Balancing its European perspective, historical ties with Russia, and need for Chinese investments, Serbia has found itself strategically positioned between three powers with conflicting interests. In the aftermath of the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which way will the scale tip?
One of many billboards in Serbia depicting Xi Jinping reads, “Thank you, brother Xi”.
On a March evening of 2020, a major shipment of medical aid arriving from China to fight COVID-19 was greeted by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić himself, waiting on the tarmac. “Serbian people will never forget this kindness”, Vučić stated after kissing the Chinese flag in a surge of gratitude (CGTN, 2020). Other nations also provided substantial medical assistance, but it was not received with the same warmth (Vuksanovic, 2021).
Has China’s arrival in Southeast Europe become a threat to Russian and EU interests and their relations with the Republic of Serbia? How have these developments been affected by changing geopolitical dynamics created by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
The EU, Russia, and NATO: Opportunity and threat
Following the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991-1992, Russia, the European Community, the US, and NATO became the key external players in Serbia’s foreign policy. Despite the geographical distance, NATO and the US were deemed critical regional players, posing a serious external threat, as proven by the NATO bombings of Belgrade in 1999 and the attack on ethnic Serb forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. With NATO’s expansion to ultimately include most of the nations bordering Serbia, the latter has inveterately adopted a non-aligned stance, which has allowed for the pursuit and development of diverse partnerships.
Among those is its “eternal friendship” with Russia, based on religious, historical, and cultural ties. This relationship was strengthened considerably by Russia’s role in supporting Serbia in the Kosovo conflict and the subsequent declaration of independence in 2008. Since 1999, Russia has used its position on the United Nations (UN) security council to block Kosovo’s membership to the UN, reinforcing Serbia’s position on non-recognition and the illegality of Kosovo’s secession. Russia has also been a major military and energy supplier to Serbia. This relationship has further deepened with the close economic ties between the two nations in the crucial energy sector, with Russia’s state-controlled Gazprom Neft, an oil subsidiary of Gazprom, acquiring 51% of Serbia’s oil and gas monopoly, the Petroleum Industry of Serbia (NIS), in 2009 (Izundu, 2009).
The EU, however, remains the most significant player in Serbia’s foreign policy as, in spite of being the most distrustful of the EU of all Southeast European nations, it still underlines EU membership as a top priority of national interest. Additionally, the EU is by far Serbia’s most important economic partner accounting for 53.9% of Serbia’s imports and 65.9% of its exports in 2021 (Eurostat, 2022). This is despite the ups and downs of the EU accession process, which has taken far longer than expected and entailed complex and changeable conditions. However, EU accession continues to provide consequential benefits that far outweigh the complex political ties Serbia has with the EU and its members, particularly regarding the recognition of Kosovo’s independent statehood.
Sino-Serbian relations: An “ironclad friendship”
Since the late 2000s, China has gradually become the “fourth pillar of Serbian foreign policy”, according to former President Tadić (Vuksanovic, 2021, p. 7). The year 2008, more specifically, saw two consequential events for Sino-Serbian relations. Firstly, the global financial crisis showed an impressively resilient China, in contrast to Western economies whose difficulties hampered their presence in Southeast Europe. Despite China taking a cautious approach at first, the two countries released a joint statement “on Establishing a Strategic Partnership” before signing an agreement on economic and technological cooperation both in 2009. Within a few years, China’s growing interest in the region laid the ground for flourishing cooperation. In 2012, 16 Central and Eastern European countries launched the 16+1 framework. A year later, Xi announced the flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), positioning Southeast Europe as an entry point to the EU. Since then, China has taken over significant assets of the Serbian economy, including a coal-powered plant, copper mining, and a steel mill that subsequently represented one-thirtieth of Serbia’s total GDP (Vuksanovic, 2021). By 2020, China was Serbia’s third-largest net foreign direct investor and second-largest trading partner (Vladisavljev, 2022).
The second watershed event was Kosovo’s declaration of independence in 2008. As China also grapples with the question of Taiwan, the two countries found a commonality in the defence of territorial integrity. Though Serbia still publicly “counts on [...] support” from its ‘eternal’ friend on this matter (Zimonjić, 2023), it increasingly questions Russia’s reliability. The latter already leveraged the Kosovo precedent to justify secession in Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014) and 2022). Against this background, Serbia increasingly perceives China as the new supporter it needs with the necessary global influence as well as a veto power in the UN Security Council (Vladisavljev, 2022).
