Why China-Albania relationship is warming up again

August 22, 2018 08:30
Albania's tourist spots have attracted lots of Muslims. The country's Islamic background  will also help draw investments from other Muslim countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Iran. Photo: http://albania.al

Ever since the outbreak of the Greek debt crisis, the ports of Greece have become beachheads for China to advance into Europe under its “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

Meanwhile, Albania, which was once China’s closest friend, may also enter into an economic honeymoon period with Beijing.

Mainlanders of the previous generation must be very familiar with Albania.

During the years of the Cultural Revolution, when China was at odds with both the United States and the Soviet Union, Albania was chairman Mao Zedong's only foreign ally.

And in order to express its deep gratitude to Albania for its steadfast friendship and loyalty, China, which was itself extremely impoverished in those days, provided tens of thousands of tons of food and billions of dollars in foreign aid for its European friend, which Mao referred to as the “true socialist lighthouse of Europe”.

However, the “romantic” relations between Beijing and Tirana ground to a sudden halt in the early 1980s when Enver Hoxha, the former political strongman of Albania, strongly criticized his Chinese counterpart Deng Xiaoping for “taking the revisionist path”.

Since then Sino-Albanian relations had remained at rock bottom for decades, until the dawn of the “One Belt One Road” era, when China began to “rediscover” the strategic and geopolitical value of Albania.

Earlier on, China has concluded the so-called “16+1” agreement with Eastern European countries. And Albania, which is regarded by Beijing as its strategic outpost in the Balkans, has once again become its partner under the “One Belt One Road” strategy.

Apart from being able to serve as a bridge between China and Europe, Albania is also of great value to Beijing in other respects: its rich natural resources, oil, and minerals such as chromite are extremely attractive as well.

In 2016, the Geo-Jade Petroleum Corporation of China acquired the Bankers Petroleum, which was formerly known as the Albanian National Oil Company.

As far as Albania is concerned, Chinese investments and capital are also key to resuscitating its economy.

In fact, over the years, Albania has remained one of the poorest countries in Europe, thanks to its decades-long policy of seclusion.

Even though the Albanian government has carried out numerous reform initiatives in recent years, and the national economy has been slowly recovering, the country’s infrastructure and railway system have remained very poor and unreliable.

For instance, currently the only decent highway across the entire Albania is the one that links the capital city Tirana and the second largest city Durrës, not to mention that the country only has one international airport.

Even Tirana, Albania’s capital, is probably the most run-down city across the Balkans, and is at best comparable with third-tier cities in China in terms of the overall level of development.

Worse still, at present the unemployment rate in Albania stands at 17 percent, and the poor economic environment has driven many Albanians out of the country in a desperate bid to seek a better life abroad.

That probably explains why the Albanian government is so eagerly looking to Chinese investors to come to its rescue by providing jobs and rebuilding the country’s infrastructure.

However, although Tirana needs Chinese capital so badly, China and Albania are unlikely to become as close as they used to be in the coming days.

After all, Albania has already joined the NATO and has become a candidate for future European Union membership.

Given that, while Tirana is eager to develop closer economic ties with Beijing, it’d rather keep the latter at arm’s length politically.

Besides, Albania is apparently well aware of the potential risk of having all of its eggs in one basket. It is working aggressively to make good use of its own Islamic background and draw investments from other Muslim countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Iran.

Simply put, Albania will no longer “lean to one side” in its foreign policy because it has learnt the historical lesson the hard way.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 9

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]m


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal