Albania - China, a Continuous 'Romance'
By Genc Mlloja
Albanian Daily News
Published September 20, 2017
Following the course of the relations between China and Albania, two hugely different countries with regard to the size of the population and territory with the first having 1.4bn people, while the second sheltering some 3m inhabitants in a 28,000 square kilometers territory, many political analysts have described it as a special 'romance' during the communist and after time systems, which has now focused on the field of economic cooperation and people-to-people exchanges. As a result, despite being across the Adriatic Sea from Italy in Europe, Albania is as close to China in many respects as it is to its leading trading partners.
"The Beacon of Communism" in Europe was supported by China's communist leadership, headed by its historical leader Mao Zedong, until the Sino-Albanian split gradually worsened the relations between the two countries in the period 1972-78. By the early 1970s, Albanian disagreements in certain aspects of Chinese policy deepened as the visit of the late President of the United States, Richard Nixon to China along with the Chinese announcement of the "Three Worlds Theory" produced strong apprehension in Albania's Hoxha leadership.
The late Albanian leader, Enver Hoxha saw in these events an emerging Chinese alliance with 'American imperialism and abandonment of proletarian internationalism'. In 1978, China broke off its trade relations with Albania, signaling an end to the informal alliance which existed between the two states. That was the prelude of the economic collapse of Albania, which got worse during the 1980s.
"Albania has a very longer and richer experience of cooperation with China than the other members of the 16+ 1 Initiative. Moreover, as I have observed during the last two official visits to China, the people there nourish warm friendly feelings towards Albanians," the former Albanian Foreign Minister, Besnik Mustafaj, told the Albanian Daily News on Tuesday.
According to him, that was an asset which should be exploited to foster further the traditional friendly ties.
"This legacy is a precious element for our diplomacy which should be well exploited so that Albania could be placed in the center of this project, which is in the interest of all countries that are part of that endeavor," said Mustafaj.
But for Albania, both the United States and the People's Republic of China are complimentary to its future, the first one as a strategic political and military ally, while the second as a powerful economic partner, having a strong friendship legacy during the past communist time.
I have personally witnessed on my four visits to Beijing how the Chinese people and their leadership are very grateful of the role played by Albania at the United Nations in the endeavor that People's Republic of China could get its deserved seat as member of that world- wide international organization located in New York.
From the 1960s onwards, official Tirana moved an annual resolution in the General Assembly to transfer China's seat at the UN from Taiwan to mainland China when the United States and its Western allies were against it.
It is worth to mention what the outstanding Ambassador of Albania to the UN in New York, Halim Budo declared in face of a full- packed General Assembly Hall that the absence of China from the United Nations was harmful to it and to its cause.
"The principal task of Member States is to take an important step in delivering the Organizations from the stranglehold of the United States by restoring the lawful rights of China in the UN and all its organs," the legendary Ambassador told the UN General Assembly at its 1600th and 1602nd-1610th plenary meetings, held on November 20- 28, 1967.
The long and insistent 'fight' of Albania's Ambassador was crowned on October 25, 1971, when the Resolution 2758, sponsored by this tiny Balkan country, was passed by the General Assembly, withdrawing recognition of Taiwan as the legitimate government of China, and recognizing the People's Republic of China as the sole legitimate government of China.
Mr. Budo was supported in that endeavor by the late Foreign Minister of Albania, Reiz Malile and his staff.
"UN Seats Peking and Expels Taipei" was the headline of the story penned by Mr. Henry Tanner which was carried by the New York Times on October 26, 1971.
"In a tense and emotion-filled meeting of more than eight hours, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly last night (October 25, 1971) to admit Communist China and to expel the Chinese Nationalist Government," reported Mr. Tanner.
"The vote, which brought delegates to their feet in wild applause, was 76 in favor, 35 opposed, and 17 abstentions. The vote was on a resolution sponsored by Albania and 20 other nations, calling for the seating of Peking as the only legitimate representative of China and the expulsion of "the representatives of Chiang Kai-shek", said the New York Times.
What happened that long night as the electrical tally boards flashed the news that the "important question" proposal had failed, pandemonium broke out on the Assembly floor. Delegates jumped up and applauded. The American delegation, also in the front row, sat in total dejection.
Mr. George Bush, the United States delegate, who had been leading the fight for Nationalist China with considerable energy, half turned away from the rostrum, looking silently at the turbulent scene.
