Normative Power Projections in the Era of Xi Jinping. A Case Study of the Belt and Road Initiative in Serbia

Abstract: Since the second half of the 20th century, China has proven capable of reaching and even exceeding the expectations of an established bipolar, then unipolar world order. Therefore, we find ourselves at a time where its capabilities developed throughout recent decades to translate into a more influence-based strategy reaching virtually every country in the world. Even more so, with its parallel initiatives and institutions that create an alternative path to the Western norms and values, China succeeds in challenging existing regional equilibriums. The purpose of this research is to observe how China’s foreign agenda and consequent concepts that were born in different periods of its development have evolved up to the point where it interferes with regional dynamics. For this reason, this thesis focuses on the way China projects its normative power to the 17+1 cooperation framework, following the case study of Serbia. Also, it aims to observe how in this case Serbia receives and acts under the circumstance where China exerts its values under the aegis of the Belt and Road Initiative. Following a qualitative analysis of several primary sources of data as well as information gathered through media or official documents of both parts, the results showed that indeed Serbia has been receptive to the Chinese investments in the political, economic, and cultural sectors and has shown its support to the further development of these initiatives. This phenomenon is also perceived with skepticism by the European elites, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic which was proved to impede even more the Serbian support over the European project. Consequently, the results have shown that the geopolitical importance of Serbia is indeed a target of Chinese opportunism. On the other side of the coin, Serbia’s economic interests do play an important role in its attitude towards China. The limitations of this research lay in the language barrier which impeded me from accessing and understanding certain documents. Further recommendations for future research imply the use of this model to other countries taking part in the Belt and Road Initiative as well as exploring other normative tools China uses to gain more international support.



China is rising. Whether one observes the myriad of institutional frameworks it is included into or has facilitated creating on one hand or the different and complex economic initiatives and diplomatic strategies on the other, it is clear that China is taking a fast route to challenge the world hegemony and Western way of thinking. One of the core questions of China‚Äôs future trajectory as a global power is whether China will successfully promote its own norms and values and whether they will be adopted by other countries. With more and more problems at home, the main promoters of hegemonic liberal-democratic norms-the United States and the European Union-have regressed in their efforts to promote their values ‚Äč‚Äčoverseas. This has reversed the situation and allowed non-Western and non-liberal democratic development and cooperation concepts to spread, especially for China to open up room for maneuver in the process.

In the wake of the second decade of the 21st century, China under President Hu Jintao has left behind its traditional isolationist approach for a more international presence. Hu‚Äôs ideological campaign of creating a ‚Äėharmonious society‚Äô inspired by Confucian values was bound to change the Chinese approach over its foreign policy. Xi‚Äôs agenda has proved to be even more ambitious and confident than his predecessors and while swiftly maneuvering into an equal footing with Washington, his diplomatic narrative projects the country in the posture of rising global power, in contrast with the past conservative approach to foreign affairs. On a ten-year timeline or even longer, China has increasingly acquired strategic influence in a more integrated Asia-Pacific platform, becoming the regional engine of progress and development. Navigating through the international landscape, China has adopted three core principles in designing and implementing its foreign agenda, namely the concept of ‚Äěno conflict‚ÄĚ in building cooperation and major-country partnerships, the principles of ‚Äěamity, sincerity, mutual benefit and inclusiveness‚ÄĚ in its relation with neighboring countries and lastly the principles of ‚Äěsincerity, real results, affinity and good faith‚ÄĚ in enhancing political cooperation with Africa, Central, and Eastern Europe, as well as Latin America and the Caribbean states (China-CELAC platforms).In willing to take the lead for regional integration, China seeks to do so through a myriad of diplomatic approaches and the concept of ‚Äúcommunity of common destiny‚ÄĚ is aimed to strengthen China‚Äôs partnerships at regional and international levels, as a key diplomatic focus point in the Chinese agenda for a mutual interdependent Asian community.

