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
Loans from Chinese Banks and Entities
|Price of the infrastructure development||Amount of the Chinese loan as a percentage of the total cost of the infrastructure development||Percentage of the project delivered by the Chinese side|
|In millions of euros, at the exchange rate of the time of investment||In %||In %|
|184.14||85||N/A (Azerbaijani company AzVirt is a sub-contractor)|
|500 (approx)||N/A||N/A (Azerbaijani company AzVirt is a sub-contractor)|
|883.6||85||N/A (possibility that Russian company joins)|
Main Local Companies / Businesspeople with Economic Ties to China
|Name||Sector||Relation with Serbia|
|Starlink Enterprise Limited||International Trade and Development Solutions||Founders and owners from Serbia, headquartered in Hong Kong|
|Energoprojekt||Engineering, international||Joint 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
|2018||The Chinese Product Fair (Zheijang province)||Serbian Chamber of Commerce, Chinese Embassy, Department of Commerce of Zheijang province|
|2019||China International Import Expo, Shanghai||Serbian Chamber of Commerce|
|2019||Business Forum with the Enterpreneurs from Zheijang province||Serbian Chamber of Commerce|
|2020||China International Import Expo, Shanghai||Serbian Chamber of Commerce, Development Agency of Serbia|
|2021||China International Import Expo, Shanghai||Serbian Chamber of Commerce, Development Agency of Serbia|
|2021||Serbia to China (startup competition)||Serbian Chamber of Commerce, Nihub accelerator of Startup - China|
|2021||China-CEEC Expo and International Consumer Goods Fair, Ningbo||Serbian 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 cooperation||Actor|
|Visit to China||Serbian Progressive Party|
|Visit to China||Ana Brnabić, prime minister of Serbia|
|Online summit||Aleksandar Vučić, president of Serbia and president of Serbian Progressive Party|
|Delegation visit to China||Delegation of Autonomous Province Vojvodina Government, led by Igor Mirović (AP Prime-Minister)|
|Visit to China||Minister of Foreign Affairs of Republic of Serbia, Ivica Dačić|
|Visit to China||President of Council on Cooperation with China and Russia, Tomislav Nikolić|
|Party to Party meeting||Serbian 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|
|Visit||Aleksandar Vučić, president of Serbia and president of Serbian Progressive Party|
|Visit||Chinese minister of foreign affairs, Wang Yi|
|Visit/Meeting||Chinese minister of defence, Wei Fenghe and Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić|
|Visit/Meeting||Serbian minister of defence, Aleksandar Vulin with Chinese minister of foreign affairs Wei Fenghe|
|Visit||Chinese president Xi Jinping|
|Summit Participation/Visit||Chinese prime minister, Li Keqiang|
|Visit/Meeting||Serbian 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/Meeting||Member 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
Cooperation within ‘16 plus 1’ – hosting of events, projects, hosting of centres, initiatives, etc.
Cooperation with local government – projects, initiatives, visits, etc.
|2020||Agreement 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.|
|2021||City of Zrenjanin - City of Yantai Sister City Ties|
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
Exchange and other types of cooperation
- Exchange and cooperation – Association of Serbian Journalists (UNS):
- Paid promotion – Nedeljnik Weekly magazine
- Paid promotion – Politika daily newspaper
- Cultural promotion – National Broadcasting Service of Serbia (RTS)
- Cultural promotion – Broadcasting Service of Vojvodina (RTV):
- Broadcast of China Radio International content – Welcome to Fun Radio (WTF)
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
Scope and range of academic cooperation agreements with local universities
- Academic cooperation, research, cooperation within China-CEEC framework, joint projects: Institute of International Politics and Economics (IIPE)
- Academic cooperation, research, cooperation within China-CEEC framework: Regional Centre Belt and Road; sector of IIPE
- Individual; academic recognition, visiting professor in China: Darko Trifunović, professor, Faculty of Security, Serbia
- Bilateral cooperation, agreement on cooperation with the Jiao Tong University: University of Novi Sad
- Joint Research Center and Laboratory with Shanghai Institute Materia Medica: Siniša Stankovic Institute for Biological Research, University of Belgrade
- Scholarships opportunity, Linglong Tire factory: Faculty of Technical Sciences, University of Novi Sad
- Donations and agreement on cooperation between Huawei and Serbian universities: Faculty of Technical Sciences, University of Novi Sad, Faculty of Technical Sciences Niš, Faculty of Technical Sciences Čačak
- Joint research grants for joint Sino-Serbian Projects: Ministry of Education
- Center for China Studies, joint project with Northwest University in China (Xi’an, Shaanxi Province): Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade
- Confucius Institute: University of Belgrade
- Confucius Institute: University of Novi Sad
- China Center, language courses, bilateral cooperation with the Chinese universities: Megatrend University
Cultural / educational agreements at national and local level
- Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Serbia and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on Mutual Establishment of Cultural Centres – Serbian Ministry of Culture
- Establishment of Confucius Institute in Belgrade – University of Belgrade
- Establishment of Confucius Institute in Novi Sad – University of Novi Sad
- Chinese cultural centre (under construction)
Prominent bilateral cultural projects and events
The following institutions offer Chinese language training in Serbia.
- Megatrend University
- Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade
- Ministry of Education and Science: Chinese language courses in high schools, ongoing project
Prominent organizations and artists in the areas of bilateral cooperation
Slobodan Trkulja, artist and musician.
- Promotion of Tourism, Serbian promotion in China – Tourist Organization of Serbia
- Visa liberalisation up to 30 days for tourist purposes – secured via a government-to-government agreement
- Campaign on Weibo and contract to promote tourism with Alibaba, WeChat and Weibo
P2P exchanges via different types of institutions – educational, state institutions, etc.
- Center for Affirmation and Development – Cultural exchange programme
- Private employment agency Inspirit Work & Travel (mostly training for English language teachers in China, pre-pandemic).
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.