By Ky Krauthamer February 18th, 2012 When pollsters asked Serbs to name the countries most friendly toward Serbia, the top three were Russia, Greece â€“ staunch friends since the end of Yugoslavia both â€“ and China. China? True, the Chinese were among Serbiaâ€™s loudest supporters during the Milosevic period and like Russia and Greece have not recognized Kosovoâ€™s independence. But could Chinaâ€™s increasing economic presence in Serbia have something to do with it? Is Chinaâ€™s growing economic clout across Southeastern Europe (leaving aside the rest of the continent) something to arouse concern? Two reports Iâ€™ve read recently go into these questions, asking how the presence of this rising economic force, eager for new export markets and new sources of the raw materials its manufacturers need, will transform a market where for the United States is an ever-less dominant, player. The author of one report says there are reasons for concern. As the Balkan countries increasingly look to China to invest in much-needed infrastructure projects, shopping centers, etc., a situation could develop where Beijing â€œcan directly influence state policies in Southeastern Europe,â€ the report for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies warns. Authored by LoÃ¯c Poulain, a research intern at the center, the report notes that China still lacks close ties to regional countries beyond Greece and Serbia, but foresees the possibility of a â€œregionwide movement appealing for deeper economic and political cooperationâ€ with China that could â€œcreate a relation of dependency with countries expected to join the EU within the next 10 to 15 years.â€ That seems to overstate things a bit â€“ unless, as seems far from unlikely, EU membership becomes an ever-more distant dream for countries like Albania, Bosnia, and Macedonia. The fact is, however, that China has been seeking new investments in the region, especially in Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Here are some of its recent ventures: Great Wall Motors plans to open a Bulgarian plant this month, Europeâ€™s first assembly plant for Chinese cars, such as the Voleex pictured above. (Where do they come up with these names?) Guangdong Nuclear Power Group said in October it might enter a project to build two new reactors at the Cernavoda nuclear power plant in Romania. China National Nuclear Corporation last year was reported to be interested in helping build a new unit at Bulgariaâ€™s Kozloduy nuclear plant. A consortium of Chinese companies signed an agreement with Serbiaâ€™s EPS power utility for a package of investments worth more than 2 billion euros. A Chinese company is building a 1,500-meter bridge over the Danube near Belgrade. One story says the bridge will be called â€œFriendship Bridge,â€ another refers to it as â€œChina Bridge.â€ The Chinese may have in mind that bridges can have great symbolic significance. Recall NATOâ€™s destruction of most of Serbiaâ€™s Danube bridges, as â€œmilitaryâ€ targets, during the Kosovo war. A bit closer to the EU heartland, Hungary has also been angling for Chinese trade and investment, as a policy brief from the European Council on Foreign Relations points out. As Europe continues to reel from the effects of the financial crisis and recession, and number highly indebted countries in the south are â€œincreasingly desperate for Chinese investment,â€ argues the report with a telling title, â€œThe Scramble for Europe.â€ â€œ[T]he need for cash now takes precedence over their concern for their labour-intensive industries,â€ it goes on. â€œMeanwhile, Central and Eastern European member states such as Bulgaria and Hungary, which were already vying for Chinese investment, are now seeing European flows of investment drying up and are thus increasingly dependent on China.â€ For an instance of how keen Hungary is to attract Chinese investment, take a look at the fascinating remarks the countryâ€™s conservative-statist premier Viktor Orban delivered at a June economic forum in Budapest. Orban practically kowtowed to the Chinese guests of honor. (Switch to the English version and scroll down to 27 June.) Careful to give the communist-statist country its full name, Orban praised the Peopleâ€™s Republic as first among the worldâ€™s economic champions of today. Why? Because China has stayed loyal to â€œa few principles, which we here in the West have turned our backs on in recent times.â€ For instance, the principle that â€œwe cannot continuously consume more than what we produce. Or that the basic building block of the economy is value created by work.â€ The West once knew this but has forgotten. â€œIt is enough to recall that the words â€˜sinâ€™ and â€˜debtâ€™ in the original text of the Lordâ€™s Prayer were still synonymous with each other.â€ An odd way to praise the delegation from an officially atheist country, but there you go. The ECFR report is not immune from the kinds of stark warnings Poulain delivers. Beijing has concentrated its efforts in Europe on the debt-strapped southern EU countries and the even poorer EU aspirants in the Balkans: â€œFrom a European perspective, it may seem as if the Chinese are exploiting Europeâ€™s soft underbelly. The danger for Europe is that there will be a kind of â€˜China lobbyâ€™ of smaller member states within the EU,â€ the authors say. All this needs to be kept in perspective. Chinese investment and trade in Southeastern Europe is well below its levels of involvement in Western Europe. As Poulain notes, Chinaâ€™s bilateral trade in 2010 with Romania and Bulgaria together, with a combined population of 30 million, amounted to some 3.2 billion euros, while 7-million-person Austria registered 8.2 billion euros in two-way trade with China. And the fact is that countries outside the EU, like Serbia, and some inside the union, need more investment in infrastructure than the EU can provide. Is it any wonder they are looking to China? East of Center » Blog Archive » China in the Balkans: Invasion of the Voleex?