The Belt and Road Initiative is known as the most important and far-reaching initiative in China‚Äôs history. The initiative directly or indirectly involves more than 71 countries and 4 billion people, which may make it the largest infrastructure project in history. The total value of these initiatives is expected to exceed US$4 trillion and will be realized in phases over the next few decades. The countries that are conducive to surpassing the Belt and Road Initiative are mainly underdeveloped or developing countries whose economic development depends to a large extent on the modernization of infrastructure and the opening of markets. The establishment of the Silk Road Economic Belt is to allow countries in the region to communicate with each other, consider development strategies, and plan and negotiate on the improvement of road infrastructure. The most important common economic benefits include improving trade and investment flows, improving transportation infrastructure, and deepening economic integration. Following this premise, the Belt and Road Initiative has been portrayed to Europe in a safe and friendly way: a plan to help the economic recovery of Europe and maintain its unity, as economic investments can ease the internal tensions between the central and peripheral EU countries. Similarly, President Xi Jinping has now made it a tradition to prepare an op-ed aimed towards a wider audience before his official visit to Central and Eastern European countries. Among these points of view, Xi Jinping emphasized the close cultural exchanges and his admiration for the national development and heroic achievements of Central and Eastern European countries, which intensified nationalist sentiments. These views and statements emphasize that cultural and historical achievements and economic pragmatism are the basis of the interrelationship, and are clearly aimed at establishing a friendly and benign China in the eyes of the public while addressing the post-colonial insecurity of the recently independent countries. In addition, although academic and think tank publications adhere to the official position and regard China-EU relations as economically motivated and pragmatic, they mainly acknowledge that they are the ‚Äútest ground‚ÄĚ of products before entering the European market. This makes Central and Eastern Europe a key battlefield for improving China‚Äôs image and building soft power because the successful implementation of the BRI will change the EU‚Äôs ‚Äúoversensitive and prejudiced‚ÄĚ view towards China. This approach reveals the importance of the CEE in deploying China‚Äôs soft power by taking advantage of the differences between the EU‚Äôs peripheric countries, rather than promoting the unification or stability of the EU.

Firstly, Serbia is the country with the greatest share of Chinese investments among Western Balkan states in the BRI framework. In Serbia, the Belt and Road Initiative Center project is the modernization of the Budapest-Belgrade Railway, which should be completed in 2023 worth US$1.8 billion, while the Serbian part from Novi to the Hungarian border is worth US$1.1 billion. Recently, the Serbian government and China signed a number of agreements to strengthen cooperation between the two sides in the field of innovation and infrastructure. As part of the agreement, Serbia and China will cooperate to build a new subway network in Belgrade. Since the launch of the ‚ÄúBelt and Road‚ÄĚ initiative, Serbia has invested a total of 8.5 billion U.S. dollars. Therefore, Serbia‚Äôs share in Central and Eastern Europe is about 20%. Compared with the EC/SEE field alone, Serbia plays a more important role: Here, 56% of China‚Äôs investment is made in Serbia. This means that Serbia is a very attractive investment destination for Chinese companies because of its geographical location and the favorable conditions and benefits it provides for foreign investors. Therefore, it can be concluded that Serbia has become a leader in attracting Chinese investment in the region by virtue of its extremely competitive position.

Secondly, it is one of the most important EU candidate states from the region and China succeeds in challenging the transformative power of the European Union in the context of enlargement fatigue and ambivalence towards the region. Although Serbia‚Äôs official intention is to join the European Union, it still strives to break away from the framework of the EU‚Äôs common foreign and security policy, at least until it is fully integrated. Despite pressure to align its foreign policy with that of the European Union and impose sanctions on Russia, Serbia has now successfully resisted it. The main position of Serbian public opinion is that in the process of moving towards European integration, Serbia has made more concessions and promises to the EU than the EU has made to Serbia. According to this attitude, Serbia‚Äôs policy has played an independent role in the international arena, thus balancing all aspects of international politics. Serbia today no longer blindly obeys the European Union but is open to cooperation with all regions of the world. To some extent, this is a message to the EU, that Serbia has many alternatives and is tired of years of integration with no specific improvement or certainty on the date of joining the EU. Cooperation within these initiatives is in line with Serbia‚Äôs efforts to play a leading role in the region as well as using its status as a ‚Äúspecial Chinese friend‚ÄĚ( ‚ÄúSerbia is Chinese greatest friend in Europe‚ÄĚ, said Serbia‚Äôs minister of foreign affairs IvicaDańćińá, after meeting with the Chinese delegation in April 2017). For this reason, after the 16+1 summit, IvicaDańćińá rated the third meeting of China and Eastern European Countries, held in Belgrade as ‚Äúthe most important foreign policy conference held in our country, over the last few decades‚ÄĚ.

