Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent stop in Serbia as part of his first European visit in five years was a potent reminder of the shifting geopolitical allegiances in the Western Balkans and the historical undercurrents that continue to shape this tumultuous region. New poll results also illustrate the variations in views of China across the region and the competing interests the United States and European Union face in seeking to integrate the Western Balkans into the EU and NATO.

Xi’s visit was laden with symbolism and strategic calculations. As the second stop on his European tour, after France and before Hungary, it reasserted China’s growing influence in a region historically dominated by fluctuating European and American interests. In that sense, the story is not just about China’s or Russia’s rise but about the West’s inconsistent engagement, which has left a vacuum that leaders in Beijing and Moscow – who reaffirmed their alliance in a two-day meeting in Beijing just last week — are all too eager to fill.

Xi and his Serbian counterpart, President Aleksandar Vučić, used the occasion to reassert their strategic alliance and their mutual political support, reflecting their similar authoritarian tendencies and territorial ambitions, even as Serbia ostensibly seeks European Union membership. Contrary to the European Union’s posture – and that of most of Europe — Vučić repeated his endorsement of China’s claim on Taiwan, while Xi voiced China’s support for Serbia’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” common phrasing that China often applies selectively and that in this case suggested backing for Serbia’s claims on Kosovo.

His visit also, not coincidentally, occurred on the 25th anniversary of NATO’s 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, an incident the alliance contends was a tragic error in the heat of the effort to stop a military assault by Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević against Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians. But while Xi referred to the incident in an op-ed in a Serbian news outlet, he chose not to visit the site, apparently in an effort to not overly inflame the United States or its NATO allies.

But Xi recalled his visit eight years ago when Serbia became China’s “first comprehensive strategic partner” in Central and Eastern Europe. He signaled that the partnership deepened with this visit, declaring that Serbia would also be the first to “build a community of destiny with China.”

The welcoming ceremony before a crowd in front of the presidential palace in Belgrade underscored Serbia’s role as a pivotal ally for China in Eastern Europe, set against a backdrop of significant commercial and infrastructure cooperation that has unfolded in recent years. In addition to mines and factories that China already owns in Serbia, the two countries signed 29 agreements covering areas from high technology to infrastructure, demonstrating the depth of the partnership and the broad scope of future collaborative projects.

Some in Serbian academic circles also had expressed hope that Xi’s visit might help weaken support for a draft resolution being considered in the United Nations General Assembly to commemorate the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide by Bosnian Serb forces, backed by Serbia, against Bosniaks (Muslims) in eastern Bosnia. Those opposing the proposed resolution deny that the atrocities that killed more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys constituted genocide, arguing that such a label would be a stain on all Serbs, even though the resolution doesn’t specifically identify the perpetrators and multiple international courts have ruled the massacres a genocide. But while the two leaders didn’t make public reference to the draft, which is led by Germany and Rwanda, Xi’s visit could very well have sent signals to some General Assembly member States about which side they should back if and when it comes to an already delayed vote.

Signaling Alternative Alliance Options

Overall, Xi’s visit helps Vučić signal to the EU that he has alternatives for alliances, options that speak to Serbia’s traditional ties and cultural leanings towards Eastern powers, especially Russia but also China. It is a path starkly different from Serbia’s neighbors, who are largely looking westward, aligning far more firmly with the EU and NATO.

A new survey by the International Republican Institute (IRI) illustrates the geopolitical tensions and competition across the region. A notable 46 percent of respondents in Serbia consider Russia to be the country’s “most important ally.” That no doubt reflects deep ties and mutual interests, particularly in countering what they perceive as Western hostility toward Serbs and false notions that the West aims to abolish the majority Serb entity Republika Srpska in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. It’s disinformation amplified regularly by the Kremlin. Far behind Russia as an ally, China nevertheless ranks second in the poll as the most important ally for 14 percent of respondents.

These allegiances match significant distrust toward the West, particularly the United States, based in part on memories of NATO’s intervention during the 1999 Kosovo War that either linger or are newly inflamed on a regular basis by vocal hardliners across mostly state-aligned news outlets and social media. For example, the IRI poll shows that 36 percent of respondents in Serbia view the United States as “the most important threat” for the country, followed at a distance by Albania and Kosovo. Russia and China don’t even register in the top five.

Conversely, Kosovo and Albania are increasingly leaning towards the West, viewing it as a protector and a promoter of their statehood and economic development. In the poll, Kosovo especially shows strong pro-American sentiment, with 71 percent viewing the United States “highly” favorably and 80 percent identifying it as the country’s most important ally. That likely reflects a gratitude rooted in ongoing U.S. support for its independence, despite the pressure the U.S. is exerting, along with the EU, on Kosovo’s leaders to reach an accommodation with Serbia to gain Serbia’s recognition, even as Vučić has said in no uncertain terms he has no plans to do so.

