Global Times: China-Serbia ironclad friendship sets a role model in the new era: Chinese Ambassador to Serbia Li Ming

BEIJING, May 8, 2024 /PRNewswire/ — China and Serbia have long been renowned for their ironclad friendship. The bond between the two nations continues to strengthen with frequent exchanges between their leaders. As Chinese President Xi Jinping pays his second state visit to the European country in the coming days, expectations are running high that the ironclad friendship between the two nations will be further enriched and strengthened.  

Before the significant visit, Global Times reporters Shan Jie, Xie Wenting and Zhao Juecheng (GT) interviewed Chinese Ambassador to Serbia Li Ming (Li). The ambassador offers a profound look at the robust China-Serbia relations, underscored by a shared history and a vibrant cultural exchange, while emphasizing Serbia’s integral role in the Belt and Road Initiative and the impact of the China-Serbia Free Trade Agreement on economic collaboration.

GT: You have been serving as the Chinese Ambassador to Serbia since last September. What impressions has Serbia made on you during these past months? As the current Chinese ambassador, what message would you like to convey to the local people?

Li: Serbia is a uniquely charming country. Situated in Central and Eastern Europe in the Balkan region, it boasts a rich history and vibrant culture where Eastern and Western civilizations have met and mingled over millennia, producing significant achievements in human civilization. Additionally, Serbia is blessed with splendid natural beauty, from its vast plains and river valleys to its mountainous landscapes, all captivating to behold.

What impressed me most was the warmth of Serbian people and their profound friendship with the Chinese people. Both countries view each other as “ironclad friends,” a bond not only rooted in our historical traditions but also thriving anew in the new era.

Upon arriving in Serbia, I was pleased to witness numerous fruitful Chinese-Serbian collaborations taking root and flourishing, and to feel the warm, friendly support of the Serbian people for our bilateral cooperation.

As President Xi has stated, “The modernization we are pursuing is not for China alone, but for all developing countries through our joint efforts.” I am confident that under the careful guidance and leadership of our heads of state, China-Serbia relations will continue to yield fruitful outcomes in the new era, bringing tangible benefits to both peoples and setting a model for the region and the world.

GT: How do you evaluate the current state of China-Serbia relations? In which areas do you plan to deepen cooperation?

Li: China and Serbia are close friends and partners, sharing an ironclad friendship that has endured through history and remains vibrant amid global changes. The frequent interactions between our leaders have charted the course for our relationship. In recent years, President Xi and President Aleksandar Vucic have met multiple times and maintained a close communication. In October 2023, President Vucic led the largest-ever Serbian delegation to China for the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Under the strategic guidance of both leaders, our comprehensive strategic partnership maintains robust development, with close exchanges at all levels and unwavering mutual support on issues of core interest and major concern, deepening political trust.

Our economic and trade cooperation has strengthened both economies. Bilateral trade continues to grow, with China being Serbia’s largest source of imports, second-largest trading partner, and a significant direct investor. Serbian Zijin Mining Group, HeSteel Group (HBIS) Group Serbia Iron & Steel, and Serbian Zijin Copper company, all Chinese-funded enterprises, rank among Serbia’s top exporters. Under the Belt and Road Initiative, our infrastructure projects stand out, including the Belgrade Zemun-Borca Bridge, the first bridge built by a Chinese company in Europe, and the E763 highway, the first highway constructed by a Chinese company in Europe. The Hungary-Serbia railway, a flagship BRI project, marks China’s first high-speed rail project in Europe and the first in the Central and Eastern European region.

Cultural exchanges have also bridged our friendship. The traditional bond between our countries has been strengthened by reciprocal visa exemptions, mutual driving license recognition, and direct flights. The interest in Chinese culture remains high in Serbia. The Spring Festival of the Year of the Dragon saw the Chinese Embassy in Serbia host a series of popular “Happy Spring Festival” events. With the establishment of the Chinese Cultural Center in Belgrade, China-Serbia cultural exchanges have gained a new platform.

China will continue to work with Serbia, guided by the important consensus of our leaders, leveraging mechanisms such as the China-Serbia Free Trade Agreement and the Belt and Road mid-term action plan. We will deepen cooperation in traditional fields and accelerate development in digital and green economies, exploring new potential in innovation, new energy, biotechnology, and environmental protection. Recently, Chinese automakers Chery, Geely, and Lynk & Co showcased their products at the Belgrade Motor Show, adding highlights to China-Serbia economic and trade cooperation. I believe the scope of our collaborative endeavors will only expand, broadening the path of cooperation between the two countries.

GT: In your view, how has the BRI impacted China-Serbia relations and cooperation? Please detail two successful cooperation projects you have observed.

Li: Serbia is a key partner in the BRI, being among the first European countries to sign a cooperation agreement with China. The integration of the BRI into Serbia’s national development over the last decade serves as a model for the international community. Projects like the Hungary-Serbia railway, the Belgrade Ring Road, the Sava River Bridge, and the Smederevo steel plant have significantly improved the daily lives of locals, boosting employment, trade, and investment, and injecting new vigor into Serbia’s development. Among these, the Smederevo steel plant and the Hungary-Serbia railway stand out as exemplary cases.

