“Thank you Brother Xi!” reads a massive billboard in central Belgrade. Brother Xi naturally refers to Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the thanks for a shipment of essential medical equipment. But why brother? According to Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Xi Jinping is exactly that. A brother of Serbia.

Serbia’s Embrace of its ‘Chinese Brothers’

In a speech announcing a nationwide state of emergency from mid-March, President Vučić declared European solidarity a “fairy-tale” and something that “does not exist”, before begging his “Chinese brothers” for help. The Chinese responded in due course, sending a plane full of medical equipment which Vučić greeted at the airport with glee. The spectacle was broadcast on national TV, complete with dozens of Chinese and Serbian flags and speeches by Chinese ambassadors to Serbia, both former and current.

The affection was not one-sided either. China’s former ambassador insisted “all of China and her people love Serbia” and that Serbia and China are “one family, truly.” Various Serbian media outlets have bizarrely even claimed that over a billion people had watched a clip of the event (As of March 31st the video has about 150,000 views). Serbia’s stance towards China during this pandemic has left many observers puzzled, but this love affair is nothing new.

The China-Serbia Affair

In December of 2019 Vučić posted a video of himself announcing his forthcoming visit to China and thanking China for increasing cooperation — in Chinese. It quickly went viral in Serbia. Not so much due to the content, but more so due to Vučić’s comedic attempt at Chinese. But the content was nothing to laugh at. Cooperation between China and Serbia truly has been developing for years under the EU’s nose. Serbia, with its population of just 7 million, has become the fourth-largest recipient of Chinese investment in Europe.

Its investments are far-reaching and plentiful. It has given billions in infrastructure loans and purchased Serbia’s lone copper mine as well as a steel plant. Many of these investments are not up to European legal standards, but that has done nothing to slow down Serbia’s accession to the EU. Serbia is currently in line to join the European Union within the next decade and it has been warming its relations with China and Russia freely along the way.

Serbia Can Be Friends With Whoever it Wants

A recent report from the European Council on Foreign Relations asserted that Serbia must be held to account for Vučić’s disparaging comments on Europe. But, of course, it won’t be. Serbia has realized what many other countries have in recent years. We are not living in a bipolar Cold War world anymore, nor are we living in a unipolar American world.

As much as some European politicians may groan at Vučić’s friendliness towards China, this PR campaign will do nothing to dampen Serbia’s accession chances. Just like Vučić’s anti-democratic tendencies and already dubious business dealings with China and Gulf countries have done nothing to stop Merkel or Macron’s praise for the Serbian President.

After all, “Europe” — which is to say the European Union — has no unified foreign policy. Europe does not play geopolitics. But China and Russia do. So, too, do Turkey and the Gulf states, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Even states within the EU are pliable and open to foreign influence, as has been demonstrated in Italy itself, where Russian and Chinese aid has been received warmly and publicly while the EU and European solidarity has been maligned as fictitious.

China’s Control of the Coronavirus Narrative

More than anything though, this coronavirus aid game is a PR push on the part of the Chinese government, and one in which it is succeeding. China is controlling the narrative within China and influencing it abroad. It is not doing this without reason either. It is a concerted and proactive effort to see the prestige and influence of China rise while damaging the influence and prestige of Western countries. And so far, it is succeeding.

It is succeeding especially in places like Serbia, where local rulers are more than happy to emulate China’s narrative control and use it for political gain. Vučić’s speech was intended not just for foreign audiences, but for domestic ones as well. In the same speech quoted above, Vučić declared Serbia would not show European solidarity. Rather, it would show Serbian solidarity, by sending aid to the Serb Republic in Bosnia.

Vučić’s Multi-Vector Foreign Policy

Besides scoring nationalist points by spurning the EU and making appeals to Serbian unity, President Vučić is building domestic prestige by portraying himself as a statesman who can balance relations between many great powers. Vučić is not the first leader in Belgrade to pursue such a strategy either. Long-time Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito similarly transformed diplomatic prestige into domestic prestige by balancing relations between the Democratic, Communist, and non-aligned worlds.

But we are not in the bipolar world Tito maneuvered in anymore. What Vučić is pursuing, is a modern “multi-vector” foreign policy. The term has been widely used by several states in Central Asia and the wider post-Soviet sphere in referring to a foreign policy that balances relations with several large powers. That foreign policy is, in turn, used to justify and popularize the rule of domestic regimes.

Serbia’s turn towards China is unlikely to signal a fundamental or new shift in the nation’s foreign policy. After all, Serbia has pursued friendly relations with China for years, and Russia has long been Serbia’s spiritual brother nation on the world stage. Despite some calls for Serbia to be held to account, the EU took a different approach, and aid has come in due course. Millions upon millions in emergency loans to buy medical equipment, on top of the billions invested over the years — though not enough to buy the proud nation’s loyalty.

In decades past a pat on the head from the German Chancellor was enough to feign a coherent European foreign policy. Back then the EU was the only game in town. But that strategy is running up against a China-sized great wall. The EU can send more money, as it will, but if it continually flounders in times of crisis, if divisions are exposed and exploited by Chinese and Russian information warfare, if it is outspent and outwitted at every turn — and all on its own doorstep — how can Europe hope to be treated as a formidable power on the world stage?