The Dragon Lands in Belgrade: The Drivers of Sino-Serbian Partnership

The Dragon Lands in Belgrade: The Drivers of Sino-Serbian Partnership

Now as Europeans are being more aware of the China challenge and with Sino-American rivalry heating up, great power politics will knock on Serbia’s doors.

 

The Balkans and wider Eastern Europe became the regional markets where China and Huawei tried to compensate for the fall in revenues caused by the tech war unleashed under the Trump administration. There is, however, a strategic logic for China to include Serbia in its Digital Silk Road: it presents an interesting opportunity to shape global tech standards. Serbia, thanks to its geography, is a hub for regional internet traffic. It is a neighbor to four EU member states—twice that of any other country in the Western Balkans. Among these neighbors is Croatia, an EU and NATO member and, more importantly, home to two out of three submarine cables allowing internet traffic to the Balkans. Serbia is also the only country from the Western Balkans that is part of the 5G Public Private Partnership—a joint initiative of the European Commission and various private European companies promoting next-generation communication solutions across the continent. Between January 2019 and January 2020, more regional internet queries were transmitted through Belgrade than through any other city in the wider European region except for Frankfurt, through which some regional traffic is routed.

Huawei is acting accordingly. In 2019, Huawei announced plans to form a digital transformation hub in the Western Balkans, headquartered in Belgrade, as part of a smart city development strategy. The next year, the hub was officially opened, with Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić attending. In addition, in 2019 Huawei launched the One Thousand Dreams project to train 1,000 young talents from Central and Eastern Europe, including Serbia, in information and communications technology. Huawei has also partnered with the Serbian government to pursue a “smart city” strategy in the largest urban centers of Belgrade, Novi Sad, and Niš. Furthermore, Huawei will provide the Serbian Ministry of the Interior with eLTE—an advanced wireless broadband system—for its projects in Belgrade.

 

IN MORE martial affairs, a security partnership has also blossomed between the two countries. It entails three elements: Chinese presence in Serbian surveillance infrastructure, joint police patrols in Serbian cities, and growing military cooperation. 

Serbia’s partnership with Huawei is not just grounded in technological cooperation between the two governments but also in their national security cooperation. In 2015, Chinese authorities identified and tracked a Serbian national hiding in China after a fatal hit and run accident in Belgrade, leading to the man’s extradition. Serbian police were understandably impressed with the technological capabilities of their Chinese counterparts. The Serbian Ministry of the Interior was vindicated in its choice of Huawei as a partner for their Safe City project, for which an agreement was signed back in 2011. Within this project, Huawei installed 1,000 surveillance cameras in 800 locations across Belgrade, equipped with advanced facial and license plate recognition software. The location of most of these cameras remains confidential and undisclosed. Huawei is also secretive about the arrangement: when the introduction of surveillance cameras was announced, Huawei removed the description of the “Safe City” project from its website. In 2018, the Serbian Ministry of Finance signed another agreement, allowing Huawei to provide traffic surveillance systems. 

The presence of this type of technology exposes Serbia to the risk of authorities being encouraged to spy on their population, along with the potential that there is now a technological backdoor for China to penetrate local infrastructure and extract intelligence data. Regarding the former, there are strong suspicions that, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, Huawei’s cameras were used to monitor whether the Serbs who returned from virus hotspots, like Italy, obeyed quarantine measures. The latter risk was observed in 2018 in the headquarters of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Huawei used its equipment to transfer data from the AU’s offices to China. There is also the risk there might exist a “kill switch,” which would allow Beijing to shut down the local infrastructure from afar.

Other Chinese tech companies can also help export products to create a proxy-Chinese surveillance state. Dahua Technologies and Hikvision are two Chinese video surveillance companies, blacklisted by the United States for human rights abuses, that have a presence in Serbia. In 2019, one could find Dahau’s products at Belgrade airport. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Dahua engaged in an aggressive marketing campaign in Serbia, promoting its products as a solution to the problems created by the pandemic in a way that exaggerated the realistic capabilities of their products. In June 2020, 900 Hikvision internet-connected surveillance cameras were detected across Serbia.

