When Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic issued a call for help to fight the outbreak of COVID-19, China was the first Country that answered, sending Shipments of Medical Supplies and deploying medical experts.

Meanwhile, ordinary Chinese people also voluntarily mobilised to support Serbia in the battle against the pandemic, a reflection of the deep bond shared by the two countries.

Serbia is currently taking advice from Chinese medical staff to implement a series of measures, including the building of makeshift hospitals. While the merciless pandemic threatens people’s lives, the friendship between China and Serbia continues to shine, even at this difficult time.

However, the humanitarian aid China is offering to Serbia is being maliciously attacked by some Western media as having other “ulterior motives.”

What do Serbians think of China’s help for their country? How do they view the attacks from Western media outlets on the aid China is giving and China’s diplomacy? Reporter spoke with Serbian Ambassador to China Milan Bacevic on these topics.

Q. How do you evaluate the work of the Chinese medical team in your country and how can its experience benefit Serbia?

Ambassador Bacevic: Chinese Doctors are our most precious human resource today. They have survived the painful struggle, providing lessons for the whole of humanity who are now resisting the health threat through all available means.

And that is why I was extremely pleased that our President Aleksandar Vucic greeted them personally upon their arrival at the airport. China’s measures against the novel coronavirus have been praised by the WHO.

And in a conversation between Chinese experts and our medical teams in Serbia, it came to the conclusion that the “Chinese model” is the most suitable to get one step ahead of the virus spread, and it has included the closure of the locations of an outbreak, separating the infected, massive testing, isolation of families and those with mild symptoms, treatment and re-isolation. Serbia closed its borders a few days ago, and soon after banned intercity and urban public transport.

Learning from the Chinese model, we have prepared hospitals for all new patients. When it comes to testing, it is not possible to go from apartment to apartment as was the case in China, because we do not have enough resources to do this. In addition to the already large healthcare facilities, we are working on the opening of another large laboratory that can handle between 2,000 and 3,000 tests per day at the Clinical Center of Serbia.

According to China’s suggestions, 3,000 beds have already been installed at the Belgrade Fair Center to serve as a makeshift hospital for those who are infected and have mild symptoms.

We are also preparing to build makeshift centres in other cities in Serbia with a larger number of infected. When it comes to the last phase of the fight against the virus, specifically when dealing with the issue of virus relapse, we will absolutely follow the Chinese example: All those who recover must stay in isolation for two more weeks at home to completely exclude any chance of relapse.

Q. What assistance and supplies does Serbia now urgently need?

Ambassador Bacevic: China was the first country in the world that hurried to provide help. And it did so without delay. In response to President Aleksandar Vucic’s appeal, a six member team of Chinese doctors has arrived in Serbia along with the largest shipment of Chinese humanitarian aid, consisting of equipment, respirators and other medical supplies.

Previously, a donation of thousands of virus detection tests by the Mammoth Foundation based in Shenzhen, South China’s Guangdong Province, was delivered to Serbia.

China’s help is vital to us. The donations that have been provided through Chinese President Xi Jinping’s immediate decision have saved thousands of lives and we are deeply grateful for that. That is why our president kissed the Chinese national flag.

Many developed European countries have fallen prey to the epidemic despite their superior health systems.

Witnessing this, the first detected cases of COVID-19 in Serbia prompted us to ask for help. Chinese donations are, in that sense, crucial for us. Serbia still needs medical materials and equipment, especially respirators, oxygen concentrators, protective overalls, masks, anti-viral drugs, contactless thermometers, and so on.

Q. These days, many Western media outlets claim that China is helping countries including Serbia only out of “coronavirus diplomacy.” They claim that China helps these countries to gain benefits. What’s your take on this? How do you evaluate China’s assistance to Serbia?

Ambassador Bacevic: The comprehensive measures taken by China and their results have drawn praise from the WHO and many countries. China has not only taken responsibility for its own citizens but also shown concern for global health security. I notice that in this situation, China is already coming out of the combat phase and is shifting it to a global level as the new battlefield. I have seen reports that China has sent teams and medical assistance to numerous countries.

