President Xi's visit to Eastern Europe and Central Asia: Serbia

By Tim Collard
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, June 17, 2016
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President Xi Jinping is setting off on an eight-day trip to a number of new destinations. He will visit Serbia, Poland and Uzbekistan, the latter for bilateral talks in the context of a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Hitherto, these regions have not attracted too much interest, due to their relative lack of prominence either in global strategic or global economic fields. However, this has been changing for some time. One of the main factors involved has been China's strategic decision to make the "Belt and Road" programme the central plank of Chinese economic and commercial diplomacy, which inevitably brings political diplomacy with it.

The Eastern European and Central Asian regions form a major part of the geographical linkage essential to the Belt and Road initiative, and also contain some areas in great need of infrastructural development. There are also strategic implications. Central Asia has been a focus in the 20 years since the SCO was launched, and Eastern Europe is feeling the effects of economic difficulties currently facing the continent as a whole. These issues are far from irrelevant to the dialogue President Xi will be holding with Russian President Putin later this month.

In an announcement made in Beijing before his departure, President Xi made it clear that he appreciates the position of the Balkan region as a historical meeting-place between East and West. Of his first destination, Serbia, he described it as "a country with a long history and a magnificent culture, with an important place in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. For thousands of years, the region has been a meeting place of Eastern and Western cultures, which has led to the progress of civilization." These words clearly point towards fixing his visit in the context of China's intercontinental "Belt and Road" initiative.

In Serbia, the visit from an economically powerful country's leader is eagerly awaited, with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic expressing hopes that the 24 cooperation agreements to be signed during the visit will be extremely lucrative for his country. Serbia, which emerged from a destructive civil war only twenty years ago, still faces considerable needs for the regeneration and modernization of its infrastructure. Serbia has been involved in negotiations to join the European Union for some time but is not yet a member; this means that EU funding has not yet been released in any major quantities.

But Chinese investment has already made a big difference in the country's post-war regeneration. China is deeply involved in road-building and power generation projects in Serbia, and has also built a bridge over the Danube (the first such project in Europe) which is known affectionately by the locals as the "Chinese Bridge." President Xi will also visit a flagship cooperative project, the hundred-year-old Smederevo steel mill, acquired in a US$50 million deal this year by China's massive Hesteel Group.

In building up this strong and durable position within Serbia's nexus of economic relationships, China hopes to build a lasting relationship and establish Serbia as one of her most reliable partners in Eastern Europe. It helps, of course, that there are no tricky political issues between the two countries; China supports Serbia's view on the Kosovo issue while in return Serbia sticks to a firm one-China policy. And while China has no view on the issue of Serbian accession to the EU, President Xi and his team will be careful to establish the strongest possible Chinese presence in the Balkan country, to ensure that China will have a firm supporter if and when Serbia does join the EU.

In return, China's solid commitment to the Belt and Road project, on which Serbian diplomats have been well briefed, should convince the Serbians that any agreements reached with China will not be ephemeral, but lodged within a wide-ranging and long-term context, and that they will be able to derive ongoing benefits from the country for some time to come.

Even seen in a bilateral context, this visit demonstrates that no country is seen as too small or remote by the new China, and that China is committed to extending the range of her diplomacy without aggressive intent, but aiming at win-win benefits through economic cooperation.

For a number of reasons, the Eastern end of the European peninsula has undergone a difficult time during the last thirty years, and, though Western Europe has done what it can to help lay the foundations for stronger economies, their own economic difficulties have recently imposed constraints on their capacity. President Xi's visit to Belgrade will provide Serbia with a complementary source of support, which I expect will be greatly welcomed by the Serbian government and people.

Tim Collard spent 20 years in the UK Diplomatic Service, half of that time in China, serving as a trade and investment adviser and a political analyst; he also served as British Consul-General in Hamburg. He has now retired from diplomacy and works as a freelance writer covering a variety of political and economic topics. For more information please visit:

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