Friday

10th Apr 2020

Opinion

Serbian-Chinese ties - a potential threat for EU?

  • Chinese police officers have been seen patrolling in the streets of Serbian cities. Officially, this is to assist the increasing number of Chinese tourists (Photo: mw238)

Since the early 2010s, China has been assertively seeking to increase its clout in central and eastern Europe and the Balkans through frameworks such as the '16+1' summits and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The attractiveness of the region for China lies in its convenient location as a gateway to Europe.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

As the largest state in the region and partnering country of the BRI, Serbia in particular has acquired Chinese loans worth billions of dollars for building bridges, railroads and highways.

The case of an old steel mill shows just how much China is filling the void left by the United States, which has been gradually withdrawing from the region.

The Železara Smederevo mill had been bought by US Steel in 2003, only to be sold back to the Serbian government less than a decade later.

In 2016, the Chinese state-run He Steel Group bought it for $52m [€46.7m], saving more than 5,000 jobs.

Investments like this explain the prevalence of Serbians' positive image of China as a friendly country that is investing in the Serbian economy.

It is not only BRI projects and investments in Serbia - which may create unsustainable debts - that provoke EU scepticism.

On top of the strengthened economic cooperation, the two countries are also increasingly cooperating in the security field.

For instance, while EU governments, following the example of the United States, are heatedly discussing a potential ban of Huawei technology from their national 5G networks, Serbia is moving in the opposite direction.

It is not only allowing Huawei to build its national 5G network, it has also happily installed 1,000 Huawei-made facial recognition cameras in 800 locations all over Belgrade as part of China's "Safe City" project.

Similar "Safe Cities" already exist in former Soviet countries including Armenia, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, but Belgrade is the furthest the Chinese project has reached into Europe.

Chinese CCTV in European cities

The main concern over the use of Chinese technology is that the collected data could be exposed to Chinese monitoring.

Although Huawei is not state-run, Chinese laws oblige all Chinese firms to cooperate with domestic intelligence agencies.

Thus, though the world's leading network supplier is vowing not to forward confidential information to its government, experts and intelligence in European states have been resolutely warning against the inclusion of Huawei in their 5G network construction.

In Serbia, not only the Chinese government could potentially use the technology for spying: Serbian citizens increasingly fear their own government's monitoring and targeting of political opposition.

As highlighted by the soon-to-be-released Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI) 2020, the state of democracy in Serbia has been declining in the past few years.

The current government's authoritarian tendencies likely have been further boosted by its cooperation with China. While China and Serbia have enjoyed good political relations for decades, these have been considerably strengthened in the past few years and culminated in president Aleksandar Vucic recently referring to China as his country's "most honest and trustworthy friend".

This is all happening at a time of decreasing alignment of Serbia-EU foreign and security policy as well as sluggish progress of its EU accession negotiations, which started in 2014.

Chinese police on EU streets

Thus, Serbia's perceived shift in foreign policy priorities seems to be going hand in hand with the development of its domestic government system: Serbia's BTI score for commitment to democratic institutions has been consecutively falling from the high score of nine in 2014 to the all time lowest score of seven, according to the upcoming BTI 2020.

Although a score of seven still describes a situation in which "most democratic institutions are accepted as legitimate by most relevant actors", the trajectory points to increasing authoritarianism.

Being a EU candidate state, Serbia's strengthening security and military cooperation with authoritarian China should be of particular concern for European democracies.

In September 2019, Serbia purchased nine armed drones from Chinese producer AVIC, which accounts to China's biggest military sale into Europe so far.

On top of this, Chinese police officers have been seen patrolling in the streets of Serbian cities. Officially, this is to assist the increasing number of Chinese tourists.

Similar joint police patrols have been organised in other European countries, including tourist-ridden Italy, but in Serbia, China's police presence seems to be connected to its investments all over the country.

Remarkably, Chinese police patrols take place in some towns which are hardly popular with tourists, but instead are famous for Chinese large-scale investments.

The first joint training drills of Serbian and Chinese police and anti-terrorist units on 28 November accordingly occurred in the town of Smederevo, which happens to be the place where the above-mentioned Chinese-owned steel mill is located.

As has been observed in some other countries hosting large-scale BRI projects, China seems to be increasingly flirting with the idea of sending its own security personnel abroad to protect the safety of its projects.

The EU should not turn a blind eye to these developments.

They show China's willingness to use the export of technologies and other opportunities to get a foot into the security structures of target countries. EU members must be aware of this when pondering high-tech cooperation with China that opens access to sensitive data.

Given the fact that Serbia already shares delicate data with China, the EU also should make efforts to prevent candidate states from fully slipping into China's orbit.

This should include offering some alternatives to Chinese money and cooperation projects and being more straightforward about the actual possibility of their accession to the EU.

Author bio

Eva Seiwert is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of East Asian Studies (GEAS) at the Freie Universität Berlin. Her research focuses on China’s foreign policy towards central Asia, in particular within the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

EU's 'soft strengths' are enough to face China

As the share of the EU in the global economy shrinks, the soft power of its economic instruments and the attraction of the internal market is destined to decline.

EU and China agree to defend 'gastronomic jewels'

Manchego cheese, Panjin rice and Polish vodka will all be protected under a new EU-China agreeement. But the two trading giants continue to struggle over other trade-related deals.

Why the EU doesn't get China's Belt and Road

It is not enough for European officials to simply tell the press that they do not understand the Belt and Road – the vision is clear enough, the point is to decide how to engage with it.

Why Europe must act now, and on a big scale

It is still very likely that Europe will face a new deadly spread of the virus next autumn or winter. Until a reliable vaccine and cure are in place, we all have to live in this new reality.

Coronavirus sees approval-rating soar for EU leaders

The rise in support for mainstream parties has been paired with stagnation or decline for far-right populist parties and figures - the AfD has dropped to 10 percent in Germany and Marine Le Pen and Matteo Salvini are treading water.

The future of 'Made in China' after coronavirus?

In repointing Europe's approach to industrial policy, some policymakers have prized China as an example to follow. Luckily, the European Commission is moving towards a European approach.

News in Brief

  1. Migrants trapped on boat in Tripoli due to shelling
  2. EU anti-crisis budget 'could be up to €1.5 trillion'
  3. Western Balkan states appeal for EU help with masks
  4. Spain's lockdown could be extended until 10 May
  5. IMF: Pandemic crisis will be worse than great depression
  6. German economy minister expects progress on EU deal
  7. Italian PM: EU is at risk if no deal on recovery plan
  8. Belgian region to block EU Green Deal

Coronavirus: A test of the West

We are experiencing the first global pandemic unfolding in the 24/7 news cycle and taking its toll, in real time, on our daily lives, our financial security and the global economy.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAMaking Europe’s Economy Circular – the time is now
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersScottish parliament seeks closer collaboration with the Nordic Council
  3. UNESDAFrom Linear to Circular – check out UNESDA's new blog
  4. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms

Latest News

  1. How the EU's virus-alert agency failed
  2. Flemish nationalists torpedo Belgium Green Deal pledge
  3. Eurozone agreed €500bn cushion against virus blow
  4. Why Europe must act now, and on a big scale
  5. EU court blocks Poland's bid to 'frighten' judges
  6. Coronavirus sees approval-rating soar for EU leaders
  7. EU science chief who 'quit' had been told to resign
  8. EU delays 'exit strategies' plan, as WHO urges caution

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us