Last but not least, the openness displayed by Serbia to strengthen the political ties with China makes it a relevant case to be tested. Serbia‚Äôs vital interest in international relations is to maintain peace, constitutional order, territorial integrity, and sovereignty. In order to realize these interests, Serbia must use all international legal means and fully respect human rights and freedoms. Working in this direction, Serbia declared military neutrality in 2007, which does not prevent it from cooperating with China in the field of foreign policy. Especially because both countries are committed to achieving the basic goals and principles contained in the UN Charter, especially those related to the maintenance of peace and security. In this regard, Serbia openly supports China‚Äôs ‚Äú One China Policy‚ÄĚ, which promotes the territorial integrity and sovereignty of China as a whole, including Taiwan. On the other hand, China refuses to follow the plan of the United States and other Western powers to redesign Serbia and seeks to maintain the stability of the existing order by insisting on protecting itself as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. The territorial integrity of Serbia does not accept the unilaterally declared split of Kosovo and Metohija. Consequently, China expressed its support to the implementation of Resolution the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, and using its influence in the United Nations agency, laid a solid position for Serbia in negotiating the political status of the southern Serbian province. Additionally, from an economic point of view, Serbia regards China as its most important foreign trade and financial partner in Asia. Serbia counts heavily on China to help it realize its strategic economic benefits, especially in terms of rebuilding and developing its economic potential. The lack of necessary financial resources to carry out these activities allows China to take advantage of the openness of the Serbian market and good mutual relations to invest its own funds on preferential terms.


China and Serbia relations 

China’s foreign policy is active on multiple levels. As a major trading partner, especially in the next period, it aims to show the concept of a multi-polar world to third world countries, because these countries are considered to be important factors in future international relations. China has successfully achieved part of its desired role in international affairs by engaging in soft narratives and focusing on increasing its influence among European countries, as evidenced by many bilateral agreements and the creation of the 17+1 framework of cooperation. This platform has become an important cooperation mechanism between China and the 17 countries of Central and Eastern Europe, making the cooperation between the two sides in areas of common interest closer. The annual 17+1 multilateral meeting is an opportunity for delegations to reach specific agreements, as well as an opportunity for joint projects. Based on the same principle, at the Suzhou Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed to fully integrate the 17+1 cooperation into the Belt and Road Initiative, which enabled bilateral and multilateral initiatives in China to cooperate with the then 16 European countries.

The visit of the Chinese President Xi Jinping to Belgrade concretely proved that the cooperation between Serbia and China on the New Silk Road project One Belt One Road is of vital importance. It has been nevertheless observed that the Eurasian countries regard the Balkan countries as important strategic partners and as a consequence, Serbia’s key role is perceived to be to connect China with Europe. Therefore, the Balkan region will become an important bridge connecting China, Central Asia, and Europe with Serbia. Serbia can play a key role in building bridges between East and West. In addition, when it comes to the latest geopolitical and geostrategic position, Serbia maintains a neutral foreign policy, swinging between two different and mutually opposed geopolitical concepts: Euro-Atlantic and Eurasian.

