On May 7, 1999, during NATO’s Operation Allied Force mission, which put an end to the Serbian bloodshed in Kosovo, an air missile accidentally hit China’s Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. Beijing viewed the bombing as paving the way for “gunboat diplomacy,” which could threaten China’s immediate security environment, and a potential precedent for U.S. interference in the Taiwan issue. Twenty-three years later, the unfortunate event continues to fuel China’s anti-U.S. sentiment and its unequivocal support for Serbia.
China’s position on the Kosovo issue has been constant throughout the years. It reflects the key principles that underpin Beijing’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 very similar to the Taiwan issue.
Now, with the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Serbia may be losing its main ally on the Kosovo issue: Russia. Moscow, which was 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, recent scenarios in which Russia could potentially “trade” Kosovo for Crimea have additionally rung an 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 on the Kosovo issue. Furthermore, according to Serbian diplomats, China’s behavior clearly demonstrates its increasing willingness to engage in issues that cannot be resolved by the United States alone, such as the protection of Serbia’s territorial integrity.
President Aleksander Vucic in his recent statement regarding Kosovo’s potential bid to join NATO further advanced the narrative that it is not Kosovo itself, but the United States that is planning and pushing forward this agenda. Such a narrative exploits China’s increased desire to stand up to the U.S. and “protect international law and the U.N. Charter,” especially in light of China’s accusations that NATO and the United States are the main culprits in the war in Ukraine.
Appeals for Beijing 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 U.N. Security Council, to target those countries that allegedly recognized Kosovo because of U.S. lobbying but received nothing from Washington in return. Some analysts recommend a new approach, with derecognition as the ultimate goal, that would be based on the attractiveness of China’s market and China’s potential to help those countries’ post-pandemic economic recovery.
China undoubtedly has the means to convince other countries to do as told; it has extensive experience in using such tactics. Its “transactional diplomacy” contributed to Beijing taking over Taipei’s seat as official Chinese representative in the U.N. and, more recently, to the successful derecognition campaign against Taiwan. Since 2016, eight countries have switched their allegiance from Taiwan to China. In addition to outright “checkbook diplomacy,” the “carrots” used by Beijing to encourage recognition of Taiwan include development aid in the form of preferential loans and donations, infrastructure projects in the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative, direct investments, and market access. Moreover, for many of these countries it also made logical sense to establish closer ties with Beijing as a more powerful political and economic partner.
In addition to the “carrots,” China has not shied away from using “sticks,” although this happens more rarely. Sometimes this involves using China’s veto in the U.N. Security Council. For instance, China vetoed the extension of the U.N. Preventative Deployment Mission in Macedonia in February 1999, one month after the latter had established diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Similarly, in 1997, China vetoed a proposed U.N. observer mission in Guatemala, one of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies. 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 have been susceptible to China’s tactics with regard to Taiwan’s derecognition have similar characteristics as those that have revoked their recognition of Kosovo since 2013. They are all African, Pacific, Latin American, or Caribbean countries with very limited trade or other interests in cooperation with Kosovo or Taiwan. Most of them are poor, in need of development and investment capital, and with slim chances of obtaining access to finance on the open market. Many of them display autocratic tendencies and are governed by authoritarian leaders. Some of them were sanctioned by the West and are in search of new economic partners and opportunities.
In such a context, it is likely that there are other countries that 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 by its Western partners, first and foremost the United States. The question is whether and to what extent China is prepared to (further) aggravate its relationship with Washington in order to please Serbia and, in return, whether the United States is ready to defend its “investment” in Kosovo’s statehood.