Analysis: Is the West losing a battle with China for Serbia’s heart? 

belgrade, serbia — Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Serbia this week brought out a crowd waving Serbian and Chinese flags and praising the “ironclad” friendship of two countries. Elsewhere in the West, it raised many questions about Serbia’s future role in Europe. 

Analysts say that was exactly the idea. At a time of global rivalry between Beijing and Washington, the messages Xi delivered from Belgrade appeared aimed at a much wider audience. 

Xi and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic signed a number of bilateral agreements on Wednesday, which followed the 25th anniversary of NATO’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during NATO’s 1999 campaign to halt the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo. The U.S. apologized for that action, calling it “a mistake.” 

David Shullman, an expert on China with the Washington-based Atlantic Council, told VOA that Xi’s arrival in Belgrade on the May 7 anniversary was aimed at sending a broader message in the context of the war in Ukraine: that China is not a “warmonger” like the U.S. and NATO. 

Chinese messaging, Shullman said, “parrots Russia’s messaging about the war in Ukraine, about not putting a blame on Russia, but putting a blame on the U.S., NATO for ‘fanning the flames’ of the war, continuing to support the Ukrainians, and that China is the one that’s the force for peace and stability. …  

“There is an awareness in the Chinese system [that] this is a key binding point between China and Serbia, and it fits into that message that China has been pushing about NATO and the U.S.” 

China’s president referred to the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in an op-ed published Tuesday in Serbia’s pro-government newspaper Politika: “The people of China value peace, but they will never allow a historical tragedy to happen again.”  

Paul McCarthy, director for Europe at the International Republican Institute in Washington, agreed that the timing of Xi’s visit was no accident. 

“I think that Xi’s entire visit to Europe was organized around the 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing,” he said. “It is too symbolic an opportunity for the Chinese to miss and underlines, so to speak, the position of Serbia and the strategic disagreement with the West that has been going on for 25 years.” 

Xi and Vucic signed a statement on the two countries’ “shared future,” which the Serbian president described as being a level above the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership the two countries agreed to in 2016. 

According to the Atlantic Council’s Shullman, Xi has often used the phrase “shared future” to indicate he wants a new balance of power in the world. 

“The story of a shared future is how China wants to establish a global order that is less U.S.-led, that is multipolar, that is a more ‘democratic’ international order — as the Chinese say,” he said. 

“In essence, it is an order that is no longer led by the U.S. and in which China plays a more significant role.” 

He added: “The fact that Serbia is spoken of as the first European country that will be part of the community and ‘common future’ shows that for Chinese leaders, especially Xi, Serbia is of great importance … as an economic partner and as a country that is a candidate for the EU.” 

In addition, Xi’s visit to Serbia signaled to Washington that China has reliable partners in Europe and that the U.S. “will not be able to completely win over Europe to its side.”  

China owns mines and factories across Serbia and has provided billions of dollars’ worth of funding for roads, bridges and various facilities, becoming Serbia’s key partner in much-needed infrastructure development.  

Still, some experts say the future of cooperation between Belgrade and Beijing is uncertain, given the complicated relations between the U.S. and China. 

Vuk Vuksanovic, a senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, told VOA that broadening cooperation between Serbia and China from a strategic partnership to the level of “building a community of Serbia and China with a common future in the new era” is little more than a diplomatic game that suits both governments at the moment. 

He added that the future relationship depends much more on Beijing than on Belgrade.  

“The previous strategic partnership agreement was a joint statement from 2009 that had warm rhetoric but did not actually bring about any monumental transformation of those relations,” he said. 

“And that was until the moment when China showed greater interest in the Balkans due to the Belt and Road Initiative,” a massive, Chinese-led global infrastructure development strategy. “I think the key question for the U.S. will be whether that cooperation will include some major project in the field of defense and high technology.” 

The International Republican Institute’s McCarthy said it is unclear how the agreements between Serbia and China and the plans for a “common future” will affect Serbia’s relationship with the West. 

Still, he noted, a free-trade agreement between China and Serbia that comes into force in July “turns Serbia more towards the East,” raising the question of “how serious is Serbia on its European path.” 

He added: “I have to say that, from Washington’s perspective, they might feel like they’re losing the battle for Serbia’s heart, so to speak.” 

This article originated in VOA’s Serbian Service with contributions from Dino Jahic, Marko Protic and Stefan Miljus.

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