When Covid-19 hit the Balkans, it was too soon to foresee that besides local health systems the pandemic would impact regional geopolitics too. In the longstanding instability also caused by stagnation in the EU integration process for Balkan countries, China exploited the situation to increase its influence in the region. Yet, the so-called “mask and vaccine diplomacy” with the delivery of Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccines to Serbia are only some of the latest features of the relationships China has been nurturing in the Balkans.
As a fundamental piece of the geopolitical mosaic Beijing is building all around the world through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Balkan region has become a strategic hub that would finally connect the Port of Piraeus – already firmly in Chinese hands – with central European countries, and thus EU markets. From a geopolitical point of view, it is worth analyse how China is trying to replace Russia and its traditional political alliances in the region, mainly with Serbia. An international reorientation that should worry not only Moscow, but Brussels too.
A declaration, a kiss, a “brother”
In Belgrade, this reorientation became particularly evident through three elements: a sentence, a gesture, a sentiment. “European solidarity does not exist … it’s only a fairy tale on paper, the only country that will help us is China,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in March when the EU put a ban on the export of medical and personal protective equipment outside the Union. This declaration highlighted both Serbia’s swinging between East and West – the EU in reality provided Belgrade with much more aid than China – and the attempt to replace the traditional position occupied by Russia in Serbian foreign relations by praising Chinese support. This was confirmed by the gesture: the kissing of the red flag when Vucic welcomed Chinese medical aid at Belgrade’s airport. A warm thanks, indeed. Warmer than those addressed to Russia, which also helped its traditional ally but was thanked only through social media. This was sealed by sentiment, as Chinese president Xi Jinping became “Brother” of the Serbian people (after being a “Father” to his own nation). Pro-regime tabloids, national televisions and even huge billboards in the centre of Belgrade kept calling Xi by the epithet traditionally reserved to Russia.
However, Serbia has not completely abandoned its traditional relations with Russia, as its political alliance and seat at the UN Security Council are still pivotal for any future arrangements about Kosovo. From its side, given the lack of credibility for EU integration in a short time, Serbia is simply enlarging its foreign relations in the Eastern camp.
Business as usual?
Vucic’s foreign policy has been playing the sit-in-two-chairs game for years: it is officially oriented towards the EU, but has plenty of friends among authoritarian regimes eastward. So what’s new here is the – still provisional – geopolitical shift from Russia to China. From its side, Beijing is following the scheme of growing influence towards, and at the edge of, the EU. In this respect, Serbia therefore potentially plays the role of a Trojan horse within Europe, and being the first European country to receive up to one million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine confirms such strategy.
However, the cooperation with Belgrade has recently expanded also in the security field through the acquisition of about a thousand Huawei cameras with facial recognition technology that have been placed in several areas of Belgrade. Such security equipment is not in line with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), that Serbia itself adopted in its efforts to comply with EU standards. Serbia is thus speeding up its authoritarian drift thanks also to Chinese know-how.
But what should worry the European Union the most is the increasing military cooperation. Last October, Serbia tested Chinese combat drones. The training drill, known as “Cooperation 2020”, was attended by President Vucic and highlights how Beijing is getting closer to Belgrade, and thus Europe, in the field of military trade. In fact, as Vuk Vuksanovic writes, “Beijing’s export of drones is motivated by the desire to penetrate the European defence market and promote China as a rising power”. Differently from Russia, this military cooperation is motivated by trade ambitions, though geopolitical imbalances are one of its consequences. “China’s shipment of drones to Serbia was its first export of military aviation equipment into Europe … The idea of establishing defence industry cooperation with Europe has appealed to China for years. A significant obstacle to this ambition has been the arms embargo that the EU imposed on China back in 1989”, emphasizes Vuksanovic.
For countries in the Balkans, and Serbia above all, the influence of China could finally prove to be a trap for at least three reasons – concerning internal politics, economics, and international relations. By strengthening political ties with China, and aligning with Beijing’s and local governments’ ideas of governance in the interest of the people – as Chinese ambassador to Serbia Chen Bo stressed when welcoming the abovementioned security initiative –, the authoritarian turn in the region cannot but get deeper. While formally committed to EU values and principles, Vucic’s illiberal rule – that directly or indirectly since July 2020 controls 244 out of 250 national deputies – has brought about Serbia’s inclusion among “hybrid regimes”.
And China has been exploiting such conditions to guarantee loans that could be defined as “politically cheap, but financially expensive”. The public debt of Montenegro is a case in point. It rose to 93 per cent of GDP, and 25 per cent of it is held by Chinese banks. This is also the result of loans granted for the construction of the Bar-Boljare motorway – whose cost is now 1.3 billion euros, thanks to additional work, interest rates and currency risk. For its construction, the EXIM Bank of China provided enormous financial resources, while the Montenegrin government conceded strong state guarantees, a practice that is prohibited in the EU. This situation could finally lead to a debt trap, as the impossibility to pay back the debt would eventually lead to both economic and political dependence on China. To complicate the situation, in the coming months, the Montenegrin economy will face a serious challenge, as of 2020 its GDP declined by 12% mainly because of the impact of the pandemic which hit its stronghold tourism market.
Last but not least, the implications for international politics. The new US administration will unlikely reverse the confrontation with China opened by former president Donald Trump. With a complete EU integration that is getting year by year more utopian, the Balkans risk finding themselves caught between two competing global powers. And the fact that local governments such as Serbia cooperate with both sides, and Russia, will only prolong their precariousness in the international system. The way such geopolitical swinging is a persisting feature of Serbian foreign relations is represented by the current vaccination campaign that involves the state establishment itself: Prime Minister Ana Brnabic procured the American vaccine Pfizer; the socialist leader and speaker of the parliament Ivica Dacic the Russian one, Sputnik; while President Vucic will finally chose China’s Sinopharm. A vivid demonstration of how vaccination will swiftly turn into a global diplomatic weapon.
 In Chinese, 习大大 Xí Dàdà. Although authorities asked civil society not to use it, the term is still widespread.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and ISPI.