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NIAS Europe Studies
President Xi in Serbia: Looking at China's Balkans Strategy and beyond 25th year of bombing anniversary

  Femy Francis

President Xi in Serbia: Looking at China's Balkans Strategy and beyond 25th year of bombing anniversary
Femy Francis 
 
What happened?
On 07 May, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Serbia, marking the 25th anniversary of the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. During his visit, Xi Jinping was welcomed by President Aleksandar Vucic and his politburo. Both leaders affirmed their "ironclad friendship" and signed over 28 new agreements to elevate their "comprehensive and strategic partnership further." 

On Serbia, Xi wrote: "The friendship forged in blood between the peoples of China and Serbia has become the common memory of the two peoples and will inspire both sides to move forward together," President Aleksandar Vucic said: "I told him that as the leader of a great power, he will be met with respect all over the world, but the reverence and love he encounters in our Serbia will not be found anywhere else." 
 
Before reaching Serbia, President Xi sent a letter in Politika: "May the Light of Our Ironclad Friendship Shine on the Path of China-Serbia Cooperation." Xi affirmed the affinity between the two countries despite the distance between them. He stated that both countries have always respected and trusted each other and that President Vucic has maintained dialogue through frequent meetings and phone calls, which has aided their relations. Additionally, he highlighted that Serbia is China's first free trade partner in Eastern Europe and its second-largest trading partner. Xi remembered the 1999 NATO bombing and asserted that they would never allow for such tragic history to repeat itself. He called for international cooperation when facing the international arena and stated: "Facing a fluid and turbulent world, we should step up coordination and cooperation in the United Nations and other international organizations, and advocate an equal and orderly multipolar world and a universally beneficial and inclusive economic globalization."

During his visit, China and Serbia signed the following: an agreement on extradition for judicial assistance in commercial and civil matters; an MoU between the Serbian Ministry of Internal and External Trade and the National Commission for Development and Reform of China to set up a mechanism to monitor the mid-term action plan for the joint construction of the Belt and Road initiative; cooperation in the fields of telecommunication and digital economy; ministerial exchanges in the field of geology and mining; MoU between the Siberian flagship newspaper "Politika," and the Chinese media group; and MoU signed in the field of green and sustainable development. 

What is the background? 
First, background to the NATO bombing, on 07 May 1999, the US jets dropped five bombs on the Chinese embassy, which led to the death of three Chinese nationals and injured twenty others. The bombing was caused by the Western alliance, which launched air warfare to push Slobodan Milosevic to end the ethnic violence against Albanian rebels. The US apologized and admitted that the embassy bombing was a mistake that happened because of faulty intelligence. Though the 25th anniversary was highlighted throughout the trip, Xi surprisingly failed to visit the infamous bombing site. This reflects the motivation behind the trip, which was beyond the 1999 NATO bombing and more about establishing economic relations and influence in the region. 
 
Second, Chinese investments in Serbia. China has made significant investments by pouring billions into various mining and infrastructure sectors. China and Serbia signed the Free Trade Agreement in 2016, though some parts did not align with EU membership. From 2012 to 2023, trade and commerce increased exponentially; in 2012, it was at USD 450 million, now reaching USD 4 billion in 2023. Serbian exports to China have increased from USD 400 million in 2020 to USD 1.3 billion in 2023. Serbia is also part of the 16+1 initiative, the Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries, to promote business and investments. Additionally, Serbia has signed a USD 3 billion package for economic and military support. Chinese tech giant Huawei has installed smart surveillance system cameras in Belgrade, systematically entrenching itself in the Serbian economy and politics.  
 
Third, Serbia’s interest in China. Belgrade's interest in China is multifold and is not limited to economic opportunities. They reflect how it sees NATO and EU as imposing regional powers and how it wants to maintain its relationship with the now-cornered Russia.  President Vucic of the Serbian Progressive Party affirmed that they refused to destroy Serbia’s relations with Russia overnight and that he would fight to ensure their friendship. Vucic has been sceptical of the West as he called out the Western lecture on Russia respecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine but not of Serbia, hinting at the 1999 attack. In light of this, Serbia has refused to sanction Russia, and in doing so, it has set itself apart from the rest of the EU. Russia’s closeness to China also augments Serbia’s confidence in China.
 
What does it mean? 
First, Serbia as a part of China's gateway to Europe. China is attracted to the Western Balkans and Serbia because of its geostrategic location and relative closeness to the vibrant EU market. Serbia is a vital transport hub to Europe and can act as an entry point into the walled Europe. There are 61 projects by the Chinese reckoned to be valued at around UD 21 billion in the Balkan countries. Through investments in BRI, they have made significant inroads into Western and Eastern Europe and, therefore, was a strategic choice for Xi's visit.  

Second, Serbia balancing the East and West. The Serbian President's approach to the east-west divide has been straightforward, and he does not want to align with either completely. During his Presidential campaign, he often stated that he wanted to maintain their relations with the EU but retain their traditional friendship with Russia and China. Under Vucic, there has been an exponential rise in pro-China sentiments in Serbia, and these relations have sometimes even overshadowed Russia's relations with Serbia. China has become a major external influence in the Balkan and European regions. Serbia will use China and the EU to leverage a better deal. 

Third, China’s Balkan strategy. For Beijing, the Balkan countries are easy investments as most do not adhere to EU standards and regulations, which often slows the investment process. Not having to deal with strenuous regulations makes Chinese interest in the Balkan countries understandable. The same argument can apply to Balkan’s interest in China, where the EU also offers funds and economic support; they are less appealing due to the fatigue that comes with following EU regulations. The appeal is also lessened by China’s well-oiled bureaucracy, which delivers faster results. Balkans are the EU's soft underbelly, often overlooked and overshadowed by the bigger EU country's ambitions. The Balkans are increasingly looking for alternatives to EU investments, and China knows that and wants to tap into the opportunity that is present.

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