An article by: Dušan Proroković

Current state of Sino-Serbian relations

To explain the dynamic development of Chinese-Serbian bilateral relations in the last 15 years, it is not enough to rely only on “physics”. It is necessary to observe “metaphysics”. By analyzing classic indicators of military and economic power, as well as signed political agreements, a credible “situation overview” can be obtained. However, in this particular case, the question should not be asked: how are Chinese-Serbian relations developing? But: why are Chinese-Serbian relations developing? Because, unlike other European societies, Serbian public opinion strongly supports broad and comprehensive cooperation with China. Public opinion surveys are periodically conducted on the demand of Western foundations. Two major public opinion polls were conducted in 2021. In March 2021, it was conducted by the private EU-funded Institute for European Affairs (affiliated with the think tank of the European Council on Foreign Relations). The research was conducted on a representative sample of 1,207 respondents. The topics of the survey were: relations between Serbia and China; aid during a pandemic; relationship information; attitude towards the communist order; friendship between two countries; politicians who contribute to relations; and travel to China. Almost half of the citizens of Serbia, 48.2%, rated the relationship between Serbia and China with 5 (5 is the highest rating), and the average rating for the relationship between Serbia and China is 4.21. Higher average scores were given by those older than 60 and younger than 30, respondents with basic education and residents of all regions except Vojvodina, as well as respondents living in non-urban type of settlement. As many as 77% of respondents believe that relations between Serbia and China will be better in the future, 7% have the opposite opinion, while 16% do not know how to express themselves on this issue. 83% of respondents see China as a friend of Serbia, while 3% of respondents identify China as an enemy. Almost half of the respondents (47%) have a positive attitude towards the Chinese communist order.

Developing relations with China for the long term

That is why cooperation with China is not a matter for the current government or the current parliamentary majority. The government can change, new parliamentary majorities can be created – the Chinese will remain in Serbia, and Serbia will continue to look out for China’s interests in its foreign policy. Serbia is the first country in Central and Eastern Europe to establish a strategic partnership with China (August 20, 2009), and since then political cooperation has been significantly strengthened by numerous official visits. In September 2013, during the official visit of the then President of Serbia to the People’s Republic of China, this partnership was expanded by the signing of the Joint Statement between the Republic of Serbia and the People’s Republic of China on deepening the strategic partnership. In November 2015, in the presence of the head of state, the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of the Republic of Serbia on the joint promotion of the Initiative for the Economic Belt along the Silk Road and the Maritime Silk Road for the 21st Century. In June 2016, during the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Serbia, the partnership between the two countries was raised to the level of Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. The agreement, among other things, confirms the principled position of China and Serbia on the necessity of respecting international law, as well as the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, confirms China’s support for a unified Serbia and Serbia’s support for China’s One China policy. This agreement was called the “steel friendship agreement” by Chinese institutions.

The West is against the development of Serbian-Chinese relations

True, there were several unpleasant situations in this relationship. There is a silent but persistent campaign against Chinese investors by the pro-Western media in Serbia. Simply, it is a part of the narrative that is taken from the American and Western European media space and then marketed for domestic needs. Also, after Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic signed the so-called Washington Agreement with Donald Trump in September 2020 (a strange document in terms of content, it was supposed to concern further negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, and its final version contained provisions that were directly regarding the suspension of further acquisitions by Russia and China in Serbia, and that paper was never verified by the Government of Serbia nor was it ever ratified by the National Assembly), the Huawei project to build a 5G network in Serbia was practically stopped. According to earlier announcements, that work was supposed to be completed by mid-2022. It has been delayed for a year and a half already, and there are no announcements as to when the 5G network in Serbia could become operational. However, in spite of those unpleasant situations, mutual trust grows stronger. This is why China is perceived as a friendly country in Serbia. The Chinese are welcome, whether as investors, creditors, tourists or immigrants. At the same time, in China, Serbia is spoken of in chosen words, Serbia is praised by literally everyone, from government officials to taxi drivers and waiters during informal communications with Serbian tourists. There we must return to “metaphysics” to explain this phenomenon.

China and Russia – defenders of Serbian national interests

On the one hand, Serbia has been butchered by the collective West for the past quarter of a century to such an extent that it is somewhat of a miracle how it has survived both in terms of internal stability and organization, and in terms of its position in international relations. Serbia was presented as a pariah state, blamed for all the accidents in the post-Yugoslav space during the 1990s. That process finally resulted in 2008 in a major action declaring the unilateral independence of the so-called Republic of Kosovo. This process was managed by the USA and Great Britain, with logistical help from Germany and France.

