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Russia’s And China’s Influence In Serbia

October 12th, 2021 13:48

The Roy­al Unit­ed Ser­vices Insti­tute (RUSI), a UK think tank, pub­lished a research paper last year com­par­ing Russ­ian and Chi­nese strate­gic influ­ence and inter­fer­ence in Ser­bia, argu­ing that their fun­da­men­tal approach­es to the coun­try are dif­fer­ent and rarely over­lap. Accord­ing to the RUSI paper:

August 2020 Ser­bia some­times appears to be a coun­try caught between Rus­sia and Chi­na, the two most pow­er­ful play­ers in Eura­sia. Yet, as this paper demon­strates, it seems Ser­bia is able to bal­ance the inter­ests of these pow­er­ful play­ers across its polit­i­cal, defence and eco­nom­ic spheres for its own ben­e­fit. This is large­ly because – at least for the time being – all three coun­tries’ inter­ests are broad­ly aligned. There appears to be lit­tle scope for com­pe­ti­tion between Rus­sia and Chi­na over the Ser­bian mar­ket in spe­cif­ic sec­tors, par­tic­u­lar­ly as Moscow’s entrenched pres­ence in Serbia’s ener­gy mar­ket has made it dif­fi­cult for Bei­jing to gain access. But Rus­sia and Chi­na also appear to be keen to avoid con­fronta­tion over assets in Ser­bia, and their fun­da­men­tal approach­es to the coun­try are dif­fer­ent and rarely overlap.

Read the full paper here.

Accord­ing to the RUSI paper, Rus­sia, lin­guis­ti­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly clos­er to Ser­bia than Chi­na, seeks to retain close links to Ser­bia. Still, increas­ing Russ­ian activ­i­ty may be more sym­bol­ic than serious:

While Russia’s approach to Ser­bia can occa­sion­al­ly cause polit­i­cal fric­tions and seem at odds  with its stat­ed for­eign pol­i­cy goals, Moscow is nev­er­the­less keen to ensure Bel­grade retains  close links to the Krem­lin and remains a com­fort­able buffer against NATO expan­sion in Europe. But in terms of tan­gi­ble out­puts, Rus­sia has giv­en Ser­bia few con­crete promis­es about deep­en­ing secu­ri­ty or defence alliances. Despite hype over arms deals, Rus­sia is con­tent to give Ser­bia its cast-offs rather than mod­ern equip­ment, and the depth of Moscow’s secu­ri­ty rela­tion­ship with Bel­grade can often be over­stat­ed. Rus­sia sees val­ue in main­tain­ing Ser­bia as a polit­i­cal ally, which has become more press­ing giv­en Moscow’s own diplo­mat­ic iso­la­tion. But Serbia’s rel­a­tive­ly low inter­na­tion­al clout and lack of seri­ous eco­nom­ic  prospects mean that the appear­ance of increas­ing Russ­ian activ­i­ty may be more sym­bol­ic than seri­ous. Rus­sia has numer­ous and wide-rang­ing strate­gic inter­ests in the Balkan region, and by exten­sion in Ser­bia. How­ev­er, Russia’s inter­est (and abil­i­ty) to use these levers of influ­ence to effect day-to-day change in Ser­bia is some­what restrict­ed, both by its own ambi­tions and by push­back from Serbia.

On the oth­er hand, Chi­na sees Ser­bia as a key coun­try with­in its 17+1 frame­work, an ini­tia­tive to pro­mote busi­ness and invest­ment rela­tions between Chi­na and 17 Cen­tral and East­ern Euro­pean coun­tries, and a main Euro­pean client of Chi­nese defense sales. Accord­ing to the RUSI:

Serbia’s polit­i­cal rela­tion­ship with Chi­na car­ries val­ue in inter­na­tion­al forums and demon­strates  that Chi­na per­ceives Ser­bia as a reli­able part­ner in Europe on key issues. In addi­tion, Chi­na is inter­est­ed in Ser­bia as a mar­ket for its eco­nom­ic invest­ments, as a key coun­try with­in Beijing’s 17+1 frame­work, and as a poten­tial future spring­board into the EU. Chi­na appears to have cho­sen to focus on more niche areas of ener­gy infra­struc­ture where Rus­sia is not a key play­er, while invest­ing heav­i­ly in trans­port and tech­nol­o­gy infra­struc­ture, as well as min­ing. Chi­na also sees Ser­bia as  a  secu­ri­ty  part­ner and main Euro­pean client  of Chi­nese defence sales. By oper­at­ing and invest­ing in Ser­bia, this mar­ket may become a future spring­board for third-coun­try   sales – poten­tial­ly else­where in Europe. Although Chi­na can­not com­pete with the lin­guis­tic and cul­tur­al advan­tages that Rus­sia has in  Ser­bia, there is lit­tle evi­dence that it is even attempt­ing to do so. The edu­ca­tion­al and lan­guage  ini­tia­tives that Chi­na is pro­mot­ing in Ser­bia are rel­a­tive­ly piece­meal and are part of a wider  glob­al effort to increase Beijing’s soft pow­er, rather than an attempt to chip away at Russia’s ties to Ser­bia. Instead, Chi­na seeks to build deep­er exchanges with Ser­bia in fields of emerg­ing  sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, such as arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI), which stands to ben­e­fit both sides.