This prolific partnership is not limited to economic development or Kosovo’s independence; In fact, security has recently appeared as a new domain of cooperation. Beyond China’s assistance in surveillance technology, as well as joint policy patrols (Vuksanovic, 2021), the most notable agreements were the purchase of Chinese CH-92A drones in 2020 and FK-3 surface-to-air missile systems in 2022. It is the first time Chinese-made weaponry has entered the European market since the post-Tiananmen embargo.
The prompt assistance provided by China during the pandemic was another opportunity for the two countries to showcase their “ironclad friendship”, as Beijing often labels some of its close partnerships. Whether on Kosovo’s independence, security, or COVID-19, China is increasingly important for Serbia’s foreign “policy of alternative pillars” (President Vučić, as cited in Vuksanovic, 2021, p. 6), if not replacing Russia on these matters, as it is often portrayed.
The ‘eternal’ and ‘ironclad’ friendships, and their futures
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has had a transformative impact on the dynamics of Serbia’s ties abroad. The war has reinvigorated NATO and reinforced its importance as a defensive alliance against its traditional opponent, Russia. Additionally, Serbia has not supported Russia’s war or recognised the Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk and has voted against Russia thrice in the UN, including to expel Russia from the UN Human Rights Council (Beckmann-Dierkes & Rankić, 2022). Despite these moves, Serbia has resisted sanctioning Russia and also secured a new gas deal with it. Russia also remains a key player in Serbia’s domestic politics, where it is seen as an ally. However, despite the long-term political ties between the two, Russia does not offer a long-term alternative to the EU and NATO. Especially with its future potential political isolation as well as its military and economic weakness post-Ukraine, it is likely Russia will have fewer resources to invest in Serbia and Southeast Europe.
On the other hand, Russia’s waning power has opened up opportunities for China to position itself as Serbia’s key military and economic alternative to NATO and the EU. Thus, China has not only helped diversify Serbia’s foreign partners and investors but has also become an economic ‘alternative’ to the EU. In order to maintain Serbia’s momentum for accession, the EU may soften conditionality, i.e., the qualifications required for EU accession, to compete with China’s large financial pool and industrial and infrastructure capabilities (Larsen, 2020). However, this partnership will also have its limits as China lies geographically too far from Serbia compared to NATO and the EU to offer a viable alternative. Furthermore, whilst Serbia is a significant partner for China in Europe, it remains only one of many partners of China worldwide, and China’s focus is more on its own ‘neighbourhood’. Such a prioritisation will become even more evident as China’s economy struggles to maintain consistent growth levels post-pandemic and in the midst of a trade war with the US. Additionally, China and Serbia do not maintain the same cultural and historical ties that Serbia and Russia do, meaning the relationship is founded purely on a political and economic understanding of mutual benefit.
Meanwhile, in 2018 the EU initiated enlargement discussions with its Eastern neighbours, a process further stimulated by the conflict in Ukraine and questions on the futures of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia. This new round of talks highlighted conditionality, including the alignment with all EU foreign policy positions. Due to its economic strength and geographical proximity, the EU has always been Serbia’s long-term political and economic goal. Whilst Serbian elites might wish to balance ties with the West, they will not endanger these ties for a weakening Russia and a shallow, although growing, relationship with China. Additionally, owing to the Ukraine war shifting the body of ‘Europe’ eastwards, Southeast Europe has been moved from the European periphery to a region now geopolitically positioned well within the West (Jović, 2022). This geopolitical reordering can be noted in several important pillars of Serbian society, where the governing elite has considered a policy shift. Evidence of this can be seen in the new EU-backed Kosovo-Serbia deal to normalise ties.
Russia, the EU, the US, and NATO have been significant players in Serbia’s foreign policy. In the wake of the financial crisis, Kosovo’s independence in 2008, and the launch of the BRI in 2013, China joined this diplomatic context and has risen as a major economic, technological, security, and humanitarian partner of Serbia. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, new dynamics have been introduced, opening up new opportunities for China amidst a diminishing future for Russia in the region. However, whilst opportunities for expanded Sino-Serbian have certainly emerged, structural constraints on this partnership remain. As long as EU accession remains a viable goal and with the continued dominance of the EU as Serbia’s main economic partner, the role of China will always be subordinated to Serbia’s ties to the EU and the requirements of accession. This seems to be a crucial limitation on the Sino-Serbian partnership, given the renewed interest in EU enlargement and the European idea following 2022. However, the longer Serbia’s accession is held off, the more space is opened for other external actors, including China, to expand their reach. The so far unresolved issue of Kosovo remains a particularly significant obstacle tied to EU accession and ensures Serbia continues to seek and rely on non-Western powers for support.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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