"China investing in Serbia to spread influence in Europe"

As Europe is unable and unwilling to finance the rebuilding of the Balkan countries, they - Serbia above all - are turning to their old allies, such as China.

Source: B92

This is according to the influential US website Politico, which took a look at Beijing's role in Serbia, and Belgrade's stance toward China as part of a series of articles dubbed "China looks West."

In a piece published under the headline, "Beijing's Balkan backdoor," Politico's European edition writes:

"Serbia is in the midst of a physical transformation that (President) Vucic has promised his compatriots will end their isolation and open the door to the European Union."

Vucic - who "unfurled a wall-sized map in his private receiving room" and said, "you’ll see what my real passion is. It’s roads and economy," all the while "kneeling next to a multicolored map of Serbia criss-crossed with planned highways and rail lines" - is relying "not just on Europe, but on an old ally farther east - China."

Serbia is described as one of Europe's poorest countries - one that "may seem like an unlikely partner in China’s drive to play a bigger role on the continent."

"But longstanding ties between the two countries, combined with geography, have helped put Belgrade at the center of Beijing’s European push. For Serbia and its neighbors, the advantage is obvious: desperately needed investment in infrastructure with few visible strings attached. For China, the motivations are murkier. But this much is clear: Beijing is establishing a significant foothold on Europe’s southeastern doorstep - increasing its influence in countries that will likely one day be full-blown members of the European Union," writes Politico.

Recounting China's current investments, the website goes on to state that, "in contrast to the international development lenders such as the World Bank" China is "often willing to fund projects with questionable economic returns at below-market rates":

"Take the planned highway linking Belgrade with the coastal city of Bar in Montenegro. The project is expected to cost about EUR 600 million. With the economic impact expected to be modest, convincing European lenders to support the project would be impossible, Serbian officials said. But China agreed. Indeed, with the EU’s structural funds out of reach for non-members, China is the only alternative for countries like Serbia. Belgrade generally pays between 2 and 2.5 percent on its Chinese loans, which usually run from 20-30 years."

“It’s not easy to get credit from Western states. When we speak about this with European countries, they say ‘why China?’ Because they have the money, to be honest," Serbia's minister of infrastructure, transport, and construction, Zorana Mihajlovic, has been quoted as saying.

The article notes that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, "itself a major funder of infrastructure projects across the region," recently described China’s role in the Balkans as “no longer tentative" - and predicted "further increases in investment in the coming years."

Polico then observes that Serbia's ties with China are "not only transactional."

Beijing is described as "one of the few countries to support Serbia’s position on Kosovo, refusing to recognize the breakaway region."

"China also stood by Belgrade during NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia. The Chinese embassy was hit during the bombing raid, an incident Washington insisted was an accident but that many Chinese and Serbs continue to believe was intentional. Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to Serbia on a state visit. (...) The official visit by the Chinese leader to one of Europe’s poorest countries underscored Belgrade’s strategic importance to Beijing," writes the US website, citing a statement at the time by China's foreign ministry as saying that "both sides have enjoyed firm mutual political trust, colorful and fruitful practical cooperation in all sectors."

"China’s model would appear to be Germany. Since the accession of the Visegrad countries (Group) to the EU in 2004, German industry has integrated the countries into a seamless supply chain, helping companies from Volkswagen to Siemens benefit from lower labor and production costs. (...) With several Balkan countries in line to join the EU in the coming years, China could have several more close friends at the leaders’ table in Brussels. That could help Beijing fend off criticism over its human rights record and other knotty issues, a role Greece has recently taken on. Just last month, Athens blocked the EU from issuing a statement condemning a Chinese crackdown on activists," said the article, and concluded:

"For some in Europe, the episode illustrates why the EU should start paying more attention to Beijing’s activity in the region. Some German diplomats warn that China, like Russia, could quickly become a threat to stability in the Balkans."


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