Similarly, Albania’s overwhelming favorability towards the EU (92 percent would vote in favor of accession) and NATO (85 percent supporting its current full membership status) underscores a regional divergence that is as much about political and social worldviews as it is about economic opportunity. In contrast to the high favorability rating of the United States in Kosovo and Albania, only 4 percent of respondents in Serbia have a “highly favorable” view of the United States.

China’s Economic – and Strategic — Footprint

China’s expanding influence in the Western Balkans evokes a spectrum of responses among the public, based on the IRI poll, likely reflecting its expanding economic and strategic footprint in the region. Countries such as North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania display a palpable sense of optimism, with China viewed overall as “highly” or “somewhat” favorable by 56 percent, 53 percent, and 43 percent of respondents respectively. This may be due in significant part to anticipated, albeit unrealized, investments and infrastructure projects tied to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which are envisioned to bring economic and developmental benefits. In Bosnia, for instance, the favorable support for China may come largely from Republika Srpska, in part linked to a promised but elusive power plant known as Gacko 2. In these countries, the image of China as a pivotal economic ally appears to eclipse any geopolitical concerns linked to its ascent.

In Serbia, support for China is, of course, even more pronounced. It ranks at the top of the list of countries with highly favorable perceptions among respondents, at 88 percent, equaling the level of favorability towards Russia. While Serbia’s favorable view of Russia is largely shaped by historical, cultural, and ideological ties, China’s appeal is driven by economic factors and by its shared role with Russia as a global challenger to the West.

In recent years, Serbia has emerged as a focal point for Chinese investment in the Western Balkans and Central and Eastern Europe, establishing China as Serbia’s largest single foreign investor. By 2022, Chinese investments in Serbia matched the combined investments of all 27 EU member States. This dramatic increase began with limited investments in the early 2010s but surged with strategic acquisitions like the Smederevo Steel Mill in 2016 and significant bottom-up foreign direct investment projects such as the construction of the Linglong tire factory. Major investments by Chinese companies including Zijin Mining in Serbia’s mining sector and Minth Automotive in the automotive industry highlight the breadth of China’s economic footprint. Despite challenges related to environmental impacts and regulatory compliance, Chinese investments have significantly influenced Serbia’s industrial revival and economic landscape, underscoring the deepening “steel friendship,” as they call it, between the two nations.

In stark contrast to Serbia, Kosovars rated China markedly lower on favorability, with 79 percent of respondents viewing China either somewhat or highly unfavorably. This negative perception is likely shaped by multiple factors, including Kosovo’s strong pro-Western stance and the geopolitical dynamics, especially China aligning with Serbia by not recognizing Kosovo’s independence. Additionally, the global discourse on China’s “debt diplomacy” and concerns over the long-term ramifications of its economic engagements may resonate more acutely in Kosovo. This contrasting stance within the region underscores the complexities of China’s global relations and highlights the diverse responses to its rising influence in the Balkans, shaped by local geopolitical alignments, economic expectations, and broader international tensions.

Interestingly, the IRI poll gauged perceptions of the motives behind Chinese investments across the Western Balkan countries, and the variations again reflect their distinct socio-economic and geopolitical contexts. A significant portion of Serbians, 53 percent, view these investments as primarily economically advantageous, dovetailing with the Serbian government’s pronounced alignment with China. Conversely, in Kosovo and Bosnia, 45 percent and 51 percent, respectively, see these investments as either coming with “political expectations” or “primarily about influence and control of our country,” an outlook shaped by their politically sensitive environments and histories marked by foreign interventions.

A Reassessment Should Be In Order

As China deepens its strategic and economic footprint in the Western Balkans, Western policymakers must reassess their engagement strategies to counterbalance Beijing’s growing influence. Xi’s trip, particularly the symbolic timing around the NATO bombing anniversary, highlights China’s savvy in leveraging historical grievances for diplomatic gain. Serbia’s alignment with China and Russia, underscored by Vučić’s endorsement of China’s stance on Taiwan and reciprocal support for Serbia’s claims on Kosovo, indicates a deliberate pivot away from Western integration. This is evident in Serbia’s skepticism towards NATO in the IRI poll, with only 10 percent holding a positive view and just 3 percent considering full membership viable, as well as the 40 percent supporting EU membership, highlighting ambivalence towards Western alliances. This stance, coupled with significant Chinese investments and infrastructure projects, positions Serbia as a critical ally for China in Eastern Europe.

The varied perceptions of China in the Western Balkans, shaped by economic hopes and political anxieties, reflect an urgent need for the EU and the United States to present a cohesive, compelling vision that addresses both the economic aspirations and security concerns of the region. But accomplishing that also requires getting the politics right – the countries of the region need functional, effective governance unhindered by corruption before they can possibly meet those economic and security goals. Failure to do so risks further entrenching Eastern influence, complicating efforts to stabilize and integrate this strategically vital region into Western frameworks.

IMAGE: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (R) walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony in Belgrade, on May 8, 2024. (Photo by ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images)