Follow CGSP on Social Media

Listen to the CGSP Podcast

Serbian Media on Xi Jinping’s Visit to Belgrade

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (R) shake hands after signing bilateral documents during a meeting in Belgrade, on May 8, 2024. ELVIS BARUKCICAFP

In this edition of the ChinaMed Observer, we analyze the Serbian media debate on relations with China on the occasion of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Belgrade.

By Anja Duvnjak and Leonardo Bruni

On May 7, 2024, Chinese President Xi Jinping landed in Serbia for the second leg of his first European tour since the COVID-19 pandemic (excluding his brief trip to Russia in March 2023). Xi Jinping received a more than just a red-carpet welcome as tens of thousands of Serbians flooded the streets to greet him, massive Chinese flags adorned Belgrade’s skyscrapers, and even Radio Television of Serbia interrupted its Eurovision broadcast to showcase his plane touching down.

Xi Jinping’s arrival in Belgrade was surprisingly well-covered by the international press, which often does not shower the Balkans with much attention. However, major English-language news outlets analyzed the Chinese President’s state visit quite differently from local and regional commentators.

In the context of Beijing’s growing tensions with the European Union and the United States, the international press mostly focused on the symbolism of Xi arriving in Serbia on the 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Meanwhile, Serbian analysts gave more importance to the trip’s actual results and their implications for Serbia, the Western Balkans, and European enlargement. While the sustainability of Chinese economic engagement was a subject of some debate for Serbians, there was unanimous consensus that Belgrade’s “ironclad friendship” with Beijing could affect Serbia’s efforts to balance ties between East and West.

An Overvalued Anniversary?

Since Demostat first reported that Xi Jinping was set to visit Belgrade on May 8, 2024, numerous international news outlets emphasized the significance of this date. Bloomberg, The New York Times,The Economist, and the Financial Times all noted that Xi’s arrival coincides with the 25th anniversary of theUS Air Force bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which killed three Chinese journalists. While Washington maintains that the bombing was an unintended error due to faulty maps during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, the strike nevertheless sparked massive anti-US protests in China, where many, including high-ranking politicians, believe the bombing was deliberate.

Several Western analysts quoted by the aforementioned news outlets interpreted the timing of Xi’s trip as a clear sign that he would use the occasion to publicly criticize NATO, implicitly demonstrating China’s support for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who claims that NATO expansion precipitated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. These commentators recalled that during Xi Jinping’s first state visit to Serbia in June 2016, he was the first Chinese leader to commemorate the victims of the bombing, with some predicting that he would return to the site of the former embassy during this trip as well.

This perspective gained further traction when on the eve of his arrival in Belgrade, a letter authored by Xi Jinping was published in the conservative pro-government Serbian newspaper Politika. Major international news outlets, such as POLITICO and The Guardian, highlighted the same extracts from the letter as evidence of the Chinese President’s intention to denounce the Atlantic alliance:

“Twenty-five years ago today, NATO flagrantly bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, killing three Chinese journalists… This we should never forget. The Chinese people cherish peace, but we will never allow such tragic history to repeat itself.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping

However, contrary to expectations, Xi’s visit to Belgrade concluded without him visiting the site of the former Chinese embassy or issuing strong condemnations of “NATO aggression.” Seemingly caught off guard, many Western media outlets focused on the stops in France and Hungary in their recaps of Xi’s European tour, framing the trip as a Chinese attempt to sow division within the EU. Consequently, the actual outcomes of the Chinese President’s state visit to Serbia, a non-EU member state, were largely overlooked by much of the English-language press.

In contrast, analysts from Serbia and the Western Balkans paid closer attention to the results of Xi’s stay in Belgrade, expressing varied opinions on their government’s friendly policy toward China and highlighting the possible regional repercussions of strengthening Sino-Serbian relations.

Regional Drivers of Xi’s Serbia Trip

In general, Serbian commentators also widely believed that Xi Jinping’s visit to Belgrade was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the NATO bombing. In an article authored for the conservative magazine NIN, former Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs and former UN General Assembly President Vuk Jermić, alongside journalist Miloš Miljković, asserted, “In diplomacy, coincidences truly do not exist, especially when it comes to the world’s major powers.” They affirmed that:

“‘Brother Xi’ arriving in our country on that carefully chosen date… clearly also carries a message intended for the global West… a reminder of their misdeeds during the bombing of… Yugoslavia at a time when the Earth’s surface trembles from explosions in Ukraine and the Middle East.”

However, while noting this symbolism, they treated it as secondary to the strengthening of Sino-Serbian security, technology, economic, and diplomatic relations, in particular vis-à-vis the EU.