In its relations with Serbia, the collective West crossed all “red lines” and this had to be reflected in the attitude of Serbian public opinion. Hence the continuously high support of Serbian public opinion for cooperation with Russia. China entered the Serbian political scene through the big door in 2008, fiercely insisting on respecting the principles of international public law and defending Serbia’s position on the necessity of preserving territorial integrity. Together with Russia, since then, China has been anticipated as the protector of Serbian interests, and in the coming years that impression will only be strengthened by the expansion of bilateral cooperation from the political level and the topic of Kosovo, to other areas and a whole series of projects.

Development of economic and financial relations between Serbia and China

On the other hand, although initially the Chinese developed better and more their relations in other areas with other European countries and realized a greater number of projects elsewhere than in Serbia (in Western Europe, for example with Germany, in the CEEC zone with Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, Hungary), official Belgrade remained steadfast and consistent in its attitude towards Beijing. With the exception of a couple of unpleasant situations, Serbia did not move away from China, nor did it violate formally signed or informally agreed upon agreements. From a psychological point of view, it has become very important for Chinese foreign policy over time, especially in the post-pandemic period. Having one European country, west of the post-Soviet space, as an unwavering and consistent ally proves to the Chinese themselves that they are still accepted in Europe, despite the radical anti-Chinese measures of the USA (and consequently a completely new attitude of NATO towards Chinese projects) and the increasingly frequent decisions of the EU that go in that direction. The Chinese have their own interests for which they strengthen their influence in Serbia, just as Serbia has its own logic when it projects further connections with Beijing.

So far, those interests and logic have resulted in impressive gains. Currently, Chinese investments in Serbia amount to around 14 billion euros. The two pillars of China’s presence in the economy are the giant in the mining industry Zijin, which manages the exploitation and processing of copper (the headquarters of the company is located in Bor in eastern Serbia) and the colossus in the steel industry, Hesteel Serbia, which privatized the Serbian ironworks in Smederevo (a city on the Danube, not far from Belgrade). These two companies now determine a good percentage of Serbian GDP, they are also the two largest individual exporters. In addition to them, in the last ten years the Chinese companies Mint and Mei Ta have opened huge factories in Loznica (Western Serbia) and Obrenovac (outskirts of Belgrade), and the realization of the largest greenfield investment in Serbia in the last thirty years has initiated the construction of a car tire factory of the Linglong company in Zrenjanin (north-eastern Serbia), which has slowed down in the post-pandemic period due to structural problems in the automotive industry.

Chinese financial institutions have credited the construction of a new block of the Kostolac thermal power plant (in the amount of one billion euros, that energy facility is very important as a regulatory one in the strategy of ensuring energy security), the highway connecting Belgrade with Montenegro (the section Belgrade – Čačak has been built so far), as well as the Belgrade – Budapest high-speed railway (the Belgrade – Novi Sad section has been built so far). In addition, a loan in the amount of 3 billion euros is in the process of being realized for the reconstruction of communal infrastructure in over 60 cities and municipalities (water supply, sewerage, electricity network, gasification), and two more loans in the same amount have been agreed for the construction of two new highways (one towards Hungary and the other towards Romania).

Military-technical cooperation

Serbia is also the only European country (beyond the post-Soviet area) that expands military cooperation with China. This is primarily reflected in the purchase of Chinese complex anti-aircraft systems and drones for reconnaissance and space observation, but also in cooperation in the field of cyber security. It is also curious that the Chinese language is taught as optional in Serbia in 34 primary and 30 secondary schools, and even experimentally in a couple of kindergartens. About 2,000 students learn Chinese as an optional, and as a compulsory second foreign language it was introduced in the Philological High School in Belgrade and in the famous high school in Sremski Karlovci. The teaching staff is mainly from China. In Belgrade, at the Faculty of Philology, there is a Confucius Institute. The Institute organizes Chinese language courses, training for Chinese language teachers, verification of qualifications for teaching Chinese language and organizing linguistic and cultural exchange.


Due to the fact that the question should not only be asked how, but also why relations with China develop – this country is a unique example in Europe. A credible “overview of the situation” obtained by enumerating and analyzing the mutual agreements between Beijing and Belgrade must be complemented by the determination of public opinion, both Serbian and Chinese. Public opinion perceives the other side as friendly, and in international relations, perception is often more important than facts. That is, perception is not created on the basis of facts, but the factual situation is adapted to perception. The previously constructed perception of mutual friendship through bilateral projects, economic, military and cultural cooperation is gaining new content. It seems, looking from this perspective, that in this way new quality and mutual benefit is achieved. The Chinese will remain in Serbia and Serbia will continue to rely on China. Regardless of changes in the international environment or turbulence in domestic politics.

Professor, PhD

Dušan Proroković