In the more physical realm, Serbia and China also established joint Sino-Serbian police patrols in 2019. This arrangement was primarily because Serbian cities, before the COVID-19 pandemic, experienced a major growth in the number of Chinese tourists, thanks to the 2016 abolition of visas between the two countries. Though this agreement should not be overstated as a hallmark of diplomacy, as both Serbia and China have similar arrangements with other countries, it does speak to the growing security ties between the two governments. Furthermore, the joint police patrols will also allow China to have police authorities in cities where Chinese capital is concentrated, like Novi Sad and Smederevo.

Military cooperation is the most striking element of the developing security partnership. According to information disclosed by the Serbian Ministry of Defence in 2019, between 2008 and 2018 China was the second-largest donor to the Serbian army, with $5.2 million in donations, only second to the United States’ $9.8 million. Via this partnership, Serbia uses China to modernize its defense and meet its national security requirements while maintaining a balance between Western and non-Western powers. China, for its part, can cite these efforts as it tries to promote itself as a rising military superpower, capable of forming military partnerships even with distant countries. Additionally, it uses Serbia to penetrate the European defense market with its weapons systems. So far though, Chinese entry to this market has been impeded by the arms embargo imposed on China by the EU since 1989, following the violent suppression of the Tiananmen protests.

In November 2019, Serbian special forces and Chinese police conducted a joint anti-terrorism exercise in Serbia. While China sent a police unit and not a military unit, the exercise speaks of the growing security stronghold China tries to accumulate in order to guard its citizens and interests overseas. Serbian acquisition of Chinese drones is just one case in point. In September 2018, during President Vučić’s visit to Beijing, representatives of the Serbian Ministry of Defence negotiated this acquisition with their Chinese colleagues. On that occasion, Serbia ordered nine Chengdu Pterodactyl-1 drones, also known as Wing Loong. The arrangement also includes technology transfers that would allow Serbia to complete its indigenous drone project, Pegaz (Pegasus).

In light of that fact, Serbia gave up on Wing Loong drones and instead went for the CH-92A drones, manufactured by the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, as they were more compatible with the development of the Serbian drone program. Six CH-92A drones were delivered to Serbia in June 2020, and by October these drones were being used in military exercises attended by Vučić.

By buying Chinese weapons systems, Serbia is upgrading its outdated military hardware and adjusting it to the changing technological landscape of global defense. Thanks to the acquisition of CH-92A drones, Serbia will manufacture its own drones and reconstitute the 353rd Intelligence Surveillance squadron, defunct since 2006, thereby becoming the largest drone operator in the Balkans. This transformation will increase Serbian ability to police its airspace, which has been at the forefront of national strategic thinking since the experience of NATO’s intervention in 1999. By acquiring weaponry from China, Serbia’s leadership believes it has increased its bargaining power with the West. Meanwhile, Serbia continues to rely on China for the modernization of its defense and air-space capacities. In August 2020, Serbia decided to purchase the Chinese anti-aircraft FK-3 missile system, instead of the Russian S-300 system.

AT THE outbreak of COVID-19, ties between the two countries were at their apex. The cooperation between China and Serbia in combating the pandemic showed that China would step in to fill any opening left by the EU. In that way, China became Serbia’s primary non-Western partner, outmatching even Russia, while cooperation with Beijing has become a tool of domestic promotion for the Serbian leadership.

When the COVID-19 outbreak hit Europe, the EU’s initial response was a shortsighted export ban on protective medical equipment. At the press conference announcing a state of emergency, Vučić denounced the EU’s decision and opted to embrace China and Xi, saying: “I believe in my friend and my brother, Xi Jinping, and I believe in Chinese help. The only country that can help us is China.” On March 21, 2020, Vučić personally greeted a jet carrying Chinese medical aid at the Belgrade airport, where he kissed the Chinese flag as a sign of gratitude. In addition, landmarks across the city of Belgrade were lit up in the colors of the Chinese flag. The EU, possibly realizing its mistake, later jumped in with aid worth €93 million. China though had better timing and a better public relations campaign. As a result, in 2020 75 percent of Serbian citizens believe China provided the most assistance to Serbia during the pandemic, while in 2021, 33 percent of Serbs believed that China is the biggest aid donor to the country. It should be noted though that China’s campaign of boosting its global image through the provision of medical supplies, known as mask diplomacy, did not yield satisfactory results across the rest of Southeastern Europe.