1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Visiting Serbia, China's Xi boosts 'ironclad' relationship

May 8, 2024

Chinese President Xi Jinping's trip to the Western Balkan state strengthens the so-called steel friendship that has developed between Beijing and Belgrade. In Serbia, China is seen as the strongest ally after Russia.

Serbian and Chinese flags against a blue sky
Serbia and China have been fostering closer ties for yearsImage: Darko Vojinovic/AP Photo/picture alliance

Perhaps it's a coincidence that China's head of state, Xi Jinping, arrived in Belgrade on May 7. Or perhaps the date was chosen deliberately.

May 7 is the day NATO bombs hit the city's Chinese Embassy in 1999, killing three Chinese journalists and injuring more than 20 others. The strike took place during the war in Kosovo, after the Western military alliance intervened — without a UN mandate — to stop crimes against ethnic Albanians.

At the time, NATO said the embassy had been hit by mistake. China, however, has always doubted this explanation. In an op-ed for a Serbian newspaper on Tuesday, Xi wrote: "We must not forget that 25 years ago today, NATO brazenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia."

Sharing this event, China, with its population of over 1.4 billion, and Serbia, with 6.6. million inhabitants, have become allies in the fight against the US-led world order, maintaining friendly relations for years.

It's about the economy

Their main interest: economic ties. Thanks to a huge Chinese loan equivalent to €3.2 billion ($3.4 million), Serbia is currently building 5,000 kilometers (about 3,100 miles) of sewers and 159 wastewater treatment plants, which even Belgrade is still lacking.

Chinese companies also operate a huge steelworks in central Serbia, a smelt mill and copper mine in the country's east and a tire plant in the north.

Three workers at a mine in Majdanpek in eastern Serbia
A Chinese company owns this mine in Majdanpek, eastern SerbiaImage: Jelena Djukic Pejic/DW

Chinese firms are also involved in the construction of a new district in the Serbian capital, including a state-of-the-art stadium, as Belgrade gears up to host the Expo 2027 exhibition. The whole project, which Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic hopes will boost his country's prestige, is expected to cost the equivalent of €17 billion.

Serbia gives China access to the EU

Chinese companies have long used Serbia as a gateway to the EU market. Though the Balkan country has trade agreements with Brussels, it's not subject to all of the EU's strict rules, as it's not a member of the bloc.

Vucic, whom critics have described as an autocrat, keeps the media on a tight leash. There has been limited critical coverage of Chinese influence in Serbia, but plenty of positive reporting.

Is a Chinese steel mill polluting cities in Serbia?

The Serbian president, TV cameras in tow, always tends to be present at the opening of Chinese-built infrastructure projects, such as a bridge in the Serbian capital, a new highway section or even a railway line between the Hungarian capital, Budapest, and Belgrade.

The Budapest-Belgrade line is to be extended via North Macedonia to the major Greek port of Piraeus, which has established itself as China's bridgehead to the EU market over the past 15 years. The idea is that it should be a major connector to China's Belt and Road Initiative, a massive global infrastructure project.

Stefan Vladisavljev of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence said China has become one of the "pillars" of infrastructure and economic development in Serbia over the past 15 years. This is in keeping with the Serbian government's narrative of wanting to provide progress, jobs and higher wages.

China is Serbia's second-biggest trade partner

After Germany, China is Serbia's second-largest trading partner. While the trade deficit with Germany amounted to half a billion euros last year, with China it equaled €3.4 billion. 

A free-trade agreement between Serbia and China, set to come into effect in July, aims to change this discrepancy. Vucic has said the main aim is to sell more vegetables, fruit, spirits and wine to the Chinese.

The "steel friendship," as both Beijing and Belgrade have described their relationship, was bolstered at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Vladisavljev, when China sent large quantities of face masks and, eventually, vaccines. These shipments have remained in people's minds. In contrast, said Vladisavljev, the aid sent by the EU to combat the virus, which amounted to more than €100 million, hardly got a mention in the media.

These increased ties with China come on top of Serbia's traditional strong relations with Russia, which Vucic has maintained despite officially wanting to lead his country into the EU.

Serbia, which has refused to recognize the independence of neighboring Kosovo, has received support for this stance from Russia and China — both veto powers in the UN Security Council.

'Phantom image of the ideal friend'

While Russia's support has tended to come at a political price, especially since the Kremlin launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Chinese backing doesn't seem to have any strings attached.

Vladisavljev called China the "phantom image of the ideal friend" for Serbia, adding that it was a matter of economic and political support as well as the perception of China as a great power finally standing up to the West.

He said this was precisely what has raised suspicions in the EU and the US, explaining that the Balkans had always primarily been part of the West's zone of influence and that if Serbia were to be admitted into the EU, this would come with a "hub of Chinese interests."

It seems, however, that most of Serbia supports Vucic's close relationship with China. According to recent public opinion polls, many Serbians consider China to be their country's second-closest ally, after Russia, with the EU and the US lagging far behind.

This article was originally written in German.

Headshot of a man with black hair and a beard (Nemanja Rujevic)
Nemanja Rujevic Editor, writer and reporter for DW's Serbian Service