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Sieren's China: Balkans without borders

China can get to the European markets via Serbia - this is something that Brussels would prefer to prevent. The Serbian president's visit to China is a painful reminder, says DW's Frank Sieren.

Serbia does not immediately come to mind when one thinks of the many countries with which China is trying to foster good relations. Yet, to understand China's approach to the European markets it makes sense to take a closer look at Sino-Serbian relations. As opposed to its neighbors, Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, Serbia must not adhere to the EU's economic regulations and restrictions. Thus, it has been able to develop much closer ties to China in recent years, without the EU being able to do much.

Red carpet for Nikolic

This week, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic is making a two-day visit to Beijing. The fact that the government is rolling out the red carpet and the reception will be attended by China's triumvirate of power - Nikolic's Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Prime Minister Li Keqiang and the chairman of the People's Congress Zhang Dejiang - is an indication of how important an even that is only a formality is actually being considered. Nikolic is even going to be named an honorary citizen of Beijing. During his stay, he will also meet representatives from major Chinese companies, including the IT and communications giant Huawei, whose managers have an eye on the Serbian market.

Frank Sieren *PROVISORISCH* (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl)

DW's Frank Sieren

China is very interested in helping to develop Serbia's infrastructure. In February, a Chinese company started work constructing the E763 highway between Surcin and Obrenovac after President Xi traveled to Serbia to sign the deal personally last summer. Earlier this month, it was announced that Serbia was close to selling the copper miner and smelter RTB Bor to a Chinese mining company. The China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) has already started work on an industrial park.

Just a few days ago, Chinese investors pledged some 200 million euros ($214 million) for a highway ring-road around the capital, Belgrade. However, it is still not clear whether Chinese entrepreneurs will build the planned high-speed rail line from Belgrade to Budapest. The China Railway International Corporation was originally awarded the project but the EU is currently looking into whether Hungary may have broken EU rules on public tenders, as none was offered.

Visa-free travel

Trans-European projects are the only area where Brussels has a say. Generally, Serbia is playing outside the EU's regulatory framework.

Otherwise, Brussels would surely have acted against the simplified visa regulations that Serbia and China agreed to last year. Now, citizens of either country no longer need visas for trips lasting fewer than 30 days. Many Germans would love this.

Serbia hopes to benefit from a small tourism boom. China participated in Serbia's annual tourism fair for the first time this February. While Serbia is far from being top of the list of destinations for Chinese tourists, the situation is changing. Last year, there was a 29 percent increase in the number of Chinese visitors to Serbia. Some 43,000 tourists will not make a huge difference to the Serbian economy, but at far more than 12,000 in 2011, it is a start.

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is placing his hopes on a direct flight between Beijing and Belgrade.

One of the brochures aimed at Chinese visitors during Serbia's tourism fair promoted a "Balkans without borders" journey. It may sound like a peaceful vacation for some but for the EU it could seem as if China is trying to get in through the back door.

Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.

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