Top Chinese diplomat visits Serbia, Albania to deepen ties
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi made stops this week in Belgrade, Serbia, and Tirana, Albania, seeking to bolster the Chinese government’s “17 + 1” effort to promote trade and investment between Beijing and the countries of central and eastern Europe.
While Wang has been warmly received in both countries, Serbia and Albania have taken somewhat different approaches to economic cooperation with Beijing through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has funded projects of infrastructure in the developing world.
A stopover in Greece on Wednesday and a planned stopover in Italy on Saturday served as bookends for Wang’s visit to the Balkans. The trip is widely seen as an attempt by China to consolidate economic ties in the region, which has traditionally turned more to the European Union for development assistance.
Friendship “made of steel”
In Serbia, authorities presented Wang with a building permit for a section of railway from Novi Sad to Subotica, which is part of a larger project to modernize the railway between Belgrade and Budapest, Hungary. This decision reflects Serbia’s relative openness to Chinese investment in the country.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić reaffirmed that Belgrade supports the “one China” policy, which sees Taiwan as part of China. Wang, in turn, said Beijing respects Serbia’s territorial integrity, a sign that Beijing will continue to refuse to recognize the independence of Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
Wang said the friendship between the two countries was “made of steel” and added: “Serbia is a country with its own principles and Beijing is proud to have such a friend.”
Vučić said Serbia and China are implementing joint projects worth 8 billion euros ($ 9.3 billion) and trade between the two countries has tripled.
Great Chinese presence
According to Bojan Stanić, deputy director of analysis at the Serbian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, in addition to 1.5 billion euros ($ 1.73 billion) in foreign direct investment from China over the past five In recent years, more than 20,000 people in Serbia work in Chinese. – businesses owned. In addition, more than half of the suppliers to the Smederevo steel plant, which belongs to the Chinese group HBIS, a Chinese state-owned company, are Serbian companies.
Serbia and China have had a Strategic Partnership Agreement since 2009 and a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Agreement since 2016. The latter involves more high-level meetings between officials of the two countries and more in-depth staff exchanges. China is the main lender for road construction in Serbia. Beijing also owns the Bor mining complex and the Linglong tire plant, which is under construction.
The significant Chinese ownership of companies in Serbia has raised concerns about compliance with environmental protection regulations and working conditions in factories.
Other concerns stem from the difficulty in understanding the relationship between Chinese companies and the Chinese Communist Party’s security services.
Igor Novaković, research director at the Center for International and Security Affairs – ISAC Fund, said it is not always clear where a company’s business interests end and the CCP’s political interests begin.
“I am not claiming that companies operating in Serbia are dangerous in themselves, but when there is a link between politics and business, then there is a danger of using business decisions in favor of the political interests of the country. country from which the investments come, ”says Novakovic.
visit to Belgrade
Wang traveled from Belgrade to Tirana on Thursday, ahead of Friday’s meetings with Albanian President Ilir Meta, Prime Minister Edi Rama and European and Foreign Minister Olta Xhaçka.
Officials in Belgrade have historically been much more cautious about Chinese investments and loans.
“The truth is that serious doubts have been raised about Chinese financing following the experiences of some African countries and the Balkans at the time of debt refinancing, that is to say debt repayment and commitments that have placed the governments of these countries largely in financial difficulty, ”said Selami Xhepa, economist and member of the Assembly of the Republic of Albania.
“It required some sort of renegotiation, or similar diplomacy, with the Chinese authorities,” he added. “I think market discipline is better than diplomatic negotiations.”
UN Security Council
Last year, Albania joined a group of countries, led by the United States, which blocked Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE from supplying essential equipment for the deployment of 5G wireless service in the country.
Nonetheless, as Albania is set to sit on the United Nations Security Council, of which China is a permanent member, experts saw Wang’s visit to the country as an important opportunity to cement ties between the two countries and open a dialogue on issues of importance to Albania. . Among these problems is China’s continued effort to block recognition of Kosovo as an independent country, which Albania supports.
“China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council and it is necessary to talk about Kosovo, about Kosovo joining the United Nations, where China is a very big obstacle,” said Besnik Mustafaj, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Albania who now serves as Chairman of the Council of Ambassadors of Albania. “It is time to say that there is no parallelism between Kosovo and Taiwan, that Albania recognizes only one China.”
Ilirian Agolli from the Albanian service of VOA and the Serbian service of VOA contributed to this report.