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Chinese President Xi Jinping receives an official reception in Serbia

Chinese President Xi Jinping receives an official reception in Serbia
Comment on the photo, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (second from right) and his wife Tamara Vucic welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan in Belgrade

  • author, Guy Delauney
  • Role, BBC News, Belgrade

The red flags start at Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade and extend along the highway to the center of the Serbian capital.

This is Serbia’s way of showing pride in its “tough friendship” with China – and welcoming Xi Jinping’s visit to Belgrade.

At the city’s western gate, more commonly known as the Jinx Tower, there is an entire tower covered in China’s national colors.

And for good measure, there’s a billboard for Hisense, the Chinese home appliance manufacturer, which opened a refrigerator factory in Valjevo, western Serbia, last year.

In some parts of Europe, the Chinese president’s itinerary may have raised eyebrows. After all, Serbia rarely finds itself part of a three-stop tour by an international leader of such stature.

But Serbia has been deepening its relationship with China in recent years, even as it continues negotiations to join the European Union.

Xi is likely to use his trip to highlight his criticism of NATO. His visit coincides with the 25th anniversary of the US air strikes on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. In an editorial for the Serbian newspaper Politika, the president explained that emotions over this incident remain high.

This kind of rhetoric resonates in Serbia, where the vast majority of people oppose NATO membership. This is the main factor that makes this stop on Xi Jinping’s European tour quite logical.

Image source, Oliver Bonnick/Bloomberg

Comment on the photo, The 1999 NATO bombing campaign aimed to expel Serb forces from Kosovo.

Business contacts are also a factor. The two countries signed a free trade agreement last year, building on the “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” in 2016 – the year Xi Jinping visited the former Serbia.

China now claims to be the largest source of foreign direct investment in Serbia. Hisense, along with mining company Zijin and tire manufacturer Linglong, provides 20,000, says its ambassador, Li Ming.

In fact, UN trade figures place China fifth on the list of foreign direct investment, behind Germany, Italy, the United States and Russia.

Yet Chinese investment is remarkable – and likely to increase. Serbia has just received its first Chinese high-speed electric trains. It will eventually run alongside Swiss-made rolling stock on the Belgrade-Budapest railway, which is being rebuilt with Chinese expertise and financing.

And this is just the beginning. Serbian Infrastructure Minister Goran Vesic says Chinese partners will work on other infrastructure, including roads, bridges, tunnels and sanitation. “There is indeed a lot of scope for cooperation with Chinese companies,” he told Serbian national radio RTS.

No wonder Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, plans to serve his country’s best wines to his Chinese counterpart at a dinner in Xi’s honor.

Image source, Reuters/Aurelien Morisard

Comment on the photo, Xi Jinping spent a rainy day in the Pyrenees at the end of his visit to France

This may have been a mild criticism of Emmanuel Macron, who hosted Xi Jinping on the first leg of his European trip. The French president’s offering was a bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac, which would cost the better part of €5,000 in Belgrade.

A trip to the Pyrenees was also included in the charm offensive – to temper pleas by Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for Xi to ensure more balanced trade with Europe and influence Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war in Ukraine.

After Belgrade, the Chinese President’s next stop will be Budapest, where he will meet his strongest ally among the leaders of the European Union member states, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Chinese investment is also a strong factor there – with a factory for electric car giant BYD among the projects underpinning Orban’s resistance to the EU consensus on everything from immigration to supplying arms to Ukraine.