In 2018, the 16/17+1 Coordination Center for Cultural Cooperation was established at North Macedonia’s Ministry of Culture. Despite its name, its activities (quite limited, for the time being) do not extend to any of the other CEE countries, but only to Chinese culture, aiming to further China’s soft power via events such as piano recitals, concerts, and plays.
Until the outbreak of the pandemic, the Chinese government regularly organized training trips for civil servants and occasionally companies, universities, and journalists. The training focus on economic topics, such as trade, investments, and tourism, and show off China’s economic advancement and technological prowess, as well as its governance model, heritage, culture, and gastronomy. While relatively few people have gone on these trips, they are a select group who tend to be current or future decision-makers, and who come home deeply impressed.
In giving development assistance, China often stresses that the funds are a sign of the traditional friendship between the two countries, disbursed without conditions. This is a subtle poke at Western donors, particularly the EU, which conditions its assistance on political and economic reforms. Moreover, Chinese-funded projects are usually highly visible social and transport infrastructure and equipment, such as schools, highways, and medical equipment, whereas Western donors have recently shifted their focus mostly to “soft measures” and policy reforms.
Development assistance can also become a powerful means of coercion. For example, after North Macedonia’s decision to join the US-led Clean Network Initiative, China strategically suspended a grant-funded project by Huawei to build an e-education network before the extension of the network from the capital city onto the whole territory. Furthermore, a loan agreement with China’s Export-Import Bank for a highway project allows China to unilaterally terminate the project agreement and ask for immediate repayment if it deems that a policy pursued by North Macedonia is not in line with its interests. This is a standard clause in most Chinese loan agreements that has not been triggered so far. But, arguably, in the past several years China has become more assertive, possibly making this clause much less hypothetical in the future.
Chinese COVID-19 assistance to North Macedonia in the beginning of the pandemic coincided with the EU’s relatively chaotic handling of the crisis and Brussels’ initial ban on exports of medical equipment and sluggish delivery of emergency aid to non-EU countries. Later, Chinese “mask” diplomacy gave way to “vaccine” diplomacy. As North Macedonia struggled to procure vaccines from Western manufacturers, China was the first country to provide a sizable number of doses.
Meanwhile, influence operations sought to amplify positive views of China and its role in North Macedonia during the pandemic. The Chinese Embassy, via its official Facebook account and the private accounts of its employees, showcased positive stories on China’s handling of the pandemic. It also sponsored content in traditional media through op-eds presenting the official Chinese Communist Party positions and, by using opaque language, contributing to confusion over whether the equipment received from China was entirely a donation or a purchase. Some of the supposed donations were actually procurements, most notably Chinese-made ventilators purchased with EU funds.
Some internet portals followed a global trend of revising recent history and promoted speculation about the origin of the virus, as well as China’s constructive role during the pandemic, as opposed, especially, to the US. These efforts, which were subtly aimed to undermine the West’s credibility, help account for the increase in China’s favorability rating from 25% in 2018 to 39% in 2021, alongside a 5% drop for the EU.
In the past decade, China has used agreements easing access to the Chinese market, visits by Chinese business delegations, promises by Chinese and Macedonian officials, and joint B2B events to create the impression that closer cooperation between the two countries would lead to increased exports to China, investments by Chinese companies, and more Chinese tourists in North Macedonia. So far, though, there have been no commercial investments, the trade deficit has climbed, and diplomacy has been brazenly transactional, with China calling for scrapping visas as a precondition to hosting more Chinese tourists.