Serbia has emerged as an important partner for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with the Balkans providing a vector for Chinese infrastructure diplomacy into Europe.
The Balkans, and consequently Serbia, has been a focus of China as an extension of the BRI in Europe for quite some time- and its presence has become visible in almost every corner of the region.
However, Chinese investments and agreements in the Balkans have caused concern among some EU Member States, as they may create unsustainable debts for Balkan governments. Johannes Hahn, the EU commissioner responsible for negotiating with countries wanting to join the bloc, expressed concern last month that some Balkan countries were borrowing heavily from China.
“China never cares how and if a country is able to pay its loans. And if they cannot pay, there is some pressure that things are transferred into their ownership,” he said.
China’s investments are indeed extensive. They are connected to what might best be called ‘domestic policing’ cooperation with Beijing—placing Serbia in the ‘China block’ of a possible geopolitical divide over digital networks and surveillance infrastructure. As Reuters reports:
The initiative follows a memorandum of understanding between the Chinese and Serbian interior ministers signed in May that also allows for joint exercises of special police units and cooperation in fighting cyber crime.
Chinese tourists visiting Belgrade on a sunny afternoon were surprised to see police from their homeland and wanted to take ‘selfie’ photos with them.
Serbia and the Chinese electronics company Huawei have begun a project called Safe City, which envisions mounting hundreds of surveillance cameras in Belgrade and the development of facial-recognition software.
These developments reflect the nexus between great-power challenges and exit-from below dynamics, in which demand from weaker states for economic and security goods meets the supply of alternative-order provided by countries like China.
Serbia, along with other Chinese partners in Eastern and Central Europe, is not necessarily interested in abandoning existing European order entirely. Rather, its leadership sees no reason to turn down the kinds of benefits offered by Beijing. Indeed, in principle, there’s nothing wrong with more investment and assistance, especially if the European Union and the United States cannot meet the needs of recipients.
The fear among established European powers is that China will exploit its leverage to advance its political interests—and sometimes in ways that contravene their own policy priorities and values. Meanwhile, projects along the lines of “Safe City” trigger legitimate concerns about the export of “digital authoritarianism“—both as a tool for recipient governments and as a way for Beijing to, perhaps through straightforward cooperation or backdoors, extend the scope of its surveillance beyond its borders.
It’s not clear how all this will play out, but it is clear that we’re seeing the potential for both subtle and major shifts in the topography of international order.