At the beginning of the pandemic, when the European and world media wrote about the change of course of Aleksandar Vučić and Serbia from the EU and the West towards China, because of the way he received first aid from China and because of his statements that were emotionally overemphasized, I strongly disputed such an attitude and claim of the world media and analysts. And now I would repeat it, because one emotional gesture, in a situation of general world confusion and the hijacking of medical equipment, when public health hangs in the balance, is not proof of a political turn, far from it. What should deserve attention now is the statement of President Vučić from a few days ago that in these few months the world has changed more than in the last 30 years and that now China is the one that emerges as the winner, as a world power and generator of further globalization.
After reading that, I thought that his associates gave him wrong and incomplete data, and especially wrong estimates about China. Yesterday, however, the Chinese news agency reported as headline news that President Vučić, in a letter to Xi Jinping, gave full support to China in preserving its sovereignty over Hong Kong. I have no dilemma, nor have I ever had, that we should look only at our own interest, but is this kind of support to China – which we provide to it as the only European country (which is also on the way to the EU) in the interest of Serbia and its future?
The crisis in Hong Kong is rapidly becoming the number one global neuralgic point in which the relations between the two largest world economies – the American and the Chinese – will be determined in the long run. Yes, Hong Kong is also an issue of Chinese sovereignty, but it is not only that. Hong Kong is also a huge economic hub of the West, on whose full autonomy it depends whether it will remain so. The United States now thinks that due to Beijing’s pressure to introduce Chinese security laws into Hong Kong’s legal system, this former British colony is no longer independent enough to apply the current favorable (American) trade regulations, but will treat it like the rest of China. Translated, this means that the business of about 1,300 American companies is at risk, including all the leading American financial companies operating in Hong Kong, all together – hundreds of billions of dollars of assets, which are in the function of China’s trade with the West.
Therefore, a small country like Serbia, which also has a problem with preserving its own sovereignty, should keep in mind when giving support to one of the two world dinosaurs that are growling at each other that it has long-term economic, technological and security challenges which it will not be able to overcome without the support of the West, in this case the United States. More specifically, it is the United States, not China, that is currently Serbia’s most important partner in resolving its main problem, which is the issue of Kosovo. Do we keep this in mind with such early and unreserved support for China over Hong Kong, or do we still, as before, stick to the logic that international law (preservation of sovereignty) is above all other aspects of international relations. And to put our own interests in the background, which we can achieve only with the support of the United States, whose interests we now oppose.
At this moment, therefore, it is absolutely not in Serbia’s interest to get involved in the conflict between China and the United States over Hong Kong, not even in principle support for Chinese sovereignty, which Serbia otherwise has woven into its foreign policy and does not always have to emphasize. If this support of Serbia followed the request of Chinese diplomacy, in order to be exploited on the domestic political market (which happened immediately by transmitting Vučić’s letter to Xi via the state agency Xinhua and the state television CCTV), how will we react if a similar request for support arrives from the other side – from the US diplomacy?
Even if it weren’t for this episode, at the end of the pandemic we have many reasons to soberly look at where the relations between the big ones could develop in the near future and to set up a small Serbian ship accordingly. We already have enough parameters for such assessments, and most of them say that China should not be among our favorites. This country has made a huge effort to impose itself as a new global leader with the so called “Covid diplomacy”, sending medical aid around the world. However, the campaign was short-lived and of limited scope, because China will appear in the eyes of the world as the culprit for the pandemic, rather than as a savior.
We need to know that “Covid diplomacy” was in fact a desperate move by conservative and centralized Jinping’s machinery to heal only the latest in a series of crises that have slowed China’s economy for years and they are especially cooling Xi’s ambitions to become a more influential player in the global economic, political and security market. Even before the Corona epidemic, China faced a downturn in the economy, huge internal structural problems, a constant crisis with the Muslim minority in the west of the country, entering a trade war with the United States, as well as the aforementioned crisis with Hong Kong. Corona was not a launch pad for Chinese influence in the world, but another lead ball on its feet.
China’s domestic economic problems are huge. Most come from the fact that the middle class has peaked in recent years of prosperity, an estimated half a billion people, who find it difficult to come to terms with the personal downward trajectory of their standards, freedoms and expectations, which inevitably come with the economic downturn. The Chinese leadership will be faced with a choice or a change of priorities, and among them will certainly be – whether to reduce ambitions on a global level in order to redirect money and influence towards patching internal holes. This makes the possibility of reducing appetite through the “One Belt One Road” project quite realistic, because this thousand-billion-dollar” heavy” Xi’s baby may become unsustainable in the coming years for China’s internal potentials, burdened by the growing hand of the Communist Party. Serbia should keep this possibility in mind, because it is on the “Silk Road” itself, as its largest and the most important user in the group of 16 countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
And in the end, leaving the Chinese to their own problems, we should soberly look at what the benefits of Serbian openness to Chinese economic influence have really been so far, by which Serbia is recognized at the top of Europe?
If we stick only to the two-month period of the pandemic, and put emotions aside, there is no doubt that by far the greatest benefactor was Europe, not China. We have already received 70 out of a total of 180 million euro in aid from the European Union, which paid for most of the humanitarian transport of medical equipment from China, which, by the way, was charged like it was charged to everyone else. Greater than the Chinese, was Norway’s help to Serbia, which we really must not forget. We must not forget that China does not donate large infrastructure projects in Serbia, nor it gives them under the conditions of the “steel brotherhood”, but collects, calculates interest, hires its own banks, companies, all the way to manual workers. The price of this brotherhood exists and they know it very well in Beijing, and we in Belgrade should have precise bookkeeping about it. In the years to come, every country, especially a small and full of challenges such as Serbia, will have much more important notebooks with “interests” written on them, than those in which we stick photos of “friends” with whom we hug and celebrate our brotherhood. Such scrapbooks have not been filled in for a long time, even in Beijing.