Red carpet welcome in Serbia for China’s Xi Jinping

image caption, Chinese President Xi Jinping walks with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at a reception in Belgrade.

  • author, Guy Delaney
  • stock, BBC News, Belgrade

The red flags start at Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport and run along the motorway leading to the center of the Serbian capital.

It’s Serbia’s way of showing it’s proud of its “ironclad friendship” with China — and welcoming Xi Jinping to Belgrade.

At the West City Gate, commonly known as Jenex Tower, an entire tower is covered in China’s national colors.

There’s a billboard for Chinese home appliance maker Hisense, which opened a refrigerator factory in Valjevo, western Serbia, last year.

In some parts of Europe, the Chinese president’s travel plans may have raised eyebrows. After all, it’s not often that Serbia finds itself part of a three-stop tour by an international leader of such stature.

But Serbia has been deepening its ties with China in recent years as it continues to negotiate its accession to the European Union.

Mr Xi is likely to use his visit to highlight his criticism of Nato. His visit coincides with the 25th anniversary of the US airstrike on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. And in an editorial in the Serbian newspaper, Politika, the president made it clear that feelings about the incident still ran high.

“We must never forget,” he wrote. “The Chinese people value peace, but we will never allow such a tragic history to repeat itself.”

image source, Oliver Bunick/Bloomberg

image caption, NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign was aimed at driving Serbian forces out of Kosovo.

Business connections are also a factor. The two countries signed a free trade agreement last year, building a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2016 – the year of Mr Xi’s previous visit to Serbia.

It claims that China is now the largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in Serbia. Hisense, along with mining company Jijin and tire manufacturer Linglong, will create 20,000 jobs, according to its ambassador Li Ming.

UN trade statistics actually put China in fifth place on the foreign direct investment list, behind Germany, Italy, the US and Russia.

Nevertheless, Chinese investments are eye-catching – and likely to increase. Serbia has delivered its first Chinese electric high-speed trains. They will eventually run with Swiss-made rolling stock on the Belgrade-Budapest railway, which is being reconstructed with Chinese expertise and funding.

That’s just the beginning. Serbian Infrastructure Minister Goran Vesic said Chinese partners will work on other infrastructure, including roads, bridges, tunnels and sewers. “There is really a lot of room for cooperation with Chinese companies,” he told Serbia’s national broadcaster RTS.

No wonder Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, plans to personally present his Chinese counterpart with some of the finest wines his country has to offer during a dinner in Mr Xi’s honor.

image source, Reuters/Aurélien Morissard

image caption, Xi Jinping was treated to a wet day in the Pyrenees at the end of his French trip

It could be a gentle dig at Emmanuel Macron, who hosted Mr Xi on the first stop of his European tour. The French president’s offering is a bottle of Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac, which will fetch the best part of €5,000 in Belgrade.

A trip to the Pyrenees is also included in the charm offensive – to sweeten pleas from Mr Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to ensure more balanced trade with Europe and influence Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war in Ukraine.

After Belgrade, the next stop for China’s president is Budapest, where he will meet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, his strongest ally among EU member state leaders.

Chinese investment is also a strong factor there – a factory for electric car giant BYD is among plans to bolster Mr Orban’s opposition to EU consensus on everything from immigration to arms supplies to Ukraine.

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