"The Albanian delegation, which for years has sponsored the resolution that would admit Communist China and expel the Nationalists, made it known that it would try to force a quick decision. This precipitated an attempt by the supporters of Nationalist China to delay the proceedings. Jamil M. Baroody of Saudi Arabia proposed that all voting be postponed for one day, but his proposal lost, 53 to 56, with 19 abstentions. Baroody, who made many trips to the rostrum during the eight-hour session, made his proposal for a delay in the voting so as to give time for the Assembly to study the American, the Albanian, the Tunisian and the Saudi Arabian resolutions. The overwhelming vote for the Albanian resolution to seat Communist China and unseat the Nationalists contrasted with last year's bare majority-51 to 49. That was the first majority that advocates of admitting the Communists had obtained since the China item was first taken up by the Assembly in 1950," reported the New York Times on those milestone days.
"The 76 members who voted for the Albanian resolution to admit Peking and expel the Nationalists constituted a two-thirds majority of those voting. While this majority would have permitted the admission of mainland China even if the American "important question" motion had won, many observers expressed the opinion that the final vote had been swelled by the pattern of earlier voting," said the New York Times.
"We will never forget what Albania has done in supporting China to get its deserved seat at the United Nations," I was told many times not only by different Chinese politicians in New York, Beijing and Tirana, but even by ordinary citizens, including youth in China. All world media covered the event.
Albania established diplomatic ties with China on November 23, 1949, some one month later after the founding of the People's Republic of China. It is one the earliest countries to establish diplomatic ties with China. "It is a fact that we will never forget," I have been told by Chinese academicians.
A Long History of Friendship
"We have a long history together that really came out of forming an alternative to Soviet communist ideology. I think that history helped make the transition into the more economic, pragmatic relationship we have now," has said Albania's current President Ilir Meta, a former Speaker of Parliament since 2013 and the founder of the Socialist Movement for Integration.
"China invests in Albania. We have a robust trading partnership with them now and it's beating our traditional partners in Europe," Mr. Meta has said arguing that certain regulations also made it harder to close business deals with Europeans.
Mr. Meta was in Beijing last October signing deals with Power China, a construction conglomerate that has irrigation and other projects in Albania. In theory, when the Balkan countries along the Adriatic become members of the European Union and the euro-zone, assuming the euro survives 2017, the Chinese would have a foothold that rivals traditional neighbors.
It is a fact that wealthier Balkan nations are already in on the China act. Macedonia and Serbia are on this metaphorical Silk Road to Europe. Other countries are trying to reap the benefits of Chinese investment. Albania is one of them, and the Chinese authorities encourage this Balkan country to present projects in this frame. However, it is a fact that the possibilities offered by the Silk Road and 16+1 Initiative are not fully exploited by Albania.
Like many Albanian leaders President Meta has always affirmed that Albania will firmly adhere to the one-China policy and would like to lift bilateral ties to a higher level through deepening cooperation. "We are on the road to European integration," said Mr. Meta. "Our only hope is that the EU investment here will improve. China sees us as an opportunity. We are happy to have them," said Albanian President for whom economic development is the overriding concern, and the strengthening of the relations with China is a path with many opportunities.
China, Albania's Major Trade Partner
According to statistics from Chinese Ministry of Commerce, the bilateral trade volume reached 636 million US dollars in 2016, up 13.9 percent year on year. Currently, China is Albania's major trade partner and main investment source. Within the top five trading partners, no one has accounted for export growth out of Albania like the Chinese, up over 6,000%.
To be more concrete what is China doing in Albania? In March, Canada's Banker's Petroleum announced the sale of oil exploration and production rights to affiliates of China's Geo-Jade Petroleum for a price of 384.6 million euros. Banker's started to exploit the Albanian oil fields of Patos-Marinze and Kucova in 2004, and since 2014 it has been the largest foreign company in the country. A month later, China Everbright and Friedmann Pacific Asset Management announced the acquisition of Tirana International Airport in a 10 year concession deal. Though a second Albanian airport is scheduled to open for service soon, Tirana will remain the most important transport hub. It is one of the fastest-growing airports in Europe, with annual passenger rates rising from 600,000 in 2005 to two million in 2015, and now it's China's. And the latter does not see it as a passengers' hub but also as a transition place for goods throughout the Western Balkans, I have been told by Chinese economic experts.
Albania is also part of a pipeline project connecting Caspian Sea natural gas from Azerbaijan to Europe. The Trans-Adriatic Pipeline is supposed to bring in around 10 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Azerbaijan through a 211 kilometer pipeline in Albania where it will cross the Adriatic Sea to Italy. To get this done, a number of dirt roads need to be paved; bridges need to be modernized. So much of Albania's countryside has not changed since the days of communist rule.
