Security Aspect in China-Serbia Relations: Digital and Military Cooperation

Sino-Serbian partnership has been on a rise ever since China and Serbia signed a Strategic Agreement in 2009 that set a foundation for future bilateral cooperation between the two countries. This period was crucial for Serbia in determining its foreign policy priorities and partners. China came as a convenient ally in times of global economic crisis that also seriously disturbed the Serbian market and the 2008 Kosovo declaration of independence, which prompted Serbian authorities to seek partners and support outside the Western political sphere. Concurrently, China was increasingly interested in expanding its network of economic and political ties with European countries. Serbia, as a gateway country to the EU market, evolved into an important and integral part of broader Chinese foreign policy that became more proactive and outward-looking

In 2013, the Joint Statement signed by the then Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping only deepened Sino-Serbian strategic relations. During that period, China started promoting its ambitious Belt and Road initiative and sought more comprehensive cooperation with interested countries to join this grand project. Moreover, China launched a 16+ initiative (initially it was named 14+1, and from 2019 to 2021: 17+1) in order to increase cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries (CEEC), including Serbia that benefited greatly from the project. Over the years, China and Serbia have reached numerous economic and political agreements that have involved many areas other than infrastructure and transportation, incorporating culture, media, academic research and security realms into elevated bilateral collaboration.

Security aspect in the Sino-Serbian relationship represents one of the most controversial and peculiar parts of this atypical partnership that has reached a historically unprecedented high level. Recently the cooperation between China and Serbia has not only deepened within the already established areas of collaboration but has also extended to the security field. Sino-Serbian security relations revolve around military cooperation, public security and police cooperation. The introduction of Chinese surveillance (face recognition) technologies and joint police patrols in Serbian cities as well as intensified military cooperation reflected in the entry of Chinese arms into Serbian defense market and performance of joint military exercises have only confirmed that the two countries have been seriously investing in their security relationship.

China’s interests in expanding relations in the security realm with Serbia are twofold. First of all, China is interested in entering the European defense market and to test its ability to act as a new security actor in Europe. Secondly, China wants to protect its investments and projects within the Belt and Road initiative that are present in Serbia and the wider region of the Western Balkans. Serbia is also interested in strengthening security relations with China as such cooperation brings more effective and laxed political and economic agreements.  Sino-Serbian military partnership is beneficial to Serbia due to its potential to update its outdated defense systems. Additionally, Chinese security investments contribute to Serbia`s balancing foreign policy between West and East, which allows the country to capitalize on the geopolitical rivalry among the great powers.

Public Security and Police Cooperation

Sino-Serbian security collaboration has officially started with the signing of the MoU on Strengthening the Development of Information Silk Road for Information Connectivity in 2017 including the “Smart City” project that promotes digitalization and public safety through the implementation of a surveillance cameras system equipped with AI facial recognition software. In 2019, the project was publicly announced and the installation of the network of surveillance cameras continued across the capital city of Serbia, Belgrade. Although the Smart City project, in its essence, promotes public safety of citizens and fight against crime and terrorism via digital solutions, there is concern that Serbian authorities might misuse such potential to increase government control and introduce more authoritarian-oriented methods of surveillance.

In addition to surveillance infrastructure, China and Serbia have deepened security ties by organizing  joint police patrols in Serbian cities since 2019. The reasoning behind such a security agreement lies in the fact that Serbia has been experiencing a growing number of Chinese tourists and workers. The need for helping Serbian police officers in communication with Chinese nationals and Serbia’s institutions has risen, especially on a local level i.e. in cities where the Chinese capital is concentrated and places popular among Chinese tourists. However, some reports suggest that China’s overseas “police stations” might act as an extended hand of Chinese surveillance used to control its own citizens in other countries.

Military Cooperation

Sino-Serbian military collaboration remains one of the most prominent components of the growing security partnership between China and Serbia that not only attracts attention but also raises concerns among regional and foreign powers. Back in 2019, Chinese and Serbian special police forces conducted a joint counterterrorism exercise at a Chinese-owned steel factory in the Serbian city of Smederevo. This was the first Chinese joint exercise in Europe. While Western powers are reluctant to cooperate with China in the military area, Serbia seems more than interested to deepen security and military ties with China. Moreover, China perceives Serbia as an important entrance point for its wider security strategy that aims at enhancing security relations with European countries.

China has become Serbia`s leading military partner in the East, toppling Russia`s long dominance in the Serbian defense market. The newest Free Trade Agreement in 2023 additionally enhanced Sino-Serbian military partnership providing a growing discount for purchasing Chinese various defense-related products over the 15-year period. This agreement has also increased criticism and concerns among Western powers.

Both the EU and the US have expressed concerns over the strengthened Sino-Serbian military partnership as such collaboration can hinder further democratic and European path of Serbia and create regional insecurities. Even though Serbia’s military build-up with Chinese arms has intensified anxiety among the country`s neighboring states, a conflict  initiated by Serbia in the region is less likely in the foreseeable future, especially as the main purpose of the arms deal with China is to modernize Serbian defense systems and in a symbolic way deter potential attackers.

Future of Sino-Serbian Security Relations

As economic and political ties will continue to expand between China and Serbia, the security aspect of such a relationship is expected to grow as well. Both China and Serbia have shown an elevated interest in deepening further their security collaboration especially due to mutual benefits that arise from it. Strengthened Sino-Serbian security cooperation is in line with the foreign policy priorities and strategies of both countries. Frequent high-level exchanges as well as numerous agreements conducted between China and Serbia only confirm that the two countries are determined to continue pursuing a proactive bilateral relationship and the security aspect will continue to be an integral part of such a partnership.

[Photo by the Government of the Republic of Serbia]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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