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German Chancellor Angela Merkel pictured in Berlin earlier this month. Photo: Associated Press

Merkel warns against China's influence in Balkans

German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned on Wednesday that China must not link its investments in the western Balkans to political demands.

“I have no objections to the fact that China wants to trade … and to invest,” Merkel said at a Berlin press conference with Macedonian Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

“We are committed to free trade,” she added, but stressed that “it must be reciprocal” and that openness must come “not just from one side but from all sides”.

“The question is … are the economic relations being linked with political questions?” she added, stressing that this would “not be in the spirit of free trade”.

China has invested heavily in a massive “New Silk Road” initiative of overland infrastructure links between Asia and Europe, raising European fears about Beijing’s growing political influence.

Recent years have seen China make investments in strategic sectors and critical infrastructure, including the purchase of Piraeus port in crisis-hit Greece.

Some in Europe fear that the Balkan countries benefiting from Chinese investments are more inclined to defend the interests of Beijing in the EU, especially on questions of human rights and trade.

In Macedonia, which is seeking to join the EU and Nato, China has invested in highway construction, and Zaev recently thanked Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang for helping his country’s modernisation.

French President Emmanuel Macron on a China visit warned last month that some European countries are much more open to Chinese interests, “sometimes at the expense of a European interest”.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel warned last August in Paris that “if we don’t develop a [European] strategy regarding China, then China will succeed in dividing Europe”.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China must tread softly in Balkans, Merkel says