The cooperation in these initiatives is an extension of the traditionally good relationship and strategic partnership established between Serbia and China in 2009. In addition, China is one of the ‚Äúfour pillars‚ÄĚ of Serbian diplomacy, which means that cooperation with China is one of the foundations of Serbia‚Äôs international political actions. The strategic partnership is comprehensive and developing rapidly, especially in the political, economic, cultural, and military fields. In recent years, it has deepened in many areas due to intensive bilateral meetings between officials of the two countries at the presidential level. The fact that former Serbian President TomislavNikolińá took over as chairman of the newly established Russia-China State Cooperation Committee shows that Serbia wants to get the most out of its relations with China. The main task of the council is to help the government and the East achieve more effective political, economic, and cultural cooperation by coordinating with various ministries and commissions.

In 2017, the EU Directorate-General for External Policies forwarded a report on Serbia‚Äôs cooperation with China, EU, Russia, and the US where it introduced the relationship between Serbia and China by analyzing the four key points of foreign support and assistance, trade, foreign direct investment, security, and defense. Similarly, this relationship between Serbia and China has also been pointed out in some important aspects. In terms of financial support, it is mainly loans, not non-repayable funds. Although the terms of the loan are very favorable, it still means that Serbia is obliged to repay the loan received within one day. These investments are mainly between financial support and foreign direct investment. The nature of trade between Serbia and China is constantly improving and developing, although it may increase further. The level of security and defense cooperation is quite low, but it is improving, especially in terms of equipment and materials. It can be explained by a variety of factors, such as the different interests of countries and the long distance between countries. China also exerts influence through direct investment. One of the main features of the relationship between Serbia and China is Serbia‚Äôs efforts to become a transit country for cargo transportation. The COVID-19 pandemic has only further strengthened this trend. When the epidemic started in China, Serbia was one of the first countries to provide help. In early February, the President of Serbia sent a letter to Xi Jinping expressing solidarity with the Chinese people and willingness to provide assistance. In late February, while looking for ways to deal with the pandemic in other parts of the world, Serbian Foreign Minister IvicaDacic flaunted his support for the Chinese leader in Beijing. Through this Dańćińá tried to recall the common past and the NATO bombing of Belgrade in 1999, when the Chinese Embassy was hit by a US plane and three Chinese citizens were killed. Serbia‚Äôs criticism of the European Union and praise of China have helped expand Beijing‚Äôs global propaganda of the advantages of its political model. It has strengthened China‚Äôs ideal image as a capable and responsible country, ready to provide assistance to countries in need, especially after videos have been vehiculating with President Vucic kissing the Chinese flag as a sign of support and gratefulness. At the same time, the Serbian media described the EU and the United States as powerless to control the epidemic and help others.

Serbia’s special status as a non-EU European country and the uncertain path of its accession to the EU make it a special target for external powers. Russia is one of the most obvious countries, but China is becoming more and more active. One of the main reasons why China has formed such a positive image among the Serbian people is that China has never had the political conditions for economic cooperation. China supports regional stability and benefits from it. It has no intention of undermining trust in democratic political systems, nor will it use propaganda methods to export ideology or subvert the region to join the European Union or NATO. China has no other political vision for the Balkans. Of course, this kind of cooperation is mutually beneficial. From China’s perspective, Serbia is only one of the participants in the greater desire for economic integration in the region for China’s benefit; that is, the modernization of the European transportation network which will undoubtedly make products made in China remain competitive in the world market despite the appreciation of the renminbi and rising production costs in China. This also allowed China to get rid of excess industrial production capacity to a certain extent, which was particularly evident when the global financial crisis broke out and the recent slowdown in China’s economic structural adjustment. Although Serbia has an official intention to join the EU, it strives to stay outside the framework of the EU’s common foreign and security policy, at least until it is fully integrated. Despite the pressure to coordinate its foreign policy with that of the European Union and impose sanctions on Russia, Serbia has now successfully resisted it. In some respects, this sends a message to the EU that for Serbia, tired of years of integration, there are other options, but there is no specific improvement or certainty regarding the date of joining the EU. Cooperation within these initiatives is in line with Serbia’s efforts to play a leading role in the region. Serbia took advantage of its status as a friend and supporter of Chinese culture and initiatives and tried to encourage countries in the region to join common projects.


V√Ęrlan Aurelia-Codru»õa

MA in European Affairs and Program Management.
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