Argument

China Has Its Eyes on Serbia

Beijing is using the coronavirus pandemic to expand its influence into the EU’s backyard.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a meeting.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a meeting in Beijing on April 25, 2019. Kenzaburo Fukuhara/POOL/Kyodonews via Getty Images
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EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re making some of our coronavirus pandemic coverage free for nonsubscribers. You can read those articles here. You can also listen to our weekly coronavirus podcast, Don’t Touch Your Face, and subscribe to our newsletters here.

On March 21, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic showed up at the Belgrade airport to welcome the Airbus A330 from China, carrying the largest shipment of medical aid Serbia has received in its effort to combat the coronavirus pandemic. The shipment contained medical devices, security equipment, and Chinese medical experts. At the airport, Vucic thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party of China, and the Chinese people: “We should thank them with all our hearts, they have proven to be great friends of Serbia and Serbs. … I am waiting for Xi to visit Serbia and hundreds of thousands of people will welcome him.” With that, China notched a significant soft power and public diplomacy victory in Serbia. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum; China moved to fill an opening left by the European Union, which has shown a lack of interest in Serbia in recent years.

The arrival of Chinese assistance in Belgrade occurred a few days after a press conference in which Vucic declared a national state of emergency in order to combat the coronavirus, of which there are nearly 2,500 confirmed cases in Serbia. During his address, Vucic put strong emphasis on the importance of Chinese aid to Serbia and praised both Xi and China. Vucic said that he sent a letter to Xi in which he addressed his Chinese counterpart “not only as a dear friend, but as a brother. Not just my personal, but a friend and brother of this country.” He continued, “I believe in my friend and my brother, Xi Jinping, and I believe in Chinese help. The only country that can help us is China.”

Chinese officials were quick to respond to this show of gratitude. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement: “Supporting each other in times of adversity has always been the defining feature of China-Serbia relations. We will never forget the staunch support the Serbian government and people lent to us in our all-out fight against COVID-19. Now as the Serbian people are also facing the challenge of the pandemic, we will stand firm and fight side by side with them.” Xi followed up with a response to Vucic pledging further Chinese aid while invoking the “the iron-clad friendship” between the two countries, the Chinese state press agency Xinhua wrote.The impetus for China’s assistance to Serbia was the EU’s initial unwillingness to offer any meaningful support to the country.

The impetus for China’s assistance to Serbia was the EU’s initial unwillingness to offer any meaningful support to the country. Brussels issued a blanket export ban on some medical protective equipment, leaving non-members of the EU—including candidate countries such as Serbia—out in the cold. This caused anger in Belgrade, where Vucic expressed his country’s disappointment over the EU’s inaction: “By now, you all understood, that great international solidarity, actually, does not exist. European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper. … That decision was made by the people who lectured us that we are not supposed to purchase Chinese goods … To the rest of them, thanks for nothing. Trust me that I will find a way to thank them. What I have spoken today in front of you are the words of a president. Nice and polite.”

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There is a long tradition of China working to expand its influence in Serbia. Regional crises such as the 2008 global recession, the 2015-2016 migrant crisis, and Brexit all combined to turn EU policymakers’ attention inward, deprioritizing expansion into the Balkans and leaving Serbia in a state of flux.

The EU has since removed Serbia from its list of priorities, creating a sense among Serbians that the country would never enter the bloc. In that environment, the Chinese-Serbian partnership has flourished. This entails not only cooperation related to the Belt and Road Initiative, through which China poured $4 billion in direct investments and pledged slightly over $5 billion through loans and infrastructure projects for Serbia, but also tighter security cooperation and a burgeoning technological partnership with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei. More importantly, the Serbian elite have been working hard to quash information critical of Beijing while at the same time promoting themselves as facilitators of a strong relationship with a rising China.

China’s latest aid to Serbia fits into its broader economic and geopolitical ambition to promote itself as a major power offering novel solutions to regional challenges. In the near term, supporting Serbia is part of China’s effort to repair its image across Europe now that it has mostly controlled the spread of the coronavirus within its borders, giving it a platform to project itself as a world leader in the face of global crisis.

More broadly, China considers the Balkans to be a laboratory to experiment with its vision of global order, and expanding its footprint in the region now serves the dual purpose of curtailing the EU’s regional influence while also consolidating another arena in which China can test its global clout.

Of course, China isn’t acting unilaterally. Even before the outbreak in Serbia, Vucic was sending letters of support to Xi as the virus was raging in China, and Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic was the first foreign minister to visit the country during the outbreak. These overtures foreshadowed Beijing’s support once the virus reached Serbia.China considers the Balkans to be a laboratory to experiment with its vision of global order.

Western powers did eventually spring into action to counter China’s efforts. Shortly after Vucic’s speech praising China, the high representative of the EU for foreign affairs and security policy, Josep Borrell, held a conference call with Vucic to discuss the pandemic. The EU quickly pledged 7.5 million euros (just over $8 million) of aid to Serbia, while Norway, a NATO member, provided 5 million euros ($5.5 million) for medical assistance to the country. The EU ultimately provided aid worth 93 million euros ($100 million) to Serbia to fight the outbreak there.

But for many in Serbia, the EU actions were too late. Vucic did thank the EU in a telephone conversation with the EU Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi, but his gratitude fell well short of the praise with which he showered on Xi. News about the EU funding didn’t make the front page of the oldest daily newspaper in Serbia, Politika, which featured the news about the arrival of Chinese aid at the Belgrade airport instead. In a powerful display of diplomatic symbolism, landmarks in Belgrade were lit in the colors of the Chinese flag as a sign of gratitude on the day the Chinese aid package arrived.

Serbia’s tilt toward China could complicate its EU accession plans. The country formally applied for membership in 2009, and it has been on the agenda for the future enlargement of the bloc since 2011. Although its accession plans have been muddled by the Kosovo dispute, the country’s leadership once showed a steadfast determination to enter the bloc. But as its relationship with the EU sours and the possibility of joining it in the near future grows more remote, the prospect of EU membership is playing a shrinking role in the daily conduct of Serbian foreign policy. Establishing a closer economic and security relationship with China could create a further stumbling block to EU membership, but for many of Serbia’s elite, China is the future now.

There are important geopolitical considerations at play here, and Western powers need to act more aggressively to restore their influence in Serbia. China’s goodwill response to the coronavirus in the form of aid packages adds to its deeper economic and political footprint in the region, and if the EU continues to balk at this opportunity to restore its regional partnerships and make inroads with this generation of leaders, it might allow China to carve out a sphere of influence in its strategic backyard.

Vuk Vuksanovic is currently a Ph.D. researcher in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Twitter: @v_vuksanovic

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