The Smederevo steel plant, once hailed as the pride of Serbia and boasting over a century of history, faced closure due to mismanagement. In 2016, under the BRI, China’s HBIS signed with the Serbian government to establish HBIS Group Serbia Iron & Steel. In less than six months, the steel plant turned profitable after seven years of losses, becoming Serbia’s largest exporter for four consecutive years. Importantly, all 5,000 Serbian employees were retained, rekindling hope for thousands of families and exemplifying the success of China-Serbia cooperation under the Belt and Road framework.

In 2013, the Hungary-Serbia railway project was announced shortly after the implementation of the BRI. In 2022, the Belgrade-Novi Sad section of the Hungary-Serbia railway was completed and opened to traffic, reducing the travel time between the two cities from 90 minutes to 30 minutes. Over the last two years, the Belgrade-Novi Sad section has transported over 7 million passengers.

Excited about the project, President Vucic said, “This is a significant change for the Serbian people and the entire country.” The Serbia section of the Hungary-Serbia railway line is expected to be completed by the end of 2024, and it is believed that it will become the “road to happiness” and “road to prosperity” for the Serbian people, as well as a road of friendship between China and Serbia.

Under the guidance of the BRI, China and Serbia will continue to uphold the principle of planning together, building together and benefiting together, focusing on connectivity and achieving new brilliant results in policy communication, facility connectivity, trade facilitation, financial integration, and people-to-people bonds.

GT: What new impetus has the China-Serbia Free Trade Agreement (FTA) injected into the economic and trade cooperation between the two countries and what has it achieved?

Li: The China-Serbia FTA is the first free trade agreement signed between China and a Central and Eastern European country, and it is also the 22nd free trade agreement signed by China. Serbia has become China’s 29th free trade partner globally.

After the agreement comes into effect, both countries’ citizens and businesses will benefit from it. Serbian producers and traders can actively utilize the free trade arrangement between the two countries to access major consumer markets worldwide, and attract Chinese and European investors to invest in Serbia.

Serbia has made high-level commitments in sectors such as manufacturing, construction, and information communication, providing Chinese companies with greater certainty and broader opportunities to explore the Serbian market and even the Central and Eastern European markets.

The China-Serbia FTA will help both sides to achieve high-level mutual openness, establish new institutional arrangements for bilateral economic and trade cooperation, create a more favorable, convenient, transparent, and stable business environment for businesses from both countries, and inject new momentum into promoting high-quality joint construction of the BRI and deepening the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Serbia.

GT: Please introduce the Belgrade China Cultural Center to our readers. How do you feel about the cultural and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries? What activities can we look forward to in the near future?

Li: The Belgrade China Cultural Center holds a very special position and significance among the dozens of Chinese cultural centers overseas. It stands on the site of the former Chinese Embassy in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, which was bombed by NATO in 1999, symbolizing the rebirth and indomitable spirit of the Chinese nation. It bears witness to the deep friendship forged by the Chinese and Serbian people with blood and life, and also demonstrates the Chinese people’s love for peace and their national character of not fearing power.

The cultural center has now started operating, becoming a convenient window for the Serbian people to learn about China and experience Chinese culture. It has become a new platform for telling Chinese stories and showcasing China’s images, as well as a bridge for promoting cultural exchanges and mutual learning between China and Serbia.

The cultural center not only provides opportunities for Chinese cultural displays and teaching such as calligraphy, tea art, musical instruments, dance, and martial arts, but also focuses on building its own cultural brand activities. In May 2024, the center will host the first “Tea and the World” event in conjunction with International Tea Day, followed by the first China-Serbia Dragon Boat Festival, the 2024 Chinese Film Week, and the “Hello! China” tourism promotion event.

GT: What exemplary role and positive impact have China-Serbia relations played on the cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European (CEE) Countries?

Li: As an important country in Central and Eastern Europe, Serbia is walking hand in hand with China, and bilateral relations are steadily developing. This not only sets an example for cooperation between China and CEE countries under the BRI, but also injects more stability into China’s relations with Central and Eastern European countries. The successful practice of China-Serbia cooperation fully proves that China and CEE countries can become good friends and partners in the process of jointly moving toward modernization.

China is willing to work together with countries in Central and Eastern Europe to firmly grasp the overall direction and main tone of the development of bilateral relations from a strategic height, respect each other, achieve mutual benefit and win-win results, and promote regional peace, stability, and prosperity.

GT: What’s your take on President Vucic’s recent remarks on the Taiwan question? How have China and Serbia supported each other on issues concerning each other’s core interests?

Li: At the beginning of this year, in an interview with China’s state news agency, President Vucic used 10 seconds to illustrate Serbia’s firm position of adhering to the one-China principle, and then in an interview with the media, he clearly stated that Taiwan belongs to China.

President Vucic’s remarks on the Taiwan question not only spoke to the just call of the international community, but also strongly demonstrated, once again, that China and Serbia have always firmly supported each other’s core interests and major concerns, and firmly supported each other’s development path choice. 

China and Serbia are true friends and good partners who trust each other. Over the years, Serbia has firmly supported China on issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and human rights, and China has always firmly supported Serbia in safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity. China is willing to continue to respect, support, trust, and treat each other as equals with Serbia and push forward the comprehensive strategic partnership between the two countries.

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