So, I find that any comment that denies Chinese efforts can be regarded as malicious and a waste of energy that is now most needed to be directed to join in efforts to fight the pandemic. This virus is a threat to everyone, without exception, and we can only counter it with united resources and mutual support.

China has been able to successfully contain the virus through painstaking efforts, high collective awareness and self-discipline of its citizens, especially with the courage of medical staff, and it is now helping other countries to keep the situation under control. Our Nobel Prize writer Ivo Andric wrote long ago that “we receive and fully appreciate the virtues of a person only if those virtues appear to us in a form that fits our understanding and preferences.”

I think the assumption that a country’s humanitarian action comes from its selfish interests are misleading. No malicious commentary can cast a shadow over the examples showing that China is becoming a force for good in the world.

China’s help is extremely valuable and salvational to us, as it has given us the hope of beating the epidemic. We are deeply grateful for its helping hand and I can say that this gesture is another confirmation of our “iron friendship.”

China has not yet fully emerged from the fight against the virus, but it has still come to the aid of other people facing difficulties. This is the best test of friendship. Nothing describes this more than the saying “A friend in need is a friend indeed.”

Q. What impact has the coronavirus had on Chinese investments in Serbia?

Ambassador Bacevic: I think that the epidemic will not change the direction of cooperation between China and Serbia in the coming period. Our two countries have capital infrastructure projects that are of mutual strategic importance, and cooperation will continue to thrive.

Major projects such as the Smederevo Steel plant and Zijin Bor Copper have seen continued momentum in investment.

Serbia’s openness to Chinese investment should not be affected by the epidemic, which we will overcome with China’s help. We get messages from Chinese social network followers saying that they can’t wait for the epidemic to pass so they can come to Serbia.

The conditions for cooperation in the field of innovation and digitisation are increasingly improving and, I believe, it will be a sign of our future cooperation. A deep friendship, trust and mutual support in the common fight against this epidemic has just opened the door to an even greater number of new opportunities for cooperation.

Q. How do you evaluate China’s diplomacy? Some people in the West said it is too aggressive and tough. What are your thoughts on this?

Ambassador Bacevic: I would disagree with such an interpretation. I believe that Chinese diplomacy is characterised by a high degree of activism by projecting a policy of cooperation, and the establishment and fostering of harmonious relations, which is most evident in both bilateral and multilateral frameworks.

Central to this is the continuation of the trend of peaceful development, that is, to jointly develop with others in peace, and China’s foreign and economic activities are very much built on this. China is making unstoppable progress and even if it slows down, it will continue to be the most powerful engine of global economic growth.

The Chinese model combines two elements: the element of competition and constant improvement, shifting it from the individual to the collective level.

So instead of individuals, you have an entire nation that is globally competitive, backed by a strong and centralised state, and this gives impressive results. Today, we witness a new chapter in the development of the Chinese nation through the Belt & Road Initiative.

China has shown a willingness to work closely with countries along the Belt & Road through joint efforts, mutual consultations and common interests for the sake of prosperity and development, all through improved policy coordination, infrastructure interconnections, smooth trade, financial integration and people-to-people exchanges, creating a “community with a shared future for mankind.”

This concept of community, the idea that we are all connected and thus share a common destiny, is especially confirmed at the moment of the global fight against the pandemic, led by China.

Further continuation of China’s efforts to promote itself as an open economy and main actor of globalisation and multilateralism is emerging as a strategic space, in which China seeks to affirm the status of a force that contributes to the global good, emphasising cooperation, peace and joint development as its guiding principles.

Chinese diplomacy is carried out by its diplomats and I am very happy to be able to work with H.E. Ms. Chen Bo, China’s Ambassador to Serbia, who is making great efforts to strengthen our bilateral relations and is a true “iron friend” in this period of fighting the epidemic.

Q. Reuters reported that China views Serbia as part of its “ambitious Belt & Road Initiative to open trade links to Europe.” What’s your take on this?

