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China is well into its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative that hopes to connect the world. President Xi Jinping announced the project in 2013, opening up two new trading routes overland and via the seas. The overland course will follow much of the same route as the ancient Silk Road, a trading passage that stretched from eastern China all the way to Italy, crossing Central Asia, the Middle East, with diversions across North Africa, known as the “Belt”.
Meanwhile, the “Road” will follow fresh shipping routes across South East Asia, Southern Africa along the coast to North Africa, and on to Southern Europe with the aim to eventually pierce through to Central and Northern Europe.
China has already started to lay the foundations for its foray into Europe most notably in the Balkans.
Its activities in Serbia have aroused the fears of many European politicians.
In all, under President Xi’s watch, €4billion (£3.5bn) has been poured into Serbia in investments mostly from state-run firms since 2011.
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Serbia: Since 2011, China has invested billions in Serbia
This is in addition to the €5billion (£4.3bn) China has pledged in loans and regional infrastructure projects, including major upgrades to highways, railroads, and industry.
Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, has long viewed China as a major source of foreign investment.
Last year, he went as far as to say that “Serbia can count on just one ally, the People’s Republic of China”.
It is something that many pro-government figures in Serbia subscribe to.
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Aleksandar Vučić: Serbia’s president pictured with Xi Jinping in 2019
Journalist Milomir Marić regularly discusses China in his talk show covering Serbian and international political issues.
His view of European politicians within the EU who see China’s influence in Serbia is increasingly critical.
Appearing in DW’s documentary, ‘China’s gateway to Europe – the New Silk Road’, he told of how he was no longer hopeful for Serbian EU membership.
He said: “I belong to the generation that dreamt the American dream.
“As a young man I dreamed of joining the European Union, but I doubt I’ll see it happen in my lifetime.”
Serbia has been in accession talks with the EU since 2014, but its ambitions of joining the bloc are still distant.
According to Mr Marić, the disillusionment has spurred the government to look around for other partners.
He continued: “The Chinese have built us the bridges and the roads that the Europeans weren’t interested in.
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Montenegro: China has given loans to EU hopeful Montenegro for projects like the bridge pictured
“For us the Chinese have come like a gift from Heaven.
“They gave us loans but also did most of the work.”
The EU has given Serbia a list of reforms to make before it can achieve membership, environmental standards, for example.
However, the Chinese loans come with no strings attached.
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DW noted: “Its message: democracy isn’t a prerequisite for economic growth.”
It is worth noting that China invests more in many other European countries and NATO members compared Serbia.
But with Serbia largely viewed as a gateway to Europe, members of the EU Parliament are concerned.
In 2018, the European Investment Bank published a report warning that Chinese investment in the Western Balkans could come with major pitfalls.
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This included unsustainable debt and increased dependency on Beijing.
It also said there was a chance that Chinese activities in the region “will not help to reduce the already existing problem of corruption, unlike other financiers that put more emphasis on institutional, environmental and social standards”.
In January, Serbia took its first delivery of the Sinovac coronavirus vaccine – a Beijing-based biopharmaceutical company – making it the first European country to do so.
President Vučić personally received the first shipment at Belgrade airport, accompanied by the Chinese Ambassador to Serbia Chen Bo.