Albania's goal is to be one of EU's energy hubs, and of course China knows this, and the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) is an integral part of this and gets transit fees for that, which is good for the country, but good for the Balkans, too. The European leg of TAP is slated to be operational by 2020. The total investment in Albania by TAP is estimated to be 1.5 billion euros. Transportation is improving in parts in Albania, thanks to Chinese money and the massive infrastructure demands required by TAP.
But improvements are starker because Albania, in many respects, is starting from zero. So in contrast, scores of European Union countries have not moved up the competitive rankings at score card enterprises like the Doing Business Report while Albania has. "The entire region is in convergence with the EU now," says European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) analyst Peter Sanfay. In general, the Balkans compares poorly with EU neighbors on nearly every level. This is one of the main reasons behind the prosperity gap in the region, of which Albania is no stranger. Italy, right across the Adriatic, may as well be another world entirely.
April's pledge by Chinese Vice PM
China and Albania have agreed to enhance cooperation in areas of infrastructure, production capacity, tourism and agriculture under the framework of Belt and Road Initiative and the 16+1 mechanism featuring China and Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries cooperation. The pledge was reconfirmed as Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli paid a visit to this Balkan country on April 17, 2017.
Hailing the geographic advantage of Albania in southeast Europe, Zhang said Albania is a major country along the Belt and Road.
"China is willing to conduct more substantial cooperation with Albania taking the country's features and actual needs into consideration under the Belt and Road Initiative and the 16+1 mechanism," Zhang said during his meeting with Albania's former President Bujar Nishani. He encouraged the two countries to speed up the negotiations and signing of an inter-governmental MOU on the Belt and Road initiative to better plan and guide bilateral cooperation so as to yield more fruitful results.
The initiative, proposed by China in 2013, aims to build a trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient Silk Road trading routes, leading to mutually beneficial economic outcomes for every nation it reaches.
China would like to align its development strategy with that of Albania and conducted in-depth discussions on projects, measures and effects of cooperation to realize common development, Zhang said during his talks with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, who is running this Balkan country in a second mandate.
China would like to take an active part in Albanian major infrastructural and energy projects such as roads, hydro-electric power stations and economic development zones, and strengthen cooperation on cultural and people-to-people exchanges, film-making, education and tourism, the Chinese vice premier said.
In the meantime Prime Minister Edi Rama said during the meeting with Mr. Zhang that Albania is looking forward to the cooperation with China and welcomed more Chinese enterprises in the country. He expressed the Albanian side's hope that the two countries can find cooperation projects that may yield results soon under the Belt and Road Initiative and 16+1 framework.
Buxhuku's Revelations on Failed Projects
The first news on the launching of China's initiative on investments in Central and Southeastern Europe, the so called the '16 plus 1' program in the frame of the Silk Road, was proclaimed in the Albanian- Chinese Business Forum organized in Albania in 2012.
The Forum was held by Konfindustria in cooperation with the Embassy of the People's Republic of China in the presence of the highest representatives of the institutions of this Balkan country, who expressed full support to prepare the necessary projects. Since that time Albania has not been able to profit from the financial package of the investments of the Chinese initiative. This is the unsuccessful story of Albania with regard to the initiative in question.
Which might be the reasons of such an unpleasant end? Firstly, it is an objective incapability of the Albanian state institutions to draft qualitative and competitive projects. As a matter of fact, Albania has possibilities to offer valuable projects meeting the objectives of both countries. The private sector itself can offer ideas on projects to the government so that Albania can be included in the above mentioned Initiative. Secondly, it is indispensable to set up a permanent technical center to exchange information with the relevant Chinese agency in charge of the implementation of the initiative. The center might also serve to provide technical information on the Initiative, profits, conditions, sectors and the manner of framing projects for being profitable. So far Albania has not any knowledge on the existence of such a center. Thirdly, it is indispensable to have as before meetings, joint forums and conferences between of Albania and China as it was the 2012 Forum! The value of such events is not only direct for businesses but at the same time they will serve as a positive push for the delayed government decisions with regard to the Silk Road and the '16 + one initiative'.
Lastly, I think that Albania with regard to its political decision-making discourse, cannot be more than 'the Pope of Rome' with regard to the economic interests of the country and people. The geo- strategic world interests should be exploited to the benefit of the economic development and well being of Albania and its people. It suffices to follow what the great powers do practically with each other in economy and trade. This is in truth the value of the so called "economic diplomacy" so much spoken about in Albania during the last days.