Milan Igrutinović, a research associate of the government-funded Institute for European Studies in Belgrade, was also quoted in this article. While acknowledging this date’s symbolic nature for the Chinese, Igrutinović emphasized Serbia’s own political priorities:

“Regarding Kosovo, UN resolutions, and related topics, it’s probably tempting for Belgrade to mark that day precisely with the Chinese… Belgrade obviously hopes it can express its current opposition to the wave of public quarrels with several Western powers in recent months.”

Vuk Vuksanović, Senior Researcher at the independent pro-Western think tank Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BSCP), also highlighted Serbian concerns over US-China global competition. In comments for the Serbian-language service of the US government-owned Voice of America, Vuksanović stated:

“China being is utilized to enhance Belgrade’s negotiating position vis-à-vis Western capitals… [We can also] expect very strong and warm messages of friendships… to achieve the desired marketing effect with domestic audiences.”

Even when predicting that Xi would visit the site of the bombing, most Serbian analysts (with a few exceptions) did not believe he would denounce NATO. Instead, they thought he would mainly go to open the new Chinese Cultural Center in Belgrade, built on the Chinese embassy’s ruins.

Overall, most Serbian commentators viewed Xi’s visit through the lens of regional and Serbian domestic issues rather than through the prism of global political dynamics (except those providing commentary to Russian and American state-owned news outlets). As such, they correctly anticipated that the Chinese President’s trip would focus on Sino-Serbian bilateral relations, noting their numerous repercussions for the future of European enlargement in the Western Balkans.

Impact on Serbia’s EU Accession

Xi Jinping’s visit came at a challenging time for Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. While Vučić’s electoral coalition secured a majority of seats in the snap parliamentary elections of December 15, 2023, allegations of electoral fraud led to mass protests across Serbia. In February, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for an independent international investigation. Vučić has so far rejected these calls, leaving the future of Serbia’s EU funding and accession uncertain.

It is against this backdrop that many have interpreted Vučić’s China policy and his evident desperation to bring Xi Jinping to Belgrade (in an interview the Serbian president revealed that he extended over fifteen invitations to his Chinese counterpart). In particular, there was significant concern among Serbian commentators about how Serbia becoming the first European country to sign an agreement committing it to building a “community of common destiny” with China could impact Vučić’s stated objective of “speeding up” Serbia’s path to EU membership.

Journalist Goran Mišić, in his synopsis of Xi’s stay in Serbia for Al Jazeera Balkans, noted that many in the EU see Serbia (and Hungary) as a Chinese “Trojan horse,” harming European cohesion by selfishly pursuing its national interest. Mišić also recognized that many in Serbia, particularly those opposed to President Vučić, have negative perspectives of Serbia’s relationship with China. As an example, Mišić quoted retired Serbian professor and economist Miodrag Zec, who criticized the overly affectionate terms used by Xi and Vučić to describe the Sino-Serbian relationship:

“It is impossible, even rude, to talk about love between two countries. The love between China and Serbia would be like the love between an elephant and a mouse.”

A similar view was expressed by BSCP Senior Researcher Vuk Vuksanović in another Voice of America article. On the agreement on the “community of shared destiny,” Vuksanović stated:

“it is just a diplomatic game of words meant to give some form of grand wording to this relationship… Beijing wants to show it has great friends in Europe, while, Belgrade wants to ‘wave China in front of Western capitals’… [and] seize the opportunity to say: ‘You Europeans are the first to rely on China when it comes to your economic growth, why should we be an exception?’”

Maja Bjeloš, also Senior Researcher at BSCP, echoed her colleague’s ideas in comments for the Italian think tank ISPI, adding that Chinese influence could potentially harm Serbian democracy and hinder Serbia’s accession to the EU.

For Mišić, a reason for why Serbia could become “that proverbial ‘hole in the carpet,’ surrounded by European and NATO countries” is its free trade agreement (FTA) with China, signed in October 2023 during the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, which Vučić attended. During Xi Jinping’s stay in Serbia, the two sides agreed that the FTA, the only one between China and a Central and Eastern European country, will enter into force on July 1, 2024. According to Mišić, this agreement will only worsen the situation with the EU, which has repeatedly urged Serbia to align itself with its European neighbors regardingeconomic engagement with China.

However, other analysts believe that strengthening ties with Beijing does not necessarily imply that Belgrade is turning its back on the EU. Branimir Vidmarović, a professor at the Department of Asian Studies of the University of Pula in Croatia, expressed this view in an opinion piece for Al Jazeera Balkans. He interpreted Vučić’s foreign policy as a continuation of former Serbian President Boris Tadić’s four-pillar approach, consisting in pursuing European integration while maintaining balanced relationships with the US, China, and Russia.

