Serbia at the crossroads between the Chinese dragon and the Russian bear: new tensions in the Balkans?

China embassy in Belgrade, Serbia (Credits: Stuinzuri at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Geopolitical Report ISSN 2785-2598 Volume 19 Issue 7
Author: Luca Urciuolo

Tensions in Europe are not only due to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and Putin’s threats to the West. A “new” partnership has recently resurfaced between two antagonists of NATO, namely Serbia and China. With its partnership with Russia under duress, Serbian ties with Beijing appear carefree in comparison.

Indeed, the war in Ukraine provided Serbia with an opportunity to continue and boost the policy, which was already unfolding even before the war, of replacing Russia with China as Serbia’s primary non-Western partner.[1] This policy is even more appealing after the electoral cycle in Serbia in April 2022, making China a perfect instrument of domestic promotion for the Serbian leadership.

The Serbian Chinese axis strengthens

On April 10th, 2022, six Chinese Y-20 cargo jets landed at Nikola Tesla International Airport in Belgrade, delivering FK-3 surface-to-air missile systems to the Serbian military. Serbia reportedly chose them over its approximate Russian counterpart, the S-300. It is the first time that such a large flock of Chinese military aircraft has arrived in Europe. The cost of the systems could have been a significant factor, however. It is quite probable that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) used this delivery to demonstrate its airlift capability, given NATO’s ongoing measures to ferry supplies and equipment to Ukraine’s war effort. The Y-20’s presence in Europe in any number is a relatively new development. Nevertheless, this large-scale sortie to deliver military equipment to Belgrade confirms the strategic airlift capability the PLAAF has obtained via its burgeoning Y-20 fleet and expanding operational knowledge of how to put it to use. Aside from the Y-20’s expanded presence over Europe, the fact that a higher-end Chinese air defence system will be operating in Europe is another issue that will likely come to the chagrin of Serbia’s neighbours.[2]

Russian ally Serbia has taken delivery of a sophisticated Chinese anti-aircraft system in a semi-secret operation, amid Western concerns that an arms buildup in the Balkans at the time of the war in Ukraine could threaten the fragile peace in the region. There are fears in the West that the arming of Serbia by Russia and China could encourage the Balkan country toward another war, especially against its former province of Kosovo, which proclaimed independence in 2008.

Technically, China’s cooperation with Serbia is nothing new. Formally seeking EU membership, the country has already been boosting its armed forces with Russian and Chinese arms, including warplanes, battle tanks, and other equipment. Indeed, in June 2020, Serbia became the first European nation to deploy Chinese uncrewed aerial vehicles when Serbia’s air force received six CH-92A combat drones armed with laser-guided missiles.[3] Such efforts are seen as a sign of a deepening relationship between Beijing and Belgrade.

In the FK-3 system, one battery consists of a vehicle with radar and three launch vehicles, each of which has four missiles with work command and semi-active radar guidance. One battery can operate simultaneously with 12 missiles of 6 targets. They are designed to destroy planes and drones, cruise missiles, and helicopters of the enemy at all altitudes, from 50 meters up to even 27 km high, under any weather condition. The other name of the missile system is HQ-22, developed by Jiangnan Space Industry but known as “Base 061” and represents an essential update of the air defence system HQ-12. It has been widely compared to the American Patriot and the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, although it has a shorter range than more advanced S-300s. Such export of the air defence system is a sign of penetration into an entirely new market. The Chinese medium and long-range systems users were the only Chinese allies from Asia. Indeed, Serbia will be the first operator of the Chinese missiles in Europe. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić affirmed that these missile deliveries should not be seen as a threat but only as a “powerful deterrent” in case the escalation of the war would involve the Eastern European country.[4]

“Serbia is trying to make completely independent decisions about its destiny, without imposing sanctions against Russia and moving forward more quickly on a path of European integration,” said the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nikola Selaković, at the public broadcaster RTS. “We are not imposing sanctions on the Russian Federation, but our priority objective is a faster European path to change society, strengthen the rule of law, attract as many investments as possible,” stressed.[5]

These words sound sinister for the members of the North Atlantic Pact because of the association with China that has been going on since 1999 when NATO bombed the former Yugoslavia for over two months, causing thousands of victims, including the Chinese.

