Although the COVID-19 pandemic began in China, this country was seen as one of the few potential sources of assistance to vulnerable countries today due to the fact that it was the first to control the infection. The President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić said while introducing the state of emergency that China is “the only one who can help Serbia,” and in the meantime, Chinese doctors and help have begun to arrive both to Serbia and EU member states. We talked about China-Serbia relations and Chinese foreign policy during the pandemic with Vuk Vuksanović, PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and an expert on China’s influence in the Western Balkans.

European Western Balkans: When the state of emergency was introduced, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić said that China was the only country that could help Serbia, and called President Xi Jinping his “brother” and a “friend of Serbia”. How do you perceive these messages? Are they addressed to China, citizens of Serbia or the European Union?

Vuk Vuksanović: I would say that they are addressed to all three parties, to the domestic public, to China as well as to the European capitals. On the one hand, it is evident that Vučić is trying to achieve certain internal points by promoting himself as the one who will succeed in making Serbia a credible partner of all these great powers, and China is especially popular.

Vučić has previously referred to China as Serbia’s most certain and most reliable friend. It has now become popular with both the Chinese and Serbian side, that phrase about “steel” friendship and partnership between Serbia and China. That rhetoric is very striking on the one hand, but has now become even stronger.

China has now seized a good opportunity here, but there was also an aspect of necessity. Serbia simply accepted Chinese aid because there really was no one else who could help in such an energetic way. China has good motives to help affected countries, such as Serbia, to repair its damaged image because of the way the pandemic erupted.

EWB: How are the messages sent by President Vučić perceived in China, first of all by Chinese leadership, but also the citizens? Is it really welcomed there in the way that Serbian media presented it, as a message from an important friendly country?  

VV: I would say that China has embraced this with open arms, because they now need to engage in a very broad campaign in the field of public diplomacy and soft power instruments in order to be able to repair the image of China, which is obviously very seriously damaged.

This crisis was caused by China covering up information about the severity of the initial situation and the epidemic that had arisen in Wuhan, and consequently this threatened on the one hand the question of the credibility and capabilities of the ruling Communist Party. Also, we have a whole series of analyses that talk about whether this could jeopardize other projects, such as the “Belt and Road” initiative.

China reacted very quickly with the announcements, but also with measures. We see even some other small but important indicators such as WEIBO accounts set up by the Government and the Ministry, which received a large number of supporters and a large number of donations from Chinese citizens. The Chinese certainly responded quickly, but they had their calculations for why they did it, but of course, evidently, Serbia has set itself up as a country which China’s foreign policy elite counts on. It is all a product of these intertwined factors.

EWB: We have heard that China has helped the EU itself, especially the countries most affected by the pandemic. How can the support that has been promised and that came to Serbia be compared to the support that comes to EU countries?

VV: It all depends, we can never know the concrete figures because it is constantly changing, I believe, certainly, given the differences in size and wealth and the fact that Italy is still a much larger and richer EU Member State, much more severely affected by this pandemic than Serbia, that it is most likely to receive more assistance. It is more or less part of the same package.

China, on the one hand, works to control the damage that has occurred. On the other hand, it is still trying to get something out of this bad situation by trying to gain additional political points in Europe and among the EU Member States, thus trying to eventually expand the number of friendly countries. But also among countries on the road to the EU like Serbia.

Employees at the Belgrade Airport, now closed for commercial flights; Photo: Tanjug / Zoran Žestić

EWB: How important do you think Serbia and the Western Balkans are to China? There is sometimes the impression here that this is a key region of Chinese influence in Europe, but we are aware of other major examples in EU Member States. How important, compared to them, are the Western Balkans and Serbia in this regard to China and Chinese foreign policy?

VV: They are certainly important. Serbia is perceived as a kind of bridge or an open door for China towards Europe. Of course, the main goal in China’s whole project is the European Union and, above all, countries like Germany.

But the Western Balkans certainly plays a role because of their geography, as their entire infrastructure has to pass through the Balkans. Of course, Serbia and the Western Balkans have also proven to be potentially useful as a way to test China’s soft power, but also as a way for China to test some of its individual branches of industries, such as construction and telecommunications.

For them, Serbia and the Balkans are very useful as a way to test how far they can go in their efforts to conquer the markets of European countries. Western Balkans, despite its small size, still has a surprising degree of Chinese attention.

EWB: Do you expect China’s influence to be greater in the Western Balkans region after this crisis is over, considering how China is positioned here today and how it is perceived?

VV: We can’t talk about the whole region yet because we still have to see how China will treat other countries. There is talk of some packages of relevant medical products that China will send to North Macedonia, but we still have to look at how it will behave towards the whole region.

But when it comes to Serbia, I believe that Chinese influence will certainly grow after this crisis. It is a paradox, one might expect that it could decline after such a pandemic that originated from China, however, China reacted very quickly and took advantage of the inaction of the western and all other players and made an additional plus for themselves in Belgrade.

