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China In Eurasia

Friday 7 October 2022

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People stand in front of images of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Museum of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on September 4.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to be anointed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for an unprecedented third term in office on October 16, but despite accumulating extraordinary power, Xi faces strong headwinds at home and abroad.

Finding Perspective: Xi is already the most dominant figure inside China and a third term will leave him as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

Since taking power a decade ago, Xi has presided over an increasingly aggressive authoritarian state powered by China's multi-decade economic growth. During that span, he expanded Chinese influence abroad with projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), expanded the military, took on economic inequality at home, removed political rivals through an expansive anti-corruption campaign, and shifted Chinese foreign policy into a more assertive gear, with Beijing positioning itself on the global stage as a superpower.

Xi abolished the restraints of collective leadership of his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin and shied away from the market reforms that defined China's rise in recent decades. It's also clear that he feels his hold on power is firmly in place, with his trip to Central Asia in September -- his first foreign visit since the pandemic -- as a signal that he sees no threats from rivals at home.

But as Xi prepares for another five year term, he'll have to grapple with a series of looming domestic crises -- from a mounting property-market crash to demographic strain to fallout from COVID Zero policies -- and newfound international resistance to Beijing over its threats to Taiwan, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, support for Vladimir Putin amid his invasion of Ukraine, and confrontational "wolf warrior" style of diplomacy.

Why It Matters: China under Xi is increasingly distrusted and feared around the world, which could not only further damage Beijing's international standing, but also stall the country's continued rise.

A new survey from the Pew Research Center suggested opinion about China in the world's most advanced economies "has turned precipitously more negative" in the past decade since Xi took office, with a majority in all countries saying that they have "little or no confidence in Xi's approach to world affairs."

The German Marshall Fund found similar findings in a recent study, with majorities in advanced economies largely seeing China today as a "rival" or "competitor."

But as Cai Xia, a retired professor of the CCP Central Party School now living in exile, wrote recently, this is unlikely to resonate with Xi himself.

"Xi will no doubt see his victory as a mandate to do whatever he wants," Cai predicted.

As seen during the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