China and Serbia maintain ‘iron-clad friendship’ with more to come
Published: May 07, 2024 07:51 PM
Motorists drive past Serbian and Chinese flags along the high-way leading into Belgrade, Serbia, on May 6, 2024. Photo: VCG

Motorists drive past Serbian and Chinese flags along the high-way leading into Belgrade, Serbia, on May 6, 2024. Photo: VCG

Editor's Note:

Chinese President Xi Jinping said in a signed article published in Serbian media on Tuesday that China stands ready to make China-Serbia ironclad friendship deliver more benefits to the two peoples. Serbia is one of the stops of President Xi's ongoing visit to Europe. What can be expected from this visit? How will the two countries deepen cooperation under the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)? Global Times (GT) reporters Zhang Han and Wang Wenwen talked to Bojan Lalic (Lalic), director of the Belt and Road Institute in Belgrade and Katarina Zakic (Zakic), head of Regional Centre for Belt and Road, Institute of International Politics and Economics in Belgrade, on these issues.

GT: Could you offer examples of notable progresses made in the bilateral relationship since Chinese President Xi's last visit to Serbia in 2016? How can this visit further elevate bilateral ties? 

Lalic: Since 2016, Serbia and China have experienced significant growth and strengthening of mutual relations, while strategically linked by political consensus on the most important foreign policy issues, absolute support for the one-China policy, and the territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia, in accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244. Since 2016, with substantial support from China, Serbia has embarked on extensive infrastructure development, building hundreds of kilometers of highways, the fastest railway in Eastern Europe, and renewing energy facilities. These projects are joined by industrial giants coming to Serbia, such as Zijin Mining (gold and copper producer in China) and HBIS (Chinese iron and steel manufacturing conglomerate) as brownfield investments, and tiremaker Linglong as a greenfield investment, followed by more than 500 small, medium and big enterprises. Alongside intensive university partnerships between Serbia and China and cultural exchanges, mutual learning about cultural heritage makes long-term successful strengthening of ties possible.

Zakic: The visit by President Xi to Serbia is a significant indication of the strong political and economic relations between China and Serbia. The bilateral meetings will cover a wide range of topics, including current international affairs, the rising number of armed conflicts, global economic challenges and the strengthening of bilateral diplomatic relations between China and Serbia. The ongoing Chinese projects in Serbia and their prospects will also be discussed. Numerous state- and privately-owned Chinese enterprises are investing in the mining, steel and automotive industries in Serbia. 

The timing of President Xi's visit to France, Serbia and Hungary was carefully planned and significant. It is the first visit made by the Chinese President to three European countries since the pandemic ended. Serbia, France and Hungary are all crucial partners to China. As China and the EU are having differences and disputes on certain issues, the visit by the Chinese President is of great significance as constructive and pragmatic talks could help to resolve the burning issues between the EU and China.

GT: What is your understanding of the term "iron-clad?" What do you think are the factors that have allowed the relationship to withstand the test of time?

Lalic: Before GDP was used as a measure for ranking countries, the parameter was the tons of embedded steel. Returning to the question, Serbia and China are strengthening their ironclad friendship every day, which inseparably binds the industries, universities and cultural heritage of the two nations. Our relationship has stood the test of time only because we understand that these pillars must not be separated. There is no economic progress without education and culture.

In today's world, friendship on the international stage is not a common occurrence because we are in a very challenging time of transformation from a unipolar to a multipolar world. The transformation is accompanied by a huge surge in hypocrisy, especially among those who cannot understand that the unipolar world is over. 

Zakic: In Serbian we use a slightly different term to describe a strong and enduring friendship - we call it "steel friendship." Steel is known for its strength, durability and ability to withstand the test of time. By using this slogan, we are emphasizing the strong relationship between our two countries, one that can endure changing conditions and challenges and is difficult to destroy. Like any friendship, our relationship is built on trust, loyalty and sincerity. 

China was a Serbian friend during challenging times in history, and the Serbian people have never forgotten this. The establishments of China-Serbia strategic partnership in 2009 and the comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016 were not sudden events but rather the official signal that China-Serbia relationship is constantly improving and that both sides are committed to the further development of diplomatic relations.

In addition to our strong political ties, we continue to build mutually beneficial economic, cultural, educational, scientific and people-to-people relationships. With a strong foundation and stable ground, it is easy to deepen our relationship.

GT: Could you provide insights into any new plans for China-Serbia cooperation regarding the BRI in the future? 

Lalic: Serbia joined the BRI very early. In 2021, the Belt and Road Institute was established by the Government of the Republic of Serbia, University of Novi Sad and Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Industry with the aim of in-depth study of the initiative's developments and transforming policies, conclusions and guidelines into actionable measures. Besides major Chinese companies in Serbia, the Chinese Culture Center in Belgrade, Confucius Institutes, and the future China-Serbia Industrial Park, the Institute represents the driver of ecosystem development for Belt and Road Cooperation in the next decade. President Aleksandar Vucic has emphasized on several occasions that the strategic role of cooperation in the BRI for Serbia represents an important catalyst and framework for future development.

GT: The Free Trade Ageement (FTA) between China and Serbia signed in 2023 is expected to come into effect soon. In your opinion, what are the potentials for economic and trade cooperation between the two countries with the FTA? 

Lalic: For Serbia, the FTA is a crucial segment in the future strengthening of exchanges and ties with China. Serbia has similar agreements with the EU, the Russian Federation, Central European countries, and the Eurasian Union, which makes it a unique economic zone in Europe. Regarding the over 10,000 products covered by the FTA, the working group thoroughly examined all possible risks in its implementation, not because China and Serbia fear cooperation, but due to the potential imbalance. This arrangement will be very beneficial for Chinese companies as a gateway to the European market.

GT: What role can Serbia play in enhancing ties between China and Central and Eastern Europe?

Zakic: The Central and Eastern European countries find themselves in unique situations regarding their relations with China. On the one hand, EU member countries must comply with EU policies, while on the other hand, some of them wish to improve their relationship with China. Unfortunately, the current situation within the EU is not favorable for this relationship. 

Serbia is a country that can maintain friendly relations with both the EU and China and achieve positive bilateral relations with both sides. Although Serbia is not an EU member, it is striving to become one, and in the process, many positive changes have occurred in Serbia over the last two decades. The EU is Serbia's primary trade and investment partner, and Serbia values those relations highly. At the same time, Serbia is also open to cooperating with other countries, including China. China has become an increasingly significant economic partner, and Serbia has benefited from that cooperation. Therefore, Serbia can act as a bridge between China and CEE countries, as it is willing to listen and collaborate with both sides. The railway between Budapest and Belgrade is evidence of the previously mentioned points.

GT: What do you think of the current global geopolitical landscape and how can China and Serbia join hands to promote a more just world order?   

Lalic: The new geopolitical positioning is currently relevant. In this new game, Serbia hopes that the new multipolar world will finally address the double standards on the international scene. It is clear that China may play a decisive role in this, and it is encouraging that the politics of threats and coercion has never been characteristic of either China or many other countries on the emerging world stage. Serbia learns from China about patience and long-term politics, while China sees Serbia as one of its greatest friends in Europe and a sincere partner against global injustice and hypocrisy.