European Council on Foreign Relations

Mapping China’s rise in the Western Balkans


China’s regional hub

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and Li Mengqun, president of Huawei Western Balkans, unveil Huawei’s Innovations and Development Center in Belgrade, on September 2020
Image by Huawei / Xinhua / picture alliance

The centrality of Serbia to China’s regional plans is a convenient marriage of Belgrade’s desire to leverage its location and multi-vector foreign policy and Beijing’s push into Europe’s periphery as part of a policy of wider global expansion. The historical context has certainly been there, going back to the times of Yugoslav non-alignment or NATO’s bombing in 1999. The post-Yugoslav geopolitical impasse not only provided ample space for exploring and deepening relations with non-European actors but helped generate a neo-Titoist ‘360 degree’ foreign policy, seeking to utilize access, support and resources from Russia, China and others. Seemingly tactical in nature, this approach has solidified into a guiding foreign policy concept. A decade of EU enlargement ambivalence provided additional justification as official Belgrade sought to transform its stalled Europeanization into leverage. While Serbia continues its EU accession negotiations, Belgrade has chosen to permit the penetration and deepening of these countries’ presence into various sectors of economy and society.

China’s latest wave of engagement in Serbia dates back to the early 2010s with the first landmark Pupin Bridge construction in Belgrade coming in 2014. It signified the big reset of the bilateral relationship, paving the way for more projects and investments in a growing number of sectors. Since then, infrastructure endeavours have extended into rail construction and modernization and building of new motorway sections. The modernization of the Belgrade-Budapest rail link may be facing legal scrutiny and political questioning in the wider Western political community but Beijing is hoping to turn it into a spectacular, tangible showcase of cooperation. China is a key partner in the government’s ambitious road infrastructure construction programme. Chinese companies have entered numerous economy sectors, from steel to tyre production, in energy and renewables, in mineral extraction. ‘Huawei’ has an ever-expanding presence with an ever more ambitious research outreach and an elaborate ‘smart city’ project in the capital. Relations at the societal level are also intensifying, from academia to culture. Returning graduates from China are exploring various avenues to deepen bilateral links, managing to go beyond the legacy relationships from Yugoslav times. The largest Chinese cultural centre is about to open, bringing cooperation to a higher level. With the help of the Serbian government, China enjoys a seemingly endless media ‘honeymoon’, its efforts amplified, its shortcomings obfuscated.

Yet, social discontent with some Chinese projects is rising as Beijing has sought to dodge environmental, labour and health requirements. Investigations on conditions at the Chinese mining and smelting plant in Bor even revealed suspected people smuggling in addition to unacceptable working conditions. Recent protests concerning data management and privacy issues point a further shift in attitudes. There are more and more cracks into the media’s complicit portrayal of these companies’ activities. Local civil society is on the move as other more political channels of representation continue to be dysfunctional. Local and social media are beginning to provide platforms for localized discontent with Chinese companies. More significantly, the EU and the US are slowly upping their geopolitical game in the Western Balkans and raising the costs of the endless hedging by Belgrade. At the same time, China has invested too much diplomatic and other capital to risk undermining its positions in its key partner in the region. Is there an outer boundary to Serbia’s ‘multi-vector’ diplomacy? Or to its endless search for capital from across the globe? Are Serbs about to question the terms of Beijing’s involvement in their country? Or will President Alexander Vucic be able to transform his ‘multi-vector’ policy into a developmental model, capable of raising the economic prosperity of his country?

Economy & business


FDI projects worth more than €1m

Chinese FDI to Serbia (including investment from Hong Kong and Taiwan). In millions of euros.
Source: National Bank of Serbia


Serbian import from China (including Hong Kong and Taiwan), in euros

Loans from Chinese Banks and Entities

Price of the infrastructure developmentAmount of the Chinese loan as a percentage of the total cost of the infrastructure developmentPercentage of the project delivered by the Chinese side
In millions of euros, at the exchange rate of the time of investmentIn  %In %
1,830 (approx)N/AN/A
158 (reported)N/A100
184.1485N/A (Azerbaijani company AzVirt is a sub-contractor)
500 (approx)N/AN/A (Azerbaijani company AzVirt is a sub-contractor)
600 (approx)N/AN/A
883.685N/A (possibility that Russian company joins)

