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 & Road Initiative (BRI).
The attractiveness of the region for China lies in its convenient location as a gateway to Europe.
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.