The Brother of Steel Xi in Serbia – The country where China can do whatever it pleases

President Xi Jinping arrives in Belgrade on a symbolic date. In Serbia, Chinese companies have been involved in various business deals and they don’t have to worry much about upholding certain standards. On the other hand, for Serbia, Beijing is a sure support in the perpetual balancing policy.

Charles Parton, a British analyst and former diplomat in China, thinks that Xi Jinping’s visit to Serbia is less strategically important than the visits to Budapest and Paris, but that it fit into the calendar.

As Parton told The Guardian, Xi will use the opportunity to point out everything the Americans are doing wrong, writes Deutsche Welle (DW).

Because, by chance or not, when one of the most powerful people in the world lands in Belgrade on Tuesday (May 7), it will be exactly a quarter of a century after NATO bombed the Chinese embassy there. Three Chinese journalists were killed then.

That hit during the military intervention against FR Yugoslavia at the height of the war in Kosovo was declared by NATO as an unintentional mistake. Beijing never believed that story.

“For China, this (bombing of the Chinese embassy) is a historical moment in which the ‘big bad West’ directly harmed China. It reinforced the narrative that there is a need to rearrange the world order,” Stefan Vladisavljev, an expert on China from the Belgrade-based Foundation for Political Excellence, told DW.

That is why many in the West view the relations between Serbia and China with suspicion. There is a fear that Serbia’s eventual entry into the EU would be the admission of a “Trojan Horse” – be it Chinese or Russian or both.

Unbreakable friendship with many business deals

In Serbia, Xi will be welcomed with open arms. Belgrade tabloids, as well as President Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister Miloš Vučević, are full of praise for this “friendship of steel” these days.

That term has also been adopted in China. Xi himself used it when he received Vučić in Beijing last October.

The Chinese presence in Serbia exists far from major political issues. Let’s take, for instance, the sewage system. 3.2 billion euros, part of which is financed by Chinese loans, has been set aside to construct 5,000 kilometres of sewage pipes and 159 wastewater treatment plants.

Ironworks, mines, a smelter, a tyre factory, motorway segments and high-speed railways, all the way to the construction of the National Stadium and Expo 2027 facilities, which Vučić’s government declared a first-class national project… The Chinese are everywhere.

Some would say literally everywhere – Belgrade is the first European city completely covered with facial recognition Huawei cameras. Recently, Serbia has also purchased drones and air defence from China.

But it is still mainly about infrastructure. “Over the past 15 years, China has become one of the mainstays of Serbia’s infrastructural and economic development,” says Vladisavljev.

“Cooperation with China fits perfectly into the dominant narrative on the domestic political scene, where economic development is presented as the supreme value, while the elements of a democratic society are behind or below it,” Vladisavljev adds.

In Serbia, where more than half of the workers earn less than 500 euros a month, jobs take precedence over, say, environmental protection. More than once, President Vučić responded to remarks about the destruction of the environment in Bor or Smederevo with the argument that those Chinese investments had created new jobs.

Gateway to Europe

In China, our small Balkan country is seen as a convenient gateway to Europe. Serbia is closely connected with the EU market, but is not subject to the Union’s strict regulations – neither when it comes to financing projects nor when it comes to the environment.

Back in 2013, when Xi was the newly minted ruler in Beijing, Serbia was one of the first countries in the world to announce its readiness to be part of the New Silk Road.

As a flagship project, a high-speed railway line between Belgrade and Budapest was imposed here – which is terribly delayed, mainly due to problems in Hungary. Beijing sees in it the lifeblood of the European branch of the Silk Road and the possibility to connect the port of Piraeus with Central Europe.

Critics in Serbia, on the other hand, warn that China does not invest, but rather lends money, and then the Chinese companies themselves earn it by building.

Back in 2013, when the construction of the Zemun-Borča Bridge, popularly known as the “Chinese bridge”, was starting, foreign investment expert Milan Kovačević told DW:

“We have an obligation to pay the interest, which the authorities assure us is not high, but what did we actually do when the Chinese are building the bridge themselves? We practically imported the bridge from China”, Kovačević said back then.

Brussels’ suspicion

In terms of the external trade volume, China is still the second most important trading partner of Serbia, right behind Germany. But, while the Serbian deficit in trade with Germany is around half a billion euros per year, the one with China amounts to 3.4 billion.

That should drop once a free trade deal between the two countries comes into effect in July. According to Vučić, Serbia will sell more fruits, vegetables, brandy and wine to Great China.

Vladisavljev points out that China was elevated in the “pantheon of Serbia’s foreign policy partners” by providing aid to Serbia at the beginning of the pandemic – vaccines and medical equipment.

At that time, billboards with the inscription “Thank you, Brother Xi” were displayed around Belgrade. The European Union’s financial assistance of over one hundred million euros was mostly kept quiet.

Because this is also about big politics, China, along with Russia, has veto power in the UN Security Council where it supports Serbian positions on Kosovo and other issues.

For Serbia, says Vladisavljev, China is a “photo-robot of a perfect friend”… “China takes on the role of a dominant player, which is placed in the context of competitors to the West. In Serbia, where the anti-Western narrative is extremely developed, public opinion demands that there be such an actor”, he adds.

This, Vladisavljev continues, is a thorn in the side of the EU and the US, which traditionally view the Balkans as their sphere of influence. “From this arises the concern that Serbia could, if it ever joins the EU, be a hub of Chinese interests that would thus integrate into the EU systems.”

In light of the increasingly strong rivalry between the US and China, the European Union is also relying on tactics to reduce dependence on China, while Serbia is directed towards the EU, write political scientists Fang Jiongsheng and Jian Junbo from Fudan University in Shanghai.

“The business of Chinese companies in Serbia could thus decline, which would ultimately have a negative impact on the friendship between the two countries,” they wrote in an op-ed for the Chinese “The Paper” at the end of last year.

(Vreme, 07.05.2024)

https://vreme.com/vesti/celicni-brat-si-u-srbiji-onde-gde-kinezi-smeju-sve/

This post is also available in: Italiano

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