Tian Yishu, who plays a business role at the Chinese embassy in Serbia, said that “the Chinese people will never forget the barbaric atrocities committed.” For his part, the Minister of Internal Affairs Aleksandar Vulin said that what was committed by NATO in 1999 “was a crime against a sovereign nation and its people and seriously violated international law”, adding that “Serbia will never stop asking NATO to take responsibility for its crimes and Serbia will always be a reliable friend for China.”[6] In short, these two statements suffice to understand that the wound is still open and that the two countries, if there were any doubts, would hardly ever be “friends” of NATO that has to worry about the many intercontinental flights that fill Belgrade with missiles.

Then, the delivery of the war devices to the Balkan country indicates the progress of the People’s Republic of China in the field of military logistic transport and confirms Belgrade as a reference point for the penetration of Beijing into the “Old Continent.” Together with Hungary, Serbia is one of the countries where the People’s Republic aims to undermine the eastern front of the American sphere of influence in Europe, especially after Belgrade applied to join the EU in 2009. Sino-Serbian cooperation has grown exponentially since the two countries signed a joint declaration in 2013 to deepen their strategic partnership. Six years later, Serbia joined the Belt and Road Initiative and became a destination for Chinese funding in infrastructure (roads and railways), energy (including renewable), steel, mining, and technology. In Balkan, Huawei conducts several projects, such as installing security cameras equipped with a facial recognition system in Belgrade, creating a “smart city” in Niš, and managing a data centre in Kragujevac.

The pivot of these activities is the hub for the development and innovation of the Chinese technological giant located in the Serbian capital. The country’s 5G Internet network remains out of Huawei’s reach. Two years ago, Vučić signed an agreement with the United States that “unreliable” suppliers should not access this sector. Washington intends to stem the already strong presence of the Chinese company in Europe.

The significance of the Sino-Serbian agreement is heightened because, in 2021, the relationship between the People’s Republic of China and the 17 countries of Central and Eastern Europe experienced an overall setback. Many of the so-called 17+1 platform participants were disappointed by the deadlock of several infrastructure projects promised by Beijing. At the same time, they aligned with the United States in an anti-Chinese function. The example of Lithuania, which has left the forum mentioned above, has inaugurated a Taiwanese representative office in Vilnius and has strengthened technological relations with Taipei is emblematic.

The tensions between the European Union and China have not affected relations between the latter and Serbia. In early February, Vucić attended the inauguration of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games and then, with Chinese President Xi Jinping, celebrated the “iron-clad friendship” between the respective governments.[7] Upon returning from Beijing, Serbian leadership announced that by the end of 2022, the two governments would sign a free trade agreement to increase bilateral trade to $8 billion a year and later $10 billion.[8] While that would increase Serbia’s trade deficit and expose its manufacturers to powerful Chinese competitors, Serbian leadership hopes to attract foreign investors. If the project succeeds, it could favour a further Chinese presence in the Serbian market. Above all, combined, the purchase of weapons made in China would confirm Belgrade as a reference point for the interests of the People’s Republic in Europe.

Is Russia moving away?

Since at least 2020 and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Serbia has gradually replaced Russia with China as its best friend in the East. While Vucic kissed the Chinese flag in gratitude for Beijing’s medical aid, Russian medical assistance to Serbia was not greeted with the same enthusiasm. This episode showed that Beijing had resources that Moscow did not and exposed the hidden mistrust between Serbia and Russia. Later in 2020, as Serbia faced violent anti-lockdown protests, the pro-government media accused pro-Russian forces of instigating the demonstrations with the purpose of currying favour with the West. That same year, the Serbian government was trying to resolve the Kosovo dispute with the assistance of the Trump administration in the United States. This meant the loss of leverage in the Balkans and Serbia, pivoting toward the United States for Russia.

Despite all the Slavic and Orthodox ties talks, the Serbo-Russian partnership is opportunistic. Moscow is aware that Belgrade only uses Russia as leverage with the West. Belgrade fears Moscow will sell it out in a grand bargain with the West. However, the rise of Biden’s presidency forced Serbia to rekindle some of its ties with Russia. Nevertheless, despite the mutual suspicions, the two states still have a shared interest in combating civic dissent and “color revolutions.”

The Ukrainian war changed everything about Serbia’s approach to Russia. On the one hand, Belgrade is tied to the West as the E.U. and NATO geographically encircle the country. Its primary economic partner is the EU. The Serbian government needs political acquiescence from the West to stay in power. On the other hand, Serbia is still dependent on Russian backing in the U.N. in the Kosovo dispute.