Main Local Companies / Businesspeople with Economic Ties to China

NameSectorRelation with Serbia
Starlink Enterprise LimitedInternational Trade and Development SolutionsFounders and owners from Serbia, headquartered in Hong Kong
EnergoprojektEngineering, internationalJoint ventures with Chinese companies and subcontractors, or in many projects implemented by Chinese companies in Serbia

Fairs and business meetings between Serbian and Chinese companies

2018The Chinese Product Fair (Zheijang province)Serbian Chamber of Commerce, Chinese Embassy, Department of Commerce of Zheijang province
2019China International Import Expo, ShanghaiSerbian Chamber of Commerce
2019Business Forum with the Enterpreneurs from Zheijang provinceSerbian Chamber of Commerce
2020China International Import Expo, ShanghaiSerbian Chamber of Commerce, Development Agency of Serbia
2021China International Import Expo, ShanghaiSerbian Chamber of Commerce, Development Agency of Serbia
2021Serbia to China (startup competition)Serbian Chamber of Commerce, Nihub accelerator of Startup - China
2021China-CEEC Expo and International Consumer Goods Fair, NingboSerbian Chamber of Commerce

In Serbia, the main companies engaged in close cooperation with China are local but Chinese-owned firms. According to the Serbian Ministry of Finance, in the first three quarters of 2021, the two biggest exporters from Serbia were the Chinese-owned Zijin Mining in the city of Bor, with €556.1 million in total exports, and HBIS Group Serbia Iron and Steel in the city of Smederevo, with €409.4 million in total exports. While some Serbian companies are present in the Chinese market, their activity is not a crucial factor in wider bilateral relations. Exports from Serbia to China are on the rise due to the increase in exports carried out by Chinese-owned companies in the country. Figures from 2016 show that there was an attempt to establish a Serbian-Chinese business club, which would advocate for Serbian companies’ entry to the Chinese market. However, there are no further reports that suggest the association ever became active. In 2017, the Serbian Chamber of Commerce – the main state-backed, business association in Serbia – opened an office in Beijing with the aim of boosting the presence of the Serbian business community in China. The Chamber of Commerce, together with the Serbian Development Agency, is leading attempts to begin exporting Serbian products by promoting them during fairs organised in China, mostly in the framework of the cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries. The Chamber of Commerce and the Serbian Development Agency have also been included in the visits of the Chinese businesses to Serbia, and bilateral meetings.


Cooperation of China with political parties, agreements, visits, exchanges

Type of cooperationActor
Visit to ChinaSerbian Progressive Party
Visit to ChinaAna Brnabić, prime minister of Serbia
Online summitAleksandar Vučić, president of Serbia and president of Serbian Progressive Party
Delegation visit to ChinaDelegation of Autonomous Province Vojvodina Government, led by Igor Mirović (AP Prime-Minister)
Visit to ChinaMinister of Foreign Affairs of Republic of Serbia, Ivica Dačić
Visit to ChinaPresident of Council on Cooperation with China and Russia, Tomislav Nikolić
Party to Party meetingSerbian Progressive Party and Chinese Communist Party
Project agreement“Smart City” Project agreement, Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunication
Project agreement“Safe City” project agreement, Ministry of Interior Affairs
VisitAleksandar Vučić, president of Serbia and president of Serbian Progressive Party
VisitChinese minister of foreign affairs, Wang Yi
Visit/MeetingChinese minister of defence, Wei Fenghe and Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić
Visit/MeetingSerbian minister of defence, Aleksandar Vulin with Chinese minister of foreign affairs Wei Fenghe
VisitChinese president Xi Jinping
Summit Participation/VisitChinese prime minister, Li Keqiang
Visit/MeetingSerbian resident Aleksandar Vučić met with Yang Jiechi, member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee
Visit/MeetingMember of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and Member of the Secretariat of the CPC Central Committee Wang Huning met with President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia

Prominent political figures with official positions on relations with China

  • Tomislav Nikolić - President, Office of the National Council for Coordination of Cooperation with the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China
  • Siniša Mali - Minister of Finance, National Coordinator for the cooperation within the China-CEEC cooperation mechanism
  • Boris Tadić - Co-Chairman of the Board; President of TOJOY Eastern Europe; President of Social Democratic Party Former president of Serbia
  • Žarko Obradović - President of Parliamentary Group on Friendship with China, Member of Parliament, Vice-President of Serbian Socialist Party

The face of cooperation with China is Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić. In addition to the Serbian president, the prime minister and ministers in charge of the sectors that have experienced the biggest Chinese presence have been most vocal about China’s activities in Serbia. These include Zorana Mihajlović, former minister of infrastructure and current minister of energy; Aleksandar Antić, former minister of energy and former national coordinator for the 17+1 framework, Rasim Ljajić, former minister of trade, and Ivica Dačić, former minister for foreign affairs and current speaker of the assembly.

