“Steel friendship” between Serbia and China criticised by European commentators

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

While introducing the state of emergency on 15 March, President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić said that China is “the only one who can help Serbia,” and China accepted the invitation. Its doctors and medical assistance have since received much public attention in the country.

At the same time, because of limitations on exports of medical protective equipment from the EU introduced on the day of declaration of national emergency, Vučić told reporters that “European solidarity does not exist”, that it is “just a fairy tale” and that Serbia can now only be helped by China and its president Xi Jinping, whom he called a “friend and brother” of Serbia, pledging China an “eternal, steel friendship” of his country.

The speech was apparently very well received in China, and its Embassy in Belgrade published a video several days later of Chinese students of Serbian language sending their support to the country.

Reactions of the media and the civil society from the EU, on the other hand, were not positive. Die Zait article stated that EU candidate country (Serbia) has turned from Europe to its geopolitical opponent China.

“The Serbian government has intensified relations with China in recent years. Recently, the Serbian Ministry of Defense purchased a modern system of armed drones from China – it was the largest Chinese arms sales in Europe after the Cold War. Belgrade is turning into a smart city with the help of Chinese Huawei”, Die Zeit wrote, adding that Serbia is stepping closer to China before the eyes of the EU.

European Council on Foreign Relation (ECFR) published an article last Thursday, in which the authors Majda Ruge and Janka Oertel assessed that the President of Serbia has exploited the EU’s internal divisions to insult the bloc and delegitimise its policies, and criticised his courtship of authoritarian partners.

In the article, titled “Serbia’s coronavirus diplomacy unmasked”, the authors state that Serbia is the scene of alleged European failures and that Vučić drew attention on March 15 by insulting the EU and praising China for its medical assistance, calling China’s president Xi Jinping “a sincere friend and brother of the Serbian people”.

“In a highly cynical performance, Vučić called European solidarity a fairy tale and accused the bloc of hypocrisy. The EU, according to Vučić, was not willing to sell or provide the goods necessary to cope with the medical emergency”, the authors wrote, reminding what the President said of the EU officials. “These are the same people who have asked us to fix our tender procedures to exclude the Chinese so that EU companies would get Serbian money. Now our Serbian money is no longer good enough for them”, Vučić stated at the press conference.

Ruge and Oertel estimated that the case of Serbia is not a story of virtuous Chinese policy and gratitude from a European democracy in dire need of medical assistance.

“It is a story of mutually beneficial diplomacy and pompous rhetoric centred on an increasingly illiberal Serbian government, which has used the crisis and China’s support to bolster its political legitimacy, justify democratic backsliding, intimidate civil society groups, and further constrain the media”, ECFR wrote adding that Serbia is playing the China card.

The authors explained that to understand the underlying dynamics of the EU-Serbia-China triangle, one needs to go beyond the optics and place Vučić’s statements in a broader context.

“Serbia is an EU candidate country that, in recent years, has witnessed increasing democratic backsliding, state capture, and repression of the media and free speech. And China has been happily along for the ride”, authors stated.

They concluded that Serbia is happily sitting on two chairs because no one is making it choose and it must be held accountable. As for China, it has a huge opportunity to expand its influence.

Bildt criticizes, Brnabić responds

The argument continued on Friday, when Sweden’s former Foreign Minister and current Co-Chair European Council on Foreign Relations Carl Bildt pointed out that Serbian officials did not react to the shipment of aid from the European Union in the same way that they reacted to a planeload of medical supplies from China.

“When China sent an aircraft with help to Serbia President Vučić made a great show of. But when far more substantial aid arrives there is no fanfare and no President insight”, he wrote on his Twitter account.

The arrival of the Chinese aircraft was broadcasted by national televisions of Serbia and China. Chinese newspaper “People’s Daily”, which published the news on its portal, later claimed that the video in which Vučić kissed the flag of China had 1.1 billion views.

Several days later, Bildt retweeted a tweet by EU Delegation Chief Sem Fabrizi about a shipment of aid that arrived in Belgrade, with the transport being paid by the EU. This time, Vučić was not present at the site, and the event did not receive a large media attention as in the case of China.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabić responded with a tweet, accusing Bildt of spreading fake news.

“Let’s assume that spreading fake news to send strong political messages by Carl Bildt is due to lack of info and not bad intention. That aircraft was also carrying help from China + medical supplies purchased by Serbia. Our EU partners paid for the transport and we greatly appreciate it!”, she tweeted.

EU stepped up its efforts to assist Serbia last week and at the beginning of this one. However, assistance given by China has up until now received much more favourable press, and continues to do so.