Vidmarović also argued it is not Serbia’s economic relations with China, but rather its acquisition of Chinese military equipment, such as HQ-22 surface-to-air missile systems and CH-92 armed drones, that is harming its chances of being admitted to the EU. This not only undermines interoperability with EU member states but also raises concerns about military cooperation and the balance of power in the Western Balkans, potentially negatively impacting the resolution of the status of Kosovo. Vuksanović raised similar concerns in comments for the South China Morning Post.

While most aforementioned commentators expressed concern over European integration, disdain for the EU is prevalent in Serbia. A recent poll by the US government-funded International Republican Institute found that only 40 percent of Serbian respondents would vote in favor of EU membership, making Serbia the only candidate country in the Western Balkans without a majority in favor of EU accession. This is despite Serbia’s heavy reliance on EU funding and China’s minuscule direct financial contributions to Belgrade, as noted by journalist Nenad Kulačin for Al Jazeera Balkans.

For an example of an EU-skeptical perspective, commentators invited by private TV channel Pink described Xi’s state visit as an “exceptional diplomatic victory” for Vučić, claiming that EU leaders are envious of the “ironclad strength” of Sino-Serbian ties. They suggested that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was “seriously humiliated” during his recent trip to Beijing, and that French President Emmanuel Macron only wishes France could “board Serbia’s train.” They argued that having “a powerful friend as China is a real pleasure” and would compel “those who attack Serbia [Ed. EU governments] to sit down and talk to [Belgrade].”

Highlighting Serbia’s twelve-year-long stay in the “waiting room for EU membership,” journalist Tanja Vujić, writing for Politika, even suggested that Xi Jinping’s trip might signal that the BRICS’ recent expansion has a European dimension that could possibly involve Serbia. Notably, Serbia is the only European country invited to the October 2024 BRICS leaders’ summit in Kazan, Russia.

Sino-Serbian Economic Relations

While there were varying levels of concern over Serbia’s accession to the EU, all Serbian commentators were interested in the nature and future of Sino-Serbian economic ties. Among all the 29 agreements signed between Xi and Vučić during the former’s visit, it was the economic cooperation agreements, rather than the one on constructing a “community of shared destiny,” that garnered the most attention among Serbians, and for good reason.

Though the international English-language media completely homed in on a paragraph referencing the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy, Xi’s letter published by Politika dedicated substantially more space to economic cooperation. Xi also emphasized economic issues in another letter addressed to the Serbian workers at the China-managed Smederevo Steel Plant. This factory has been owned and operated by China’s Hesteel Group since 2015, following Serbia’s signing a memorandum of understanding on cooperation within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Serbian officials also gave more importance to economic engagement. On the day of Xi’s arrival, Serbian Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Siniša Mali stated that Chinese high-tech investments were going to be a central issue in the talks between Vučić and Xi, and that Serbia’s importance for China lies in how it is the dominant economy of the Western Balkans. Vuk Jermić and Miloš Miljković similarly predicted that “a large part of the talks between the Serbian and Chinese presidents behind closed doors will be related to economic cooperation.”

Data reflects the growing importance of Sino-Serbian economic ties. According to ChinaMed Data, Serbian imports from China increased from US$416 million in 2015 (when Serbia joined the BRI) to US$2.7 billion in 2023. During the same period, Serbian exports grew from US$134 million to US$1.7 billion. It is noteworthy that although there is a significant and expanding trade deficit to the detriment of Serbia, the growth in Serbian exports to China has been rather steady.

Meanwhile, the stock of Chinese foreign direct investment in Serbia has surged, going from US$50 million to US$558 million between 2015 and 2022. The value of contracts awarded to Chinese firms has experienced a similar rise, from around US$717 million in 2014 to a staggering US$46 billion in 2022. The number of Chinese contract workers also grew, from 313 in 2015 to 7,791 in 2022. In terms of Chinese FDI stock, Serbia stands head and shoulders above all other countries in the Balkans, regarding both value of contracts awarded to Chinese firms and number of Chinese contract workers, Serbia dwarfs all other Southern European countries.

This surge in Chinese trade, FDI stock and in the value of contracts awarded to Chinese firms is likely connected to the numerous infrastructure, industrial, energy and telecommunications projects born from Serbia’s participation in the BRI. These projects include the aforementioned Smederevo Steel Plant, Pupin Bridge in Zemun, sections of the A2 “Miloš the Great” Motorway, and the Belgrade-Budapest high speed rail, the Belgrade-Novi Sad section of which is already operational.

