May 21, 2024

The Anti-Western Foundations of Xi Jinping’s Love of Serbia

Beijing sees Serbia as a partner in its attempts to move the world beyond an international order led by the West.

Chinese President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at the Palace of Serbia during a meeting as part of the Chinese president's two-day state visit in Belgrade, Serbia, May 8, 2024.
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Outside the new Chinese cultural center in Belgrade, there is a black marble slab, lettered in gold with the phrase “cherish the memory of the martyrs, treasure peace” in Chinese and Serbian.

The cultural center was opened to the public shortly before Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Serbia the week before last     . It is built on the site of the Chinese embassy that was destroyed during the US-led NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999. Three Chinese citizens—the martyrs—were killed in the bombing and the timing of Xi’s trip coincided with the 25th anniversary.

This symbolism is not trivial or accidental—it is deeply meaningful to both Belgrade and Beijing. The United States maintains that the bombing was a mistake, but nobody in China believes that. Back in 1999, rock-throwing Chinese protestors kept the US ambassador trapped in the Beijing embassy for days on end, and today, the incident is still trotted out as an example of flagrant Western hostility.

Joint opposition to the US-led West is the most solid basis possible for partnership with China. During Vladimir Putin’s trip to China last week, the United States was as usual front and center, with the China-Russia joint statement calling out the country 13 times. Beijing’s de-facto support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put growing China-Russia ties under the spotlight, Relations between Moscow and Beijing are especially close and in the spotlight now thanks to Beijing’s support for Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine, but the character of the relationship has been consistent since 1997, when the two countries signed a “Joint-Declaration on a Multipolar World and the Establishment of a New International Order.”

Likewise, anti-Westernism is the bedrock of the China-Serbia relationship. Despite Serbia’s candidacy for EU membership, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has long indulged and perpetuated anti-EU and anti-Western narratives. Vučić is good at turning on the pro-EU charm for European officials, but his speeches for domestic consumption, and especially those on the former Serbian province of Kosovo, are revealing. In a recent address Vučić told his audience “we will have the West against us,” continuing, “we will fight, even though we are small.”

A Shared Victimhood Complex

Despite the vast power disparity—China has 200 times the population and an economy 300 times larger than Serbia—both Serbia and China share a victimhood complex, seeing themselves as casualties of historical injustice. China seeks to resume its rightful place as the preeminent global civilization-state, while Serbia remembers the regional power of the former Yugoslavia, which was centered in Belgrade. Both China and Serbia are revisionist powers, challenging an established order that they understand to have been stacked against them.

Beijing sees Serbia as a partner in its attempts to move the world beyond an international order led by the West. Together they will, in the words of their recent joint statement, “advocate equal and orderly multi polarization of the world and… oppose hegemony and power politics”—by which Beijing means the hegemony of the United States.

Serbia is a particularly valuable partner in this mission because it is an EU candidate country and through unwavering obsequiousness, Vučić has successfully demonstrated his loyalty to China. Beijing has encouraged and rewarded this loyalty by investing heavily in Serbia, both economically and politically. Xi has visited Serbia twice during his almost 10 years at the helm in China, putting Serbia on a par with Brazil, Germany, and Saudi Arabia. There are only nine countries in the world that Xi has been to more times than Serbia: Russia, nine times; the United States and France, five times; four times to Kazakhstan and South Africa, and three times to India, Indonesia, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

The new China-Serbia joint statement is also significant. Beijing describes its relationship with Belgrade as a “comprehensive strategic partnership,” which is one of the highest-ranking designations in China’s loose hierarchy of diplomatic labels and one it applies to around 30 countries worldwide. But the recent joint statement also contains a pledge to build a “China-Serbia Community with a Shared Future in the New Era”—this is a fairly new diplomatic distinction that Beijing has so far only included in statements with a handful of important partners, including Uzbekistan, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Revisionist and Anti-US

“Community with a Shared Future” is the current English translation of a Chinese concept that was formerly—and is more accurately translated as—“community of common destiny.” This phrase is central to “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy” and thus to Chinese foreign policy in general. It predates Xi’s presidency, but has been brought to the fore as China has sought to more firmly set out its vision for a “new type of international relations.” The substance of this is revisionist and anti-US, as “new” international relations are mostly defined by what they are not. 

