Serbia and China have maintained a robust and multifaceted relationship characterized by strong diplomatic ties, economic cooperation, and cultural exchanges. The partnership between these two nations has deepened over the years, with both countries expressing mutual respect and a commitment to enhancing bilateral relations.
One significant aspect of their collaboration is evident in the Belt and Road Initiative, where Serbia plays a crucial role as a key partner in the development of infrastructure projects. Chinese investments in Serbia have contributed to the modernization of the country’s infrastructure, including the construction of highways and energy facilities. Moreover, cultural exchanges and people-to-people connections have been fostered through initiatives such as educational programs and tourism, further strengthening the ties between Serbia and China. It is advisable to check for the latest developments in this relationship, as geopolitical dynamics can evolve.
By emphasizing the synergy of development strategies, China and Serbia countries aim to align their economic and political goals, fostering cooperation that goes beyond traditional friendship. This approach seeks to translate the longstanding relationship between China and Serbia into tangible and mutually beneficial outcomes, reflecting a deeper and more pragmatic dimension to their partnership.
Milos Vucevic, the Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia and Defence Minister, highlighted the substantial strengthening of the Serbian armed forces through Chinese military equipment in an interview with the Global Times. He specifically pointed out the significance of the air defence system and drones provided by China. Vucevic emphasized the importance of military-to-military cooperation, economic collaboration, and various Chinese investments in enhancing bilateral Serbia-China relations.
President Xi Jinping of China expressed the importance of stronger strategic coordination with Serbia, referring to it as an “ironclad friend” during his recent meeting with President Aleksandar Vucic in Beijing. Jinping pledged support to Serbia, emphasizing a commitment to safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Serbia has highlighted the significance of China’s FK-3 medium-range anti-aircraft missile system, likened to Russia’s S-300 or the U.S. Patriot system, along with the CH-95 and CH-92A UAVs in its defence capabilities. The acquisition of these Chinese defence systems has been deemed crucial for Serbia’s military. The FK-3 surface-to-air defence system, purchased in 2019 and delivered in the following year, was showcased alongside other military hardware from both Russia and the West in April last year.
The FK-3, an export variant of CASIC’s HQ-22 air-defence system, features a top speed of Mach 6. While it maintains the domestic version’s capabilities, including offensive combat and air-defence functions, its maximum range is slightly reduced to 100 km compared to the Chinese HQ-22’s 170 km. Notably, the FK-3 was inducted into the Serbian Armed Forces in 2022, enhancing both offensive and defensive capabilities within the military arsenal.
Amid heightened tensions with Kosovo, Serbia is focused on enhancing its capabilities to safeguard independence. While Vucevic did not explicitly mention acquiring more Chinese military equipment, he expressed confidence in developing relations with China, emphasizing China’s status as one of Serbia’s “most reliable” friends. The geopolitical dynamics involving the United States, and Russia, and the ongoing monitoring of the situation underline the complex nature of regional relations in the Balkans.
The signing of a free trade deal between Serbia and China, represented by Serbian Trade Minister Tomislav Momirovic and Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao, took place at the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic expressed satisfaction, describing the agreement as “a big step forward” for Serbia. This move signifies the deepening economic cooperation between the two nations within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.
Serbia’s Ministry of Construction, Transport, and Infrastructure revealed the signing of three commercial contracts with Chinese companies for infrastructure projects, totalling almost four billion euros. These projects involve the construction of approximately 300 kilometres of new roads, and notably, the contracts include the purchase of five Chinese high-speed trains. Additionally, various memorandums of understanding and agreements were signed between Serbia and China, indicating a broadening scope of cooperation between the two nations in multiple sectors.
In 2021, Serbia saw the implementation of at least an estimated 61 projects in collaboration with Chinese entities, spanning various stages of completion over a decade. These projects were valued at a minimum of 18.7 billion euros. Broadening the perspective to the Balkan region, estimation suggests a total of 135 projects linked to China, with a combined value of at least 32 billion euros by the end of 2021. This underscores the extensive economic and infrastructural engagements between China and countries in the Balkan region.
Serbia’s Dependency on China
China’s proposals addressed the needs of Balkan countries, such as Serbia, that felt neglected and disadvantaged by the limitations on EU funds. Chinese corporations became key players in building and upgrading infrastructure, as EU laws restricted member states from providing state guarantees for foreign-financed projects. The attractiveness of China’s offers, coupled with perceived passivity and neglect from EU institutions, influenced local political decisions amongst the non-EU members.
Economic considerations and domestic political drivers, particularly top-level decisions about projects, played a significant role in engaging with China. In Serbia’s case, China’s stance in the UN Security Council regarding Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence and China’s support for Serbia’s sovereignty added a layer of peace and security concerns, contributing to the alignment of interests between the two nations.
Impact of China’s Presence on the European Union
As China expanded its economic presence in the Balkans, including Serbia, the European Union (EU) intensified its criticism of China’s involvement. The EU’s growing concern led to increased pressure on recipient countries to reconsider their collaborations with Chinese entities. Simultaneously, Washington began emphasizing the “negative Chinese influence” narrative, urging local governments to reassess their engagements with China.
This shift in international relations was further fueled by the broader context of great power rivalry, with China gaining political clout in countries where it was increasingly economically engaged. The rise of Chinese projects in energy and traffic infrastructure, particularly in non-EU member states like Serbia, became a focal point for scrutiny and geopolitical competition.
In this evolving landscape, non-EU members, led by Serbia, emerged as significant recipients of Chinese investments, especially in carbon-related energy and transportation infrastructure projects. These projects, either completed or under construction, stand as tangible outcomes of the cooperation between these countries and China. The complex interplay of economic interests, geopolitical rivalries, and shifting international narratives underscores the multifaceted nature of China’s engagement in the region.
The motivations driving China and Serbia to strengthen their relations are multifaceted. China supports Belgrade’s EU membership aspirations, recognizing that Serbia’s entry into the European Union would facilitate Chinese access to the European Single Market. This alignment of interests reflects China’s strategic economic goals.
Simultaneously, Serbia plays a crucial role in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), serving as a strategic hub for connecting the Balkans with Central and Eastern Europe. Geographically positioned at the crossroads, Serbia becomes a pivotal link in the land and maritime infrastructures of the BRI. This strategic importance contributes to the substantial Chinese investments in Serbian infrastructure projects.
China’s preference for state-led decisions in Serbia, which contrasts with the EU’s open and transparent bidding procedures, further motivates Chinese investments. This allows for more direct and efficient collaboration on projects, aligning with Belgrade’s approach.
From Serbia’s perspective, cooperation with China brings economic and financial benefits, with Chinese involvement significantly impacting the country’s economy through infrastructure construction and investments. Additionally, there are political advantages, as mutual support in bilateral and multilateral agreements helps both countries maintain the status quo, particularly concerning territorial integrity issues related to Taiwan and Kosovo. This underscores the comprehensive nature of the China-Serbia partnership, encompassing economic, political, and strategic considerations.