Moreover, Serbia is dependent on Russian gas. In November 2021, Belgrade and Moscow agreed on a six-month beneficial gas price for Belgrade, which the Serbian leadership needs for reelection. Most importantly, Serbian leadership is terrified of the possibility that alienating Russia will anger a significant part of the pro-Russian electorate in Serbia and cause a political crisis.[9]

Conclusion

With its ties with Russian under intense Western scrutiny, China is even more attractive as a partner, plus the Serbian government feels it has more leeway to do deals with China. The Serbian government, alongside the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and the University of Novi Sad, formed the Belt and Road Institute to promote cooperation with China. The Chamber of Chinese Companies in Serbia was opened on March 3rd, 2022. During the opening ceremony in the facilities of the Chinese Cultural Centre, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic referred to the conflict in Ukraine:

“This is a significant day for the whole of Serbia, because we live in tough times, when many partnerships and ties are being severed and when we are under enormous pressure. The most difficult thing is to preserve partnerships and friendships and strengthen them further and open new corridors of partnership.”[10]

With the Serbian balancing act between Russia and the West in danger, China has emerged as the Serbian government’s “all-weather friend” to borrow a Pakistani saying on ties with China. It may very well be that the Serbian leadership will not have any other choice but to join sanctions against Russia if it wants its economy to continue using EU funds.

This is nothing compared to what will happen when the Sino-American rivalry reaches its shores. So far, Serbia has avoided making difficult choices between China and the United States – because of the U.S.-brokered September 2020 agreement, the Serbian government is still postponing its bidding tender for the 5G spectrum in Serbia, for example. Serbia’s difficult choices over Russia’s ties amid the Ukraine war might be that it is just a teaser of what is to come.

Sources

[1] Vuk Vuksanovic (2022) Serbia’s Arms Deals Show It’s Tilting Away From Russia and Toward China, Foreign Policy. Link: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/05/11/serbias-arms-deals-show-its-tilting-away-from-russia-and-toward-china/

[2] Stetson Payne, Tyler Rogoway (2022) Half A Dozen Chinese Y-20 Cargo Jets Popped Up Over Europe Last Night (Updated), The War Zone. Link: https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/45158/half-a-dozen-chinese-y-20-cargo-jets-popped-up-over-europe-last-night

[3] Smriti Chaudhary (2020) Did Russian S-400 Got Dumped For Chinese Air Defence System By An Aspiring EU Nation?,  EurAsian Times. Link: https://eurasiantimes.com/did-russian-s-400s-got-dumped-for-chinese-air-defence-system-by-an-aspiring-eu-nation/

[4] Jack Davies (2022) We Finally Know the Deadly Surprise Chinese Military Airlift Was Delivering Right to the Heart of Europe, The Western Journal. Link: https://www.westernjournal.com/finally-know-deadly-surprise-chinese-military-airlift-delivering-right-heart-europe/

[5] СРНА (2022) Селаковић: Не уводимо санкције Русији, али је приоритет бржи пут у ЕУ, Глас Српске. Link: https://www.glassrpske.com/cir/novosti/srbija/selakovic-ne-uvodimo-sankcije-rusiji-ali-je-prioritet-brzi-put-u-eu/410275

[6] Alessandro Ferro (2022) Missili cinesi nel cuore dell’Europa: la mossa che preoccupa la Nato, Il Giornale. Link: https://www.ilgiornale.it/news/mondo/i-timori-nato-dietro-linvio-missili-cina-serbia-2032508.html

[7] Xinhua (2022) Xi meets Serbian president, hails ironclad friendship between China, Serbia, China Daily. Link: http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202202/05/WS61fe14b0a310cdd39bc84d34.html

[8] Branislav Urosevic (2022) Serbia to sign free trade deal with China by year-end – Vucic, SeeNews Link: https://seenews.com/news/serbia-to-sign-free-trade-deal-with-china-by-year-end-vucic-772141

[9] Vuk Vuksanovic (2022) With All Eyes on Russia, Serbia Nourishes Ties With China, The Diplomat. Link: https://thediplomat.com/2022/03/with-all-eyes-on-russia-serbia-nourishes-ties-with-china/

[10] John Dobson (2022) China plans to replace Russia as Serbia’s bestie, The Sunday Guardian Live. Link: https://www.sundayguardianlive.com/world/china-plans-replace-russia-serbias-bestie


Disclaimer. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpecialEurasia.