Serbia Enlists Chinese Officers in Joint Patrols
Serbian Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović launched Serbian-Chinese joint police patrols on September 18 in Belgrade, Novi Sad, and Smederevo as part of an agreement with Chinese Public Security Minister Zhao Khezi, reports Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. The incorporation of unarmed Chinese police into select Serbian cities is meant to accommodate the growing number of Chinese tourists and workers in Serbia and the Balkans.
The two ministers met in Belgrade last May, signing a three point memorandum between their countries’ security programs sanctioning these joint police exercises as well as a partnership against cyber crime, per Reuters.
But Belgrade plans to broaden Chinese involvement in Serbia beyond policing by bringing in numerous Chinese corporations for security and infrastructure projects as well. Chinese technology giant Huawei agreed with Serbian officials to implement facial-recognition surveillance cameras as part of their joint SafeCity project in Belgrade, says Reuters. Furthermore, Forbes reports that the Serbian Infrastructure Minister contracted the state-run Chinese engineering company PowerChina to construct a Belgrade metro system beginning in 2020. The Serbian Innovation Minister also enlisted the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) to construct a Serbian-Chinese joint industrial center in Borča.
These Serbian inroads, however, represent just one prong of China’s Balkan-focused integration into Eastern Europe. Since 2018, Chinese police have conducted joint patrols in Serbian neighbor Croatia, and the Dubrovnik Times reports that many of the proposed ventures in Belgrade have already been underway in Dubrovnik, Split, and Plitvice.
The growing Chinese presence in Croatia, like in Serbia, extends to government infrastructure contracts with Chinese corporations, notably with the CRBC, which signed to construct a major Croatian bridge, per the Dubrovnik Times.
As Chinese officer in Croatia Lili Long told the Dubrovnik Times, “This joint patrol program . . can enhance the collaboration between the Croatian and Chinese police forces. I think this is a positive start of the collaboration between the two countries.”
Collaboration between China and economically developing countries like Serbia, however, can result in a contentious partnership. While the immediate effects of Chinese investment, such as the Steel Group’s job-saving purchase of the Železara Smederevo steel mill, can appear immensely positive, EU Commissioner for Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn points out that, “China never cares how and if a country is able to pay its loans,” per Forbes.
Often accused of practicing debt-trap diplomacy through foreign investment programs like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China has earned a reputation for economically manipulating smaller nations into undertaking excessive debt to force exploitative repayment deals, such as the Sri Lankan cession of an Indian Ocean port after defaulting on BRI debt, reports Forbes.
As China begins to invest in Serbia through its joint police initiative and state contractors, Belgrade is susceptible to exploitation as one of the poorest European states with historically weak democratic institutions. They must now decide how far to let China in: whether to hand over the keys to the city, following the example of Dubrovnik Mayor Mata Franković, or whether to maintain a measured distance.