What Is Behind Serbia And China’s ‘Ironclad Friendship’?

BELGRADE — Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rare European visit this week is being widely regarded as Beijing’s attempt to present itself as an eager and pragmatic alternative to U.S. and even Russian influence.

And Xi’s inclusion of Belgrade on his list of destinations alongside EU members France and Hungary also highlights the increasingly important ties between Serbia and China, as Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic continues to forge a path between Russia and the West in light of the conflict in Ukraine.

“Serbia has demonstrated once again that China, not Russia, is its most important partner in the East at the moment, especially with Russian-Serbian ties under constant scrutiny because of Ukraine,” Vuk Vuksanovic, a senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.

Vucic has repeatedly rejected Western appeals to join the unprecedented international sanctions since Russian troops launched the continent’s first full-scale invasion since World War II, although he and other Serbian officials have expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

Just last week, the appointment of a new cabinet under Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) leader Prime Minister Milos Vucevic drove home what critics say is Vucic and his allies’ desire to “sit on two chairs” when it comes to foreign policy.

‘A Milestone Of Bilateral Relations’

Vuksanovic and other political observers in the region say Xi’s visit will remind Russia, the West, and the rest of the world that Belgrade is keeping its trade and diplomatic options open, even as it continues to pursue EU membership.

Xi and Vucic have boasted of an “ironclad friendship” between their nations since 2020, and China’s People’s Daily last week labeled the two-day state visit, which begins on May 7, “a milestone in bilateral relations.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lin Jian last week called Serbia China’s “first comprehensive strategic partner in Central and Eastern Europe” and said further deepening those relations “is in the fundamental and long-term interest of both countries and peoples.”

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left) meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in September 2018
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (left) meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in September 2018

China-Serbia relations have gradually been strengthened since Vucic’s SNS party came to power 12 years ago. They were further galvanized in 2016 by the first visit to Belgrade by a Chinese leader in three decades and joint resistance to Western-led responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that erupted in 2020.

“China sees in Hungary and Serbia the two most important partners in Europe, a kind of door that opens up space to a wider European market and to some strategic investments,” said Vedran Dzihic, a senior lecturer at the University of Vienna and senior researcher at the Austrian Institute for International Affairs.

Much of China’s cooperation with Serbia revolves around infrastructure, a focus of the massive Belt And Road Initiative that was adopted in 2013 as a linchpin of Xi’s diplomatic and economic outreach around the world.

Dzihic said Beijing is seeking any path to the European market and to increase its influence on the continent.

Vucic has stressed the visit’s potential to boost technological development in areas such as robotics and satellites. Ahead of Xi’s trip, the Serbian president called it “a way to keep pace with the world and further develop our best relations.”

The Serbian government also announced recently it had adopted measures to improve cooperation with China in areas such as science, education, and innovation, as well as economic and technical cooperation in infrastructure.

But aside from any trade and economic benefits, Dzihic said, there is a political message underlying Serbia’s hosting of Xi that is connected to broader efforts — notably by Moscow and Beijing — to challenge U.S. influence and potentially reshape the international order.

“[The message is] that Serbia is striving to work on deepening relations with actors outside the West and, in that sense, is a kind of autonomous player in the new geopolitical constellation,” Dzihic said.

Anniversary Of NATO Bombing

Xi’s arrival on May 7 coincides with the 25th anniversary of NATO’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in the Serbian capital, an event that united Belgrade and Beijing in outrage at Western policies and intervention during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The 1999 NATO air strikes, which targeted military and civilian infrastructure in Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, were the Western military alliance’s response to the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo and reports of atrocities by Serbian forces against the ethnic Albanian population.

University of Vienna lecturer Dzihic noted that the NATO bombardment is an ongoing source of anti-Western sentiment that perpetuates the idea of a “conflict” pitting the West against Russia, China, and other countries. He said it is a narrative “in which Serbia, that is, the Serbian president, first tries to navigate between these two poles, and then relies on partners from the East once there is significant pressure from the West.”

Dzihic said he believed the West had become “much, much more critical of Vucic’s regime than it was a few years ago.”

President Xi Jinping (left) with then-Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic at a groundbreaking ceremony for a Chinese cultural center in 2016, during the first visit by a Chinese leader to Belgrade in three decades.
President Xi Jinping (left) with then-Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic at a groundbreaking ceremony for a Chinese cultural center in 2016, during the first visit by a Chinese leader to Belgrade in three decades.

During his previous state visit to Serbia, in 2016, Xi laid a wreath at the monument in Belgrade to the three people killed and at least 20 others injured in the 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy, an incident for which Washington apologized. (A Chinese cultural center, which is among the largest in Europe, has since arisen at the site.)

On that same visit, Xi signed a Declaration on Strategic Partnership with Vucic’s presidential predecessor and fellow SNS member, Tomislav Nikolic. In 2023, with Vucic unquestionably steering foreign policy, the two sides signed a free-trade agreement that critics feared created a new path for Chinese military exports to Europe. There were also fears the agreement would “lock” Serbia into a closer long-term relationship with Beijing and “further distance” the country from its European neighbors.

More than $5 billion in Chinese investments has flowed into Serbia in the past decade, according to Serbian Trade Minister Tomislav Momirovic.

Many of those deals have been dogged by controversy. In some cases, local protests have targeted Chinese investors’ hiring practices or environmental standards. Critics have also questioned the financing of infrastructure projects through Chinese loans agreed between the two governments without competitive bidding and whose terms remain undisclosed. The Export-Import Bank of China is now among Serbia’s largest creditors.

But in one of the most recent polls to track Serbians’ views of China, two-thirds of respondents said they welcomed Chinese investment, with young people more likely to respond positively. The same survey, published in October 2023 by a Belgrade-based nonprofit, the Institute for European Affairs, said three-quarters of Serbians regard China as a friendly country.

Vucic boasted during a visit to China last year that he was proud Serbia was “the only country in Europe that had never joined declarations criticizing or attacking China on any issue.”

Vuksanovic, the researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, described Serbia’s key challenge as maintaining some sort of proportionality in its relations with China and the United States. He said Belgrade appeared to have found a formula whereby Washington is its dominant partner in the areas of security and, potentially, relations with its former province Kosovo, which declared independence over Serbian objections in 2008.

“They think they can maintain a balance with China as long as it is reduced exclusively to economic cooperation and high-level diplomatic exchange,” Vuksanovic said, and “as long as there are no deeper provocative moves toward Washington.”

Written by Andy Heil based on reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Ljudmila Cvetkovic in Belgrade