BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – Serbian officials hailed their “steely friendship” with China during talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Thursday, as Westerners fear that by investing heavily in the state of the Balkans, Beijing is trying to exert its political influence in this part of Europe.
Serbia, a candidate country for the European Union, and China have rapidly intensified their economic and political relations in recent years, with Chinese companies taking over Serbia’s main copper and steel factories and building roads, factories and railroads. railways.
Chinese state banks have provided billions of dollars in loans to the Balkan countries for construction projects which are mostly carried out by Chinese workers.
China, which sees Serbia as a major entry point to Europe for its “Belt and Road” economic and political initiative, has also exported drones and other military equipment to Serbia, while strengthening cooperation between police and state security.
Between 2005 and 2019, China is said to have invested around $ 10 billion in Serbia.
“In the political sphere, we do not have open questions,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told Wang at the opening of their meeting in Belgrade. “We have very good cooperation between our countries and we want to take it to the next level if possible.”
“Our friendship is honest and great and it’s no wonder we call it ‘steel’,” Vucic said, adding that economic cooperation has tripled in the past five years.
China bought Serbia’s only steel plant in 2016, and the two sides have often referred to their friendship as steel.
Wang said on Thursday that the friendly relations between China and the much smaller Serbia are based on equality and are sincere. “We are very proud of the development of our relationship,” he said.
There are criticisms in the West and among Serbian opposition groups that many construction deals between Serbia and China are being concluded in a non-transparent manner, without proper tenders or details on costs.
In addition, environmentalists have warned that coal-fired power plants operated by Chinese companies in Serbia do not meet international standards for greenhouse gas emissions, thus helping to make Serbia one of the most polluted states. from Europe.
Despite officially seeking EU membership, the populist Serbian president has forged close political, economic and military ties with China and Russia.