Ambassador Bacevic: Serbia is one of the earliest signatories to the Memorandum of Understanding on joint contribution of the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) with China and is an active participant in this initiative. Our relations with China, traditionally good, have experienced a real boom in the last five years, so there is no area that has not been boosted by the trend of intensive cooperation.

Every project with your country is without a doubt a new development opportunity for Serbia. Numerous infrastructure and investment ventures have contributed to this, and have contributed to the re-industrialisation and positioning of Serbia on the investment map of Europe.

Although the international circumstances in the last five years have been more challenging than ever in recent history, we can proudly say that they have not affected or undermined the joint commitment of Serbia and China to develop mutually beneficial relations based on the principles of mutual respect, adherence to international law and the development model that each country has chosen for itself to fit its national conditions.

Q. Some people said the constantly growing partnership between China and Serbia under the BRI could cause instability in Europe. What’s your view on this?

Ambassador Bacevic: I would say that the growing partnership of our two countries is an added value to the overall China-Europe relations developing in our region, both within the China-CEEC Mechanism and in the broader context within the Belt & Road Initiative, which many European countries have joined.

Serbia has joined the China-Europe Land-Sea Express Route as part of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road through the Belgrade-Budapest Railway modernisation project.

It is projected to further build a connectivity network in Europe, and in this sense we are ready to make the maximum contribution to extending this railway line to the port of Piraeus, which will increase the transportation of people and goods not only in our region, but in the whole of Europe.

Q. Many Chinese people are now voluntarily organising to donate money and medical supplies to Serbia. Will the Serbian Embassy in China consider opening a donation channel?

Ambassador Bacevic: I would like to emphasise in particular that I am deeply moved by the solidarity and the encouragement Chinese citizens are sending us every day. Our embassy often receives donations of medical supplies without knowing who they come from. Chinese citizens also come from other provinces to donate personally.

They call every day to ask how else they can help, whether our families and friends are safe. They are also organising group donations. Students, especially from the Chinese universities where the Serbian language is taught, in fluent Serbian and by playing songs on the guitar, encourage their peers in Serbia that they stand with them.

A few days ago, I received a handwritten letter from a high school student in which he packed ten medical masks.

I was so touched. In just seven days since we opened the Weibo account, we attracted over half a million followers who regularly send supportive messages. Currently, the Embassy does not have a channel for money donations from individuals, and the possibility of donations of medicines is still being considered.

The help that comes in medical supplies is, regardless of its size, more than valuable. Provinces have shown a willingness to help, sister cities as well. Companies are also very active in donating. Everyone is so united in their desire to help. I’m moved by such solidarity and an urge to donate.

Q. Serbia is now under a state of emergency. What other measures will be taken in the coming days to contain the spread of the virus in your country?

Ambassador Bacevic: In Serbia, in the past few days, we have recorded a fairly stable number of patients. The health system has shifted into the so-called offensive mode, which means there are more tested cases.

The Chinese team of medical experts exchanged ideas with local doctors on how to properly implement measures of “early detection, early isolation and early treatment,” treatment of critically ill patients, and how to reduce the risk of infection of medical staff.

At the advice of the Chinese expert group, Serbia has begun to transform the city’s major convention and exhibition centre into a makeshift hospital for the treatment of patients with novel coronavirus.

Members of the Serbian Ministry of Defence, soldiers and volunteers set up about 3,000 beds at the Belgrade Fair Center in one day. Serbia will continue to follow the recommendations of the Chinese expert group to ensure that this hospital meets the requirements for admission and isolation.

We will see if some of the most difficult measures will be implemented, such as quarantining the entire city, as China has done.

After talks with Chinese experts, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has mentioned that there is a possibility of Belgrade being locked down “as the current outbreak point of novel coronavirus in Serbia,” but this will be discussed in the coming days.

The opinion is that this is not the case yet and we hope that everyone will sufficiently adhere to restrictive measures so that we can avoid this undesired scenario.