This expansion of Sino-Serbian economic ties is a divisive political issue in Serbia. While President Vučić’s political allies support continued economic engagement with Beijing, the opposition is much more critical. For instance, financial expert and opposition MP Dušan Nikezić, speaking to Serbian TV channel N1, lamented that:

“Construction projects are being contracted without tenders, at prices significantly higher than market rates. These projects are carried out by Chinese companies that bring in Chinese workers, which in a way harms the Serbian economy as a whole.”

Serbian economic journalist and analyst Miša Brkić, in comments to Voice of America, warned that Chinese loans to Serbia are opaque and often misrepresented as investments. He estimated Belgrade’s current debt to China totals around 17 billion euros(Nikezić made a similar claim).

In contrast, freelance Belgrade-based journalist Tatyana Kekic, in an article for the British magazine The Spectator, offered a more optimistic perspective, suggesting that Vucic’s China strategy “has [so far] not served Serbia badly.” For Kekic:

“Serbia’s growth rate is amongst the highest in Europe (its estimated GDP was 4.6 per cent for the first quarter of 2024), and its public debt to GDP ratio is amongst the lowest (and projected to decline to around 50 per cent in 2024). Despite warnings from the EU that Chinese investment would create a debt trap, Serbia’s total external debt was only around 65 per cent of GDP at the end of 2023.”

Professor Bojan Lalić, the director of the Belt and Road Institute in Belgrade, was similarly positive in an interview for Turkish public broadcaster TRT World. According to Lalić, BRI projects, such as an automotive parts factory near Novi Sad, have generated more than 150,000 new jobs in Serbia.

However, Brkić offered a less positive view of Chinese investments, noting that while China invests in electric cars and electric batteries in Hungary, Chinese investments in Serbia focus on raw materials. Contrary to the perspective in international press that sees Chinese economic activities in Serbia as an attempt to gain backdoor access to the European market, Brkić explained that the choice to invest in low-value-added sectors is due to Serbia’s non-EU member status, which means goods produced in Serbia are not being exempt from EU custom duties and special taxes.

Regarding trade, Jermić and Miljković, similarly to Nikezić, pointed out that recent increases in Serbian exports are almost all due to refined copper from the Chinese-owned RTB Bor factory and Smederevo Steel Plant. In this context, Radojka Nikolić, editor-in-chief of the magazines Ekometar and Biznis asserted the soon-to-be active FTA, would put Serbia in an “awkward position” as:

“When you have trade between a huge economy like China and a small one like ours, a disparity is inevitable. Reducing and eliminating tariffs will not reduce this gap… as export is essentially limited to Chinese companies in Serbia exporting to China, so they will be the ones to benefit the most from this agreement.”

Brkić instead pointed out that Chinese market will not immediately open up due to a gradual adjustment period of five to seven years and thus:

“this benefit does not immediately apply to the Serbian economy, which already does not have enough goods for the Serbian market, let alone for the vast Chinese market. The attempt to export chicken wings from Serbia to China… is a fantasy. I expect that we will actually see the reverse process, with more garlic coming to us from China than wheat and potatoes going to China from Serbia.”

On the issue of workers’ rights, Željko Veselinović, president of the United Trade Unions of Serbia “Sloga” and opposition member of parliament, denounced “the attitude of Chinese employers towards [Serbian] workers, which increasingly resembles some semi-slave relationship”. According to Veselinović, Serbia is now home to the “worst of all capitalisms… this Asian capitalism, which is foreign to our country and our mentality,” condemning the many purported instances of mistreatment of workers and the “enormous pollution and poisoning” caused by Chinese-owned factories.

Vuksanović, in quotes for Voice of America, echoed these concerns over Chinese investments’ lack of transparency and non-compliance with environmental and labor standards, however emphasizing that:

“the main responsibility always lies with the local elites, not with the Chinese. The key issue is how the individual government manages its partnership with China, not the Chinese government itself,”.

Russia, Kosovo and Taiwan

In their recaps of Xi’s European tour, the international English-language press consistently characterized Serbia (and Hungary) as “Russia-friendly.” However, many analysts from the Balkans perceived the grandeur of the Chinese President’s visit to Belgrade as a sign of Serbia leaning away from Russia in favor of China. While Beijing has long affirmed itself as Serbia’s premier Eastern economic partner, local commentators increasingly view China as also assuming the role of Serbia’s primary non-Western political and security ally, a role historically occupied by Moscow.

