A typical HQ-22/FK-3 system consists of a radar vehicle and three launch vehicles equipped with four missiles each. Photo: China's Ministry of National Defense

Persistently portrayed by Western media as a Moscow ally, Serbia is arguably drawing closer to China than Russia.  

On April 10, China delivered HQ-22 surface-to-air missile systems to the Serbian military. The FK-3, an export version of the HQ-22, has been widely compared to the American Patriot and the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems.

Belgrade had initially planned to purchase Russian air missile systems, but in 2019, President Aleksandar Vucic said that, as a small country surrounded by NATO, it “will never again allow such irresponsibility as in the 1990s.”

Indeed, during the 1990s, Serbia was on its own against both NATO and its allies in the region. Fast forward to the present, decades after that conflict, the Balkan nation’s room for strategic maneuver is still quite limited.

Heavily dependent on the West in various aspects, and with close economic ties with the European Union, Belgrade is not in a position to continue balancing between Russia and the West. That is why Serbia, pressured by Western powers, recently voted in favor of expelling Russia from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

The Kremlin’s reaction to Belgrade’s move was rather weak.

“It is not a question of understanding and forgiving friendly countries that voted ‘yes.’ It is a question of unprecedented pressure to provoke Russophobia. Such pressure is suffered by all countries that are trying in every way to pursue a balanced policy. We understand that,” the Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Judging by that statement, Serbia is unlikely to suffer any consequences for its decision to side with the West against Russia. For now, Belgrade will not rush to join anti-Russian sanctions, but in the foreseeable future, the Balkan country could distance itself further from Moscow.

That, however, does not necessarily mean that Serbia will draw closer to the West – at least not at this early stage of the new Cold War.

The procurement of sophisticated Chinese anti-aircraft systems, as well as the purchase of Chinese drones in 2020, suggests that Belgrade aims to deepen its ties with Beijing.

Serbia will now be the first operator of the Chinese missiles in Europe, which is perhaps not surprising given that the Balkan nation was the first European country to purchase China’s Covid-19 vaccine in 2021.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (L) walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on April 25, 2019. Photo: AFP / Kenzaburo Fukuhara / Pool

But how will the United States react to Belgrade’s military cooperation with China?

The fact that Chinese planes carrying weapons to Serbia were allowed to cross the airspace of NATO members Turkey and Bulgaria suggests that Belgrade’s purchase of the FK-3 has been at least tacitly approved by Washington.  

In 2020, after China and Serbia made arrangements for the FK-3’s delivery, the US Embassy in Belgrade stressed that “the purchase of military equipment is the sovereign decision of each individual country but that governments should be aware of the short- and long-term risks and cost of doing business with Chinese companies.”

In 2019, however, Washington warned Serbia against a potential purchase of Russian air defense systems. “We hope our Serbian partners will be careful and cautious about any such transactions”, said Matthew Palmer, the US special envoy for the Balkans.

Serbia got the message. As a result, Belgrade purchased Chinese rather than Russian air-defense systems, and is now seeking to buy Turkish-made Bayraktar drones, as well as Rafale multipurpose fighter jets from France.

Serbia, which declared military neutrality in 2007, is trying to strengthen its military capacities because, unlike neighboring NATO members, it cannot rely on the partnership assistance that the US-led alliance provides.

At the same time, the Serbian Armed Forces remain closely linked with the Ohio National Guard, while reports indicate that the US is Serbia’s biggest military donor.

More importantly, the Serbian army has conducted far more military exercises with NATO members than with Russian troops, despite its neutrality stance. Even Palmer argues that the American military’s ties with Serbia are more significant than Russia-Serbian relations.

Still, Western media continue portraying the Balkan nation as a “Russian ally”, claiming that Belgrade, armed by Moscow and Beijing, could launch a new war against Kosovo – a territory that unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and was recognized by most Western countries.

A van driving along the first section of a highway connecting the city of Bar on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast to landlocked neighbor Serbia, (Bar-Boljare highway) near the village of Bioce, north of Montenegrin capital Podgorica, which is being constructed by China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC), April 9, 2019. Photo: AFP / Savo Prelevic

Such a move against Kosovo is thus extremely improbable, particularly given that Kosovo hosts a large American base and some 3,600 NATO troops are still on the ground there.

China, for its part, aims to increase its presence in the Balkan nation, where it is heavily involved in the construction of various infrastructure projects. At the same time, Beijing seems keen to strengthen its political influence in Serbia.

Following the delivery of its weapons to the southeastern European nation, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized that Beijing “supports Serbia in safeguarding sovereignty, territorial integrity and national dignity.”

Over the past 14 years, it was Russia that has been “safeguarding Serbian territorial integrity” by preventing Kosovo from joining the UN. It remains to be seen if Serbia – now that Moscow is preoccupied with the war in Ukraine – will start more actively playing the Chinese card in an attempt to preserve its “multi-vector” foreign policy.

Follow Nikola Mikovic on Twitter at @nikola_mikovic

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”