China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

How a Pandemic Drew China and Serbia Closer 

China’s medical assistance to Serbia inspired profuse gratitude from President Vucic.

Eleanor Albert
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How a Pandemic Drew China and Serbia Closer 
Credit: Twitter/ President of the Republic of Serbia

The global spread of the coronavirus reveals the need for medical and economic responses, and yet, the pandemic has also created opportunities for diplomatic jockeying. While the downward spiral in U.S.-China relations has garnered significant coverage, less attention has been directed to China’s efforts to assist smaller countries around the world – those who currently are facing lower numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases, but have less crisis capacity. Recent Chinese aid to Serbia highlights not only how Beijing is capitalizing on the pandemic to rewrite its image as a responsible international actor, but also a steady deepening of ties between Beijing and Belgrade.

China-Serbia relations have gone through various permutations, influenced both by changes in the international environment and in their respective domestic political arenas. In the past decade or so, China-Serbia ties have grown stronger. In 2009, the two countries signed an agreement establishing a strategic partnership. This partnership was upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2016. A year later, China and Serbia lifted visa restrictions for travelers to the two countries. Since then, the two countries have signed on to a series of major projects that extend China’s Belt and Road Initiative to the western Balkans, including a Belgrade-Budapest railway and a new metro system for the Serbian capital. Separately, the growth in Chinese influence in Serbia is also felt both through cultural and political channels, as well as via the installation of Huawei Safe City technology for surveillance.

On the economic front, bilateral trade has grown significantly, tripling between 2005 and 2016, though the relationship is very unbalanced. In 2018, China ranked third among the top sources of Serbian imported goods, behind Germany and Italy.

Meanwhile, Serbia remains engaged in negotiations for accession to the European Union. Its accession has been on the EU’s expansion agenda since 2011 and negotiations are expected to be completed by 2023, though the future path is uncertain. The coronavirus outbreak appears to be exacerbating tension between Serbia’s ruling party and the EU, potentially delaying progress on improving with its neighbors.

In mid-March, Serbian President Aleksander Vucic initially declared a state of emergency to stem the spread of the virus, announcing a night curfew and the deployment of the military to protect hospitals and Serbian borders, among other measures. (As of March 26, Serbia had nearly 400 confirmed cases of the virus, according to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center.) Vucic also made appeals for international assistance in combating the virus. China heeded the call by sending much-needed testing kits and a medical team, including epidemiologists with COVID-19 experience. Separately, Chen Bo, the Chinese ambassador to Serbia, joined many of China’s other diplomats in opening a Twitter account earlier this month and has to date focused on disseminating information about China’s solidarity with Serbia and medical help.

Following the arrival of the Chinese doctors, Vucic revised Serbia’s response to follow what could be described as a “Chinese model.” Serbia will now implement a mass testing program and immediately isolate positive cases, with mild ones in makeshift clinics, serious cases in hospitals, and severe cases treated in intensive care units. Failure to abide by social distancing guidelines, including a curfew, will be punishable by three to 12 years in jail.

Other countries and organizations have provided aid to Serbia, albeit to much less fanfare. Norway sent 5 million euros in economic assistance. UNICEF donated dozens of ventilators, protective gear, and sanitizing supplies. On March 25, the European Union announced a 93 million euro package for Serbia, including 15 million euros for the purchase and transport of medical supplies and equipment and an additional 78 million euros for economic recovery.

Still, Chinese state media have made the most of the Vucic’s administration’s appreciation for Chinese aid and frustration with the EU’s responsiveness and lack of European solidarity. For example, Vucic welcomed the arrival of China’s medical team and publicly made the following statement: “Dear Chinese friends, sisters and brothers, welcome to Serbia!  Thank you very much to my brother, President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party of China and the Chinese people. Long live our steel friendship! Long live China! Long live Serbia!” Videos of the Serbian president praising China and kissing the Chinese flags have also been shared widely on Chinese state-owned media.

News outlets such as Xinhua and China Daily feature headlines emphasizing China’s goodwill: “Chinese aid hailed as nations reel,” “As China recovers from COVID-19 blow, Chinese rush to Europe’s rescue,” “China offers anti-virus assistance to 89 countries,” and “Xi says China to contribute to a stable world economy.” These examples illustrate a large trend in Chinese state media, which are moving to better promote China as a great power. Neil Thomas, a senior researcher at the Paulson Institute’s MacroPolo, tracked the mentions of “assuming the role of a great power” (大国担当) in the People’s Daily and found that the phrase has taken off under Xi Jinping’s leadership and has surged in the first quarter of 2020.

Repairing China’s domestic and international reputation in the aftermath of its own fight against the coronavirus is no doubt the primary motivation driving the propaganda and foreign assistance push. This is not the first instance of China participating in response to global crises — it has previously been involved in multilateral approaches to the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 Ebola outbreak — but some have suggested that China’s coronavirus pandemic response is missing the multilateral tone that characterized previous crises. Instead, China is pursuing a response as a lone, responsible actor.

Others argue that Beijing’s propaganda push and swift inroads in Europe during a crisis may backfire. “If Beijing is widely perceived to take advantage of Europe at a time of economic despair, any positive momentum it acquired in an early charm offensive could very quickly turn against it,” write the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Majda Ruge and Janka Oertel. They add that “Serbia’s most important relationship will be that with Europe – and no amount of propaganda will change that.”