This shift is largely attributed to Kosovo (the majority-Albanian province that declared independence from Serbia in 2008), over recent tensions regarding the status of four Serb-majority municipalities in northern Kosovo. China has not recognized Kosovo’s independence and votes accordingly in the UN, much to the pleasure of the pro-government media in Serbia. In a press conference during his stay in Belgrade, Xi Jinping reiterated that China supports Belgrade’s efforts to maintain its national sovereignty and territorial integrity in Kosovo.

According to Vuksanović, Belgrade’s growing preference toward China as a partner on the Kosovo issue stems from the negative optics caused by Moscow’s frequent use of the precedent created by the independence of Kosovo to justify its annexation of territory in Ukraine and other post-Soviet republics. Moreover, “The full-scale invasion of Ukraine has placed the Serbo-Russian relationship under closer scrutiny, so [Belgrade] sees a benefit in playing the China card more often since it is seen as less provocative.”

However, Vuksanović also highlighted that:

“we will have to see if China will respond to such requests… The main question is whether China sees any strong benefit for itself in getting involved in a dispute that it primarily views as a European problem,”

Branimir Vidmarović echoed these sentiments, stating Russia is “practically out of the game,” as “Russia cannot offer Serbia anything tangible”. Moreover, he further emphasizing that developing a partnership with China is much more useful as “blackmail” toward the EU and the US as unlike Russia, Beijing “is not pressuring Serbia to choose a side, nor is it trying to stop its integration into Euro-Atlantic structures” (Vuksanović made a similar point). Moreover, on the heels of its recent acquisitions of Chinese drones, Vidmarović also predicts that China will soon fully displace Russia as Serbia’s main military partner as well, predicting that fifth-generation Chinese J-20 fighters will likely soon replace Serbia’s used Russian MiG-29s.

 Widely interpreted as a reciprocal move in exchange for Chinese support within international organizations, President Vučić has stated that Serbia adheres to Beijing’s “One China Principle”, i.e., it recognizes the People’s Republic of China’s sovereignty over the island of Taiwan. In a recent interview with Chinese-state broadcaster CCTV, Vučić outright stated that:

 “Taiwan is China, full stop. We believe that President Xi will take care of Taiwan in a very proper way in the future, in a way he wants, in a way the Chinese people want.”

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić

This position, reiterated during Xi’s visit to Belgrade, provoked a rebuke from Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It also starkly contrasts with the stances adopted by the US and most EU member states, which instead have a “One China Policy” that only takes note of Beijing’s stance over Taiwan but leaves unresolved whether they officially consider Taiwan asfalling under the sovereignty of the People’s Republic.

Conclusion

Our analysis reveals that Serbian commentators enthusiastically leveraged Xi Jinping’s visit to Belgrade to engage in a serious debate over the nature and future of Sino-Serbian relations. While they largely rejected the international perspective that frames the state visit as merely an opportunity for the Chinese President to criticize NATO, Serbian commentators remained divided on if cooperation with Beijing benefits Serbia.

Political alignment strongly influenced these viewpoints. Pro-government voices enthusiastically celebrated President Vučić’s friendly policy towards China and the resulting “ironclad friendship” with Beijing. Conversely, independent, pro-opposition, and pro-Western commentators voiced significant concerns about the imbalanced nature of economic collaboration with China, its negative externalities, and its potential repercussions on Serbia’s EU accession prospects.

Despite these differing opinions, all Serbian commentators agreed that Serbia is not turning its back on the EU. Instead, Belgrade is leveraging its relationship with China to strengthen its bargaining position with the West and to gain a more useful ally than Russia on regional issues like Kosovo. This reflects a trend observable across the EU’s neighborhood, from the Western Balkans to North Africa and the Middle East, where governments view China as a useful partner for navigating between East and West.

Anja DUVNJAK is Research Fellow at the ChinaMed Project. She is a graduate of the University of Turin-Zhejiang University Dual Degree in International Relations and China Studies, and holds a B.A. in Asian Languages, Cultures and Markets from the University of Bologna. Her research focuses on the relations between China and the Balkans.

Leonardo BRUNI is Research Fellow at the ChinaMed Project. He is also a Research Fellow at the University of Milan and a graduate of the Sciences Po-Peking University Dual Master’s Degree in International Relations. His research interests include China-EU relations and international development cooperation.

What is The China-Global South Project?

Independent

The China-Global South Project is passionately independent, non-partisan and does not advocate for any country, company or culture.

News

A carefully curated selection of the day’s most important China-Global South stories. Updated 24 hours a day by human editors. No bots, no algorithms.

Analysis

Diverse, often unconventional insights from scholars, analysts, journalists and a variety of stakeholders in the China-Global South discourse.

Networking

A unique professional network of China-Africa scholars, analysts, journalists and other practioners from around the world.