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International relations

China targets Europe with drone and Huawei system sales to Serbia

Beijing seeks to strengthen a friendly nation to boost its influence with the EU

Chinese police officers on patrol with Serbian officers in Belgrade on Sept. 20.   © Reuters

BERLIN -- As well as building rail lines, highways and bridges in Serbia as part of its flagship Belt and Road Initiative, China is looking to play a bigger role in developing defense and security apparatus in the Eastern European nation.

Serbia announced last month the purchase of armed drones from China -- Beijing's biggest military sale into Europe since the end of the Cold War -- and Chinese police officers have been patrolling the streets of Belgrade with Serbian counterparts since Sept. 18.

The police patrols are related to a security surveillance system being set up by Huawei Technologies around the Serbian capital, following a strategic partnership agreement signed between Belgrade and the Chinese tech giant in 2017. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who visited China in April, went as far as saying recently that Beijing was "the most honest and trustworthy friend" of his country.

Serbia, a candidate for European Union membership, has previously relied on weapons made in Russia, NATO member nations and other countries of the former Yugoslavia. The imports of Chinese defense and public security systems now presents it with the opportunity to upgrade its own defense industry.

"The drones and Huawei bring a new security component into Serbia's BRI integration, and Serbia's position as a promising EU-membership candidate makes it a useful Chinese bridgehead for the European defense market in the future," said Vuk Vuksanovic, a Serbian-born researcher in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

"President Vucic has recently said that China agreed to transfer technology to the Pegasus drones that Serbia has been developing indigenously, indicating that Serbia will upgrade its own defense industry with China's help," Vuksanovic added.

The Pegasus drones are projected to be capable of staying airborne for up to 12 hours with an operating radius of 100 kilometers, putting much of neighboring Kosovo -- which has a tense relationship with Serbia -- into range.

Previous military deals entailed Chinese donations, such as of IT equipment, ambulances and rubber boats, as opposed to sales. China's Poly Group Corporation and the Serbian government discussed the possibility of manufacturing Chinese military equipment in Serbia in 2017, but no developments have since been publicized.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on April 25.   © Reuters

Nine Chinese Wing Loong drones will be delivered to Serbia in the next six months with a possible follow-on order of 15 more. The remotely piloted aircraft are in service in a number of Asian and African countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Nigeria, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Egypt, according to the U.S. defense daily Stars and Stripes.

A since-deleted post on Huawei's website earlier this year said the Chinese company has employed more than 100 high-definition cameras and intelligent video content management (VCM) systems at over 60 sites in Belgrade. The systems integrate things such as automatic license plate recognition, tripwire detection, loitering detection, abandoned object detection and behavioral analysis.

Huawei has been setting up similar "safe city" projects in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. But this is the first case in the Balkans.

"The developments reflect that much trust has been built between Belgrade and Beijing amid a series of high-level exchanges between the two sides' militaries, including Serbian cadres training in China's military academy," said Thomas Eder, an analyst with the Berlin-based Mercator Institute for China Studies.

"I don't expect Serbia to gain EU membership before the middle of the next decade, but once it has, China has a friend more in the block, which could be helpful also for Huawei in a time the EU settles for a unified policy on Chinese involvement in critical infrastructure," he added.

Other observers see Serbia's purchase of the Chinese armed drones and close partnership with Huawei as raising risks in several aspects.

"The Serbian government's authoritarian tendencies may strengthen over time, as the government can use Chinese surveillance technology to more effectively target political opposition," said Timothy R. Heath, Senior International Defense Researcher at the U.S.-based RAND Corporation.

"Serbia can become dependent on Chinese money and technology, and a Serbia armed with Chinese armed drones and enjoying the backing of Moscow and Beijing might provoke more conflict against Kosovo or other Balkan neighbors," he said.

As to how receptive Serbia's neighbors are for Chinese arms exports, John Pike, director of the U.S.-based Globalsecurity.org think tank, believes that most countries are generally keen to buy American.

"But each country and each deal have their own dynamics, and there is way too much behind the scenes corruption to make sense of it all," Pike said.

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