I would say that of all the global powers, China is certainly the most impactful at this stage. Despite traditional russophilia, we see that in all this chaos, from coronavirus, to Putin’s preoccupation with the new Russian constitution, Russia is hardly mentioned. But Russia is most likely waiting in the Security Council to see what happens. There is almost no European Union. Washington will be mentioned the moment the Kosovo dispute becomes current again, but we will see if anyone can thoroughly deal with the Kosovo dispute in the context of this pandemic crisis.

For now, I would say that China is certainly the most striking and visible of all the vectors in Serbian foreign policy, at least when it comes to the great powers.

EWB: Could these statements by Vučić be seen as a kind of announcement of Serbia’s foreign policy turn after this crisis has passed, in terms of strengthening partnership with China and turning its back on EU integration?  

VV: It’s a much more complicated question than it might seem at first glance. It is the style of the Serbian foreign policy elite to send such bombastic statements, however we have also seen that they know how to adapt depending on the situation and depending on which foreign interlocutor they are communicating with at that particular moment. This is changing very often, which we can also see in the way that the pro-government media change very often.

China is currently here for the simple reason that Europe is not there. Europe is there with money, trade and some projects, but realistically, in terms of a serious political presence, a serious strategy or a serious attempt to influence Serbian foreign policy, Europe is simply not there in an appropriate way.

China is nothing but an integral part of that broader vacuum package existing in the Balkans, which is tactically and opportunistically filled by non-Western players. And China is most impactful at this point.

Aleksandar Vučić and Xi Jinping; Photo: Tanjug / Dimitrije Groll

EWB: Do you expect that China will help Serbia, as a key country in the Balkans and as a key partner of China in the region, more meaningfully in order to show that China has a recipe for other countries? Can we hope that China’s assistance is crucial to solving the crisis?  

VV: We can certainly hope. I believe that Belgrade would accept EU assistance with open arms, that is, it would primarily accept its assistance, but simply this time this was accepted because there is no other. In this respect, we can only hope that this will have a positive effect. I would say that in any case, from the point of view of the most elemental common sense, at this point, it is the priority of all priorities.

EWB: When we consider that the EU is hit the hardest by coronavirus, and on the other hand, we have the fact that Serbia is a negotiating country, can this justify the absence of the EU in the region or the lack of strong messages being sent? Does this show that the EU does not care about Serbia and the Western Balkans or that the EU cannot cope with the crisis it is facing?

VV: If the EU wants to impose itself as a geopolitical actor, as a global power as members of the Brussels foreign policy elite, as well as pan-European political voices often say, it must certainly perform much better. All that has been shown until now is just another in a series of failures.

Since 2008 and the financial crisis, Europe has not shown itself in the best light in the field of monetary union, institutional reform, neither in foreign and security policy. And this will further weaken the EU, as it shows that its mechanisms for political cooperation and the formulation of political instruments and responses are clearly not working.

Second, this also shows that selfish national interests continue to dominate over any pan-European sentiment and formulation.

Third, we see that the EU is not only unable to take care of itself, it is also unable to care of its backyard. Because if it does not show adequate attention to its neighboring region for which the EU nominally claims that it will be a part of the EU, then it cannot realistically promote itself as a relevant global player. Of course, someone else will take advantage of it, because international politics abhors vacuum.

EWB: The prevailing narrative in recent years when it comes to China’s influence in the region is that it is one potentially detrimental influence because of opening up space for corruption. Considering such a crisis at the moment and China’s ability to help the region economically and in other ways, how justified is the narrative that Chinese influence is above all harmful?

VV: We saw a statement by Aleksandar Vučić saying that Serbia was forced to acquire certain medical devices due to shortages and urgency, even in the global gray (semi-black) market. This crisis will certainly force many states to throw some old rulebooks out the window.

But if we were to look at this independently, a propos the story about the influence of China opening up the space for corruption, I would say that there is this fundamental problem. The issue of corruption and the question of the declining rule of law in the Western Balkans are not the product of Chinese practices. It is first and foremost a product of the actions of local actors and local political circumstances.

However, China has, in a paradoxical way, profited from such a state of declining rule of law, and is in some way helping the process indirectly. The situation where there are no adequate legal mechanisms for audit or adequate screening, suits China really well, that it is enough for China to knock on one door and get the green light for any project based solely on political blessing from one relevant person or one relevant power center. China is thus profiting from the illiberal political environment in the Western Balkans.

China is indirectly assisting such a process of erosion of the rule of law for the simple reason that it gives political elites who are destroying the rule of law system in the Western Balkans the opportunity to somehow still allow capital inflows and promote themselves before their voters as people who are able to deliver certain benefits to their public. Of course, China does not do this for the purpose of deepening the decline of the rule of law, but indirectly, the way China does business helps such a situation.