukraine.
Appeals to China to be more active on the Kosovo issue resonate well in China. There are also domestic voices advocating for a more proactive attitude, beyond China’s role in the UN Security Council, to target those countries which allegedly recognized Kosovo because of the American lobbying, but have “received nothing” from the US in return. This approach with derecognition as the ultimate goal could be based on the attractiveness of China’s market to the targeted countries and China’s potential to help their post-pandemic economic recovery.
China-led Campaign of Derecognition?
China is no stranger to using similar tactics. Its “transactional diplomacy” contributed to Beijing’s taking over Taipei’s seat as official Chinese representative in the UN. Since 2016, China has employed these tactics in a fairly successful derecognition campaign against Taiwan, when nine countries switched their allegiance from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China. In addition to the outright “checkbook diplomacy,” the “carrots” used by Beijing include development aid in the form of preferential loans and donations, infrastructure projects in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, direct investments, as well as the promise of market access. Moreover, for many of these countries it also simply made logical sense to establish closer ties with Beijing as a more powerful political and economic partner.
In addition to the “carrots,” although more rarely, China has not shied away from using “sticks” either. Some of them have taken the form of China’s veto in the UN Security Council – for instance on the extension of the UN Preventive Deployment Mission in Macedonia in February 1999, one month after the latter established diplomatic ties with Taiwan, or the peacekeeping mission in Taiwan’s ally, Guatemala, in 1997. More recently, following the opening of a representative office under the name of Taiwan (instead of Taipei, as is the usual practice) in Vilnius, Lithuania faced a broad range of punitive economic measures imposed by Beijing.
Most of the countries that proved to be susceptible to the Chinese tactics with regard to Taiwan’s derecognition display the same characteristics as those that revoked their recognition of Kosovo in 2013. They are mostly African, Pacific, Latin American, or Caribbean nations with very limited trade or other interests in the cooperation with Kosovo or Taiwan. Most of them are relatively poor, in need of development and investment capital, and with slim chances of obtaining access to finance on the open market. Moreover, many of these potential targets display autocratic tendencies and are governed by authoritarian leaders. Finally, some of these countries, such as Honduras, were sanctioned by the West and have been on a search for new economic partners and opportunities.
In such a context, it is likely that there are other countries who could be easily convinced to derecognize Kosovo if it meant pleasing China. Kosovo does not have any means to prevent such a scenario except through lobbying with its Western allies, first and foremost the US. The question is whether and to which extent China is prepared to (further) aggravate its relationship with the US to please Serbia and whether the US is ready to defend its ‘investment’ in Kosovo’s statehood.