Cooperation Framework: number of state-to-state agreements, areas of formalized cooperation, agreements and projects with local authorities, exchange and training programmes with civil servants

2009Joint Statement Between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Serbia on Establishing a Strategic PartnershipPolitical relations
2009Framework agreement on economic and technological infrastructure cooperationInfrastructure, economy
2009Agreement on scientific and technical cooperation between Republic of Serbia and People’s Republic of ChinaEducation and science
2015Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Serbia and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Mutual Establishment of Cultural CentresCultural cooperation
2016Joint Statement of the Republic of Serbia and the People’s Republic of China on the Establishment of a Comprehensive Strategic PartnershipPolitical relations
2017“Smart City” project agreement, Ministry of Trade, Tourism and TelecommunicationSecurity
2019“Safe City” project agreement, Ministry of Interior AffairsLocal governance

Cooperation within ‘16 plus 1’ – hosting of events, projects, hosting of centres, initiatives, etc.

201416+1 Summit
2016Forum on Cultural and Creative Industries
2017Summit on cultural heritage
2018Forum of Mayors
2018Summit of Ministers of Transportation
2019Summit on Innovation
2021Virtual Art Cooperation Forum
2014Belgrade - Budapest Railroad project

Cooperation with local government – projects, initiatives, visits, etc.

2020Agreement on institutional cooperation between the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina (Republic of Serbia) and Fujian Province (People’s Republic of China). There are also several other agreements between AP Vojvodina and Chinese provinces.
2021City of Zrenjanin - City of Yantai Sister City Ties

Civil society

Cooperation of various Civil Society organizations with Chinese counterparts by sector

  • Advisory role, support, promotion: Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD) and its Director Vuk Jeremić (former minister of foreign affairs of Serbia, former chair of the general assembly of the United Nations)
  • Bilateral cooperation, and scientific research cooperation: Institute of Field and Vegetable Crops, Novi Sad

Engagement with local Chinese embassy – projects, common initiatives, etc.

The Faculty of Security, University of Belgrade, has cooperated with the Chinese embassy to organise events, has received financial support, and engaged with publications on of the BRI.


Media outlets with Chinese ownership

China Radio International Srpski

Exchange and other types of cooperation

Media outlets with pro-China content

Media personalities with pro-China views:

  • Zoran Spasić, Director of the Center for Cooperation with the Asian Countries
  • Ljiljana Smajlović, Journalist and former president of Association of Serbian Journalists

Academic research

Scope and range of academic cooperation agreements with local universities


Cultural / educational agreements at national and local level

Prominent bilateral cultural projects and events

Language education

The following institutions offer Chinese language training in Serbia.

Prominent organizations and artists in the areas of bilateral cooperation

Slobodan Trkulja, artist and musician.

People-to-people interaction


P2P exchanges via different types of institutions – educational, state institutions, etc.

Prominent cases of celebrities in both countries

  • Bora Milutinović ­– football coach, former coach of the PRC National Football team.
  • Group of Serbian celebrities thanked China for its help to Serbia in the fight against covid-19.
  • Borislav Stanković – former head of the FIBA basketball association. He has an international tournament in China named after him.
  • Bata Živojinović – Yugoslav actor, after that presidential candidate in front of Socialist Party of Serbia (the former party of Slobodan Milošević). He starred in many partisan movies that were popular in China, with Walter Defends Sarajevo being the most popular.

In addition, many Serbian athletes and coaches have played and worked, or are still playing and working in China. These include Dragan Stojković Piksi, the current head coach of the Serbian football national team, and Miroslav Raduljica, a basketball player who played in the Chinese basketball league. Many others work or play at lower levels, with some estimates suggesting thousands of coaches and players from Serbia are working in China.