Whereas “Western modernization is accompanied by invasion, plunder, bloodshed, and inequality,” the community of common destiny is about “harmony” and “win-win cooperation.” It challenges the idea of universal values and describes a world in which “paths run parallel without conflict,” or in other words, a world in which the US doesn’t get to tell other countries what to do. What is less clear to a cynical reader is who will define “symbiotic interests” in this new world—Beijing’s foreign policy rhetoric is stuffed with warm, fluffy rhetoric, but its behavior suggests that it sees the world in cold, hard, realist terms, and believes that might makes right.

What “community with a shared future” means in the Serbia-China joint statement is less clear. It is often used in speeches in the global sense of a community with a shared future “for mankind,” but it is less commonly used to describe bilateral relations or as a diplomatic designation. It could be that the phrasing is a new introduction that will be applied to many countries, but the list of recipients so far suggest it is a significant honorific. Besides, Xi himself was unequivocal that the phrase held significance: “Serbia is the first European country to build a community of destiny with China, fully reflecting the strategic, special and high level of China-Serbia relations,” he said during a press conference after signing the agreement.

Besides the anti-Western ideological ties, there is also a more transactional, pragmatic dimension to the Serbia-China relationship. In 2022, Chinese investment in Serbia reached the combined level of investment by the 27 EU member states. The bulk of Chinese FDI flow to Serbia comes from two big investors: Zijin Mining, which bought a copper smelting and mining complex in Bor at a cost of $1.46 billion; and Shandong Linglong, which is investing around $1 billion to build a new tire factory in Zrenjanin. 

Political and Economic Pragmatism

For Serbia, these investments are clearly attractive—they make business sense for the Chinese companies involved too, but the motivations might also be political. The first big Chinese investment—the 2016 purchase of Smederevo Steel mill by the He Steel Group—was certainly a political move. The plant, formerly owned by U.S. Steel was sold back to the Serbian government in 2012 for $1 after sustained losses and He Steel paid a premium price, promising to invest €300 million as well as retain the entire workforce of 5,500 people. The deal was made just in time for Xi Jinping to tour the steel mill on his first state visit to Serbia.

The Export-Import Bank of China has also provided billions of euros in loans for highway and rail projects in Serbia. For Belgrade, these loans aren’t necessarily the cheapest option, but they do provide a large source of easy-to-access finance. For Beijing, these loans also make economic sense. As is almost always the case with credit extended as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, loans are arranged on the condition that contracts go to Chinese companies. Following this “tied-loan” model, these loans function like subsidies to Chinese state-owned enterprises—the difference being that the bill is footed by taxpayers in host countries. 

The relationship is also led by political, as well as economic pragmatism. For a start, all the bridges, mines, and factories China is building in Serbia shower Vučić and his party with political capital. Even if the taxpayer is eventually footing the bill, Vučić can plausibly claim that his political skill is bringing tangible benefits to ordinary people. Shaking hands and being praised by Xi Jinping also makes Vučić look like a star. Serbians are proud people, but even they would admit that it is flattering for the one of the most powerful men on earth to make so many trips to a country the size of Serbia.

Vučić also plays the China card for an external audience, leveraging the China threat to gain concessions from the EU. Sometimes he is less than subtle about this—in 2020, for example, he stated that if the EU failed to fund a planned overhaul of the railway from Belgrade to Niš, he would turn to China. Still, the threat worked, and the EU provided a non-repayable grant of €610 million for the project. 

Ever since the former Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn warned of Beijing turning Serbia into a “Trojan Horse,” the EU has scrambled to deepen its influence in Serbia. Brussels has always turned a blind eye to Vučic’s unsavory dimensions, expressing its concern, rather than risking the apparent stability Vučić provides. Now that geopolitics is back to the fore, the EU will only grant more concessions and turn an even blinder eye to Vučić’s authoritarian impulses.

Serbia’s China policy is of course at odds with the EU’s own position, and the relationship is founded on a revisionist, anti-Westernism that Brussels should find deeply disturbing. Following Xi’s recent visit, the European Commission has repeated the EU’s line that Serbia needs to work on aligning with EU foreign policy, but it is unlikely these placid statements will have any effect. Vučić knows how to toe the line with Brussels, but it’s Moscow and Beijing that he fears and respects. 

Still, imagining what EU foreign policy would like with Serbia on board is not too difficult an exercise. The next stop on Xi Jinping’s tour was EU member state Hungary, a country that can legitimately claim to have the strongest relationship with China of any EU nation. This relationship, which has been elevated to the highest possible diplomatic echelon with an “all-weather strategic comprehensive partnership for the new era” is also founded on the same bedrock of shared discontent and anti-Western feeling.

Jacob Mardell is editorial coordinator of n-ost’s “Spheres of Influence” project and an expert on China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

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