After the initial struggle in the fight against COVID-19 on its territory, China has stepped out its borders and has played the role of the global actor in the fight against the pandemic. Using the “mask diplomacy”, China has tried to shift the narrative which suggested that the global outbreak is Chinese fault and that China has concealed the real information during the first phase of the outbreak, and also affected the World Health Organization in containing the global response to save its own image. In those efforts, Western Balkans countries have not been left out.

While China doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Kosovo, five other Western Balkans countries have received donations in medical equipment from the Chinese government and companies, and in the case of Serbia, in the arrival of medical experts. What has been evident from the Chinese approach is that the outreach often depends on the level of previously existing political and economical cooperation with different Western Balkans countries.

During the past decade, China has increased its presence in the Western Balkans through financial loans used for various infrastructural projects. But while Serbia has been a “poster child” of Chinese presence in the Western Balkans, cooperation with other countries has not been as developed.

North Macedonia and Montenegro have used Chinese preferential loan agreements for the construction of highway sections. Montenegro has been seen as an example of how cooperation with China can go wrong, increasing its debt and putting Montenegro on the verge of falling into a “debt-trap”, causing concerns by European officials. Even though there are historical connections between Albania and China, contemporary relations have not benefited from them in large capacity. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a specific case, and due to the high level of constitutive entity autonomy, the Republic of Srpska has been the main focus of China, which can be explained by close connections between China and Serbia.

Having different levels of cooperation in mind, it could be understood why China has extended its help to all Western Balkans countries in the time of crisis, but also why incoming help was not praised everywhere equally. This is where Serbia steps in.

Currently, we are witnessing the development of two parallel processes. The first one being the Chinese outreach and help in the fight against the virus, which has impacted all Western Balkan countries that have established relations with China. The second one is the aggressive promotion of the Chinese role in the fight against COVID-19, which has been happening only in Serbia and has been in high gear.

On 28 April the first session of the Serbian Parliament during the state of emergency introduced due to the outbreak of COVID-19 was held. At the beginning of the session, the Serbian Prime Minister said that Serbia has fought against the outbreak with immense help from partners, highlighting the help coming from China and stating that “(Serbia) should not be ashamed to be eternally grateful” to China. The expressed gratitude is just the latest showing of the affection towards “steel friendship” that has reached new heights during the COVID-19 crisis.

Serbia was first the Western Balkan country to show support to China in February when Serbian president Vučić wrote the letter of support to his Chinese counterpart, and Serbian Prime-Minister Ivica Dačić visited Beijing to show that Serbia stands with China in the fight against the virus.

But it was only after Serbia introduced the state of the emergency due to the outbreak on its own territory that strong allegiance towards China was expressed. Vučić stated that China is the only country on which Serbia can really rely on for support, saying that European solidarity is dead.

After that, the EU stepped forward and made funding of 15 million euros of immediate financial assistance available to Serbia. It was a part of the 410 million euros package dedicated to all Western Balkans countries for mitigating the short and long term consequences of COVID-19.

But in the eyes of the Serbian public and in the statements by the Serbian officials China had the spotlight. The first plane with medical equipment and experts which arrived from China was pompously welcomed with some flag kissing by Serbian president included. China has also played its part with touching videos of Chinese people showing support on social networks going viral. During that period, the Chinese ambassador to Serbia has also opened an official Twitter account using that platform for additional promotion of Chinese activities during the crisis.

In addition to the official account, Digital Forensic Center reported that 71.9% of all Twitter posts (more than 21 thousand posts), from March 9th to April 9th, including keywords “China” and “Serbia” have been posted by bot accounts. Online activities have been an addition to the sentimental statements coming both from Chinese and Serbian officials, promoting the “steel friendship”, calling the Xi Jinping “brother” and “great friend” of Serbian people and even calling for the construction of the monument dedicated to Sino-Serbian friendship. While the monument will have to wait a little bit, several billboards with the message “Thank you, brother Xi’’ have popped up across Belgrade.

The Chinese help provided to Serbia in the fight against the dangerous virus is something that should be acknowledged. Other problems are arising from that fact.

The first one is that we do not know what is the exact number of medical equipment donated by the Chinese state and the Chinese companies and what has been purchased by Serbia. While other Western Balkans countries and their officials have been transparent with the number of medical equipment donated and purchased from China, Vučić stated during the official press conference attended by the Chinese ambassador that he is not in a position to disclose that information. Lack of transparency enables misuse of information and potentially the creation of a false perspective.

The second issue is that Serbia is (hopefully) still a country that aspires towards EU membership and putting Europe on the opposite side of any other actor (in this case China) could endanger the future of EU integration, if not in Brussels than in the eyes of the broader Serbian public. Without the public support for the continuation of the EU accession process, its future will be even more blurred than it is at the moment. The initial stance towards the EU was somewhat corrected and the role of the EU has been shown as supportive, but still not as much as the role of China.

There is no clear indication when the current crisis will be over, but the world is already preparing for its consequences and the aftermath. One of the most important questions that will have to be answered is: What is the damage? European Union has already made its move for mitigating the long term consequences by dedicating significant financial package for the Western Balkans countries, with Serbia getting the biggest chunk of it, but the public image has suffered and one of the reasons can be the rising Chinese presence.

On the other side, the “steel friendship” between Serbia and China was not damaged at all, on the contrary, it has achieved new heights. Repercussions of those new heights, either positive or negative, are yet to be seen.