Serbia purchased a new generation of medium-range, radar-guided surface-to-air missiles from China within the last year, showing a deepening partnership between the two countries. The purchase came to light due to the release of a state-run arms company Jugoimport SDPR’s annual report, which was submitted to the state Business Registers Agency and obtained by Reuters last week. The Serbian purchase of Chinese missiles also came as a surprise to their long-time Russian allies, as it was assumed any missiles Serbia would acquire would be Russian S-400s, a weapon Serbia had its eye on for a while.
In its statement, Jugoimport SDPR revealed it made 163 import deals with 31 countries for $620.3 million in 2019. Additional weapons included in the purchases are armed drones from China and the first known purchase of the FK-3 system in Europe. “The biggest part of imports is related to the modernization of MIG-29 planes, the procurement of drone systems,… (and) air-defence system FK-3,” the organization said. “In the FK-3 system, one battery consists of a vehicle with radar and three launch vehicles, each of which has four missiles with work command and radar semi-active guidance. One battery can operate simultaneously with 12 missiles of 6 targets,” the report continued in Balkan Security Network, BSN. According to BSN, the purchasing of Chinese missiles proves China’s presence in an entirely new market because, until this transaction, the only importers of Chinese medium and long-range systems were Chinese allies in Asia.
The deepening Serbian-Chinese ties are not necessarily a negative development. Their increased cooperation is building a collaborative relationship between two states in an ever conflict-ridden world, which is something that can never be taken for granted. Additionally, if China does successfully break into the EU Common Market through its relationship with Serbia, as it intends to do, that is not necessarily a negative. It could foster more economic interdependence, which typically leads to more peaceable relations between actors. However, there is some pause to be taken at the fact that this is a partnership that is, thus far, predicated entirely upon importing and exporting military weaponry. Even if it does foster better working relationships, the continued stockpiling of weapons on the part of countries, both large and small, is not necessarily positive in terms of effort to maintain peace in the region. That only creates an increasingly militarized and conflict-prone world. Still, as this relationship develops, it will be essential to watch and see if it leans more economic or militaristic in its tone.
This story has three main players: Serbia, China, and Russia. Currently, Serbia is in the process of negotiations to join the European Union in the near future. Following a declaration of military neutrality in 2006, Serbia joined NATO’S Partnership for Peace program, although it declined to seek full membership in the Western defense alliance. Serbia’s military relies heavily on former Soviet technology, and in recent times, they have obtained MiG-29 fighter jets and missiles, helicopters, tanks, and armored personnel carriers from Russia. Consequently, they have a strong working partnership, showing the peak of their collaboration last year when a division of S-400 missile defense system participated in a Serbian military drill. Moscow’s Defense Ministry called it “the first time that the sophisticated S-400s, together with a Pantsir missile battery, will be participating in military exercises abroad.”
However, China has recently been encroaching on this partnership, already having invested billions of euros into Serbia in the form of soft loans, infrastructure, and energy projects as a way of incorporating Serbia into its Belt and Road initiative, aimed at opening up more foreign trade for Chinese companies. Perhaps more importantly, China sees this valuable relationship as a way to break into the EU’s common market that boasts over half a billion consumers. In June, Serbia became the first European state to deploy Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles after Serbia’s air force acquired six CH-92A combat drones equipped with laser-guided missiles, further proving the presence of a deepening relationship between Beijing and Belgrade. In the midst of the tightening Serbian-Chinese relationship and Serbia’s connections with NATO and the EU, Russia has tried to keep Serbia a traditional ally, creating some level of tension as the dynamics of this three-way relationship continue to play out.
Serbia and China stand to gain quite a lot from a deepening working relationship. As Serbia becomes a more major player in the global marketplace and China seeks to break into the EU’s Common Market, they could both benefit from this partnership. The main player that stands to lose is Russia if Serbia begins to take its largely Soviet-based military and transition it to a more Chinese-based one. While this triangular dynamic could be ignored, it very well may become a bigger issue if it brings Russia and China into conflict and competition with one another, and that is perhaps the most significant potential implication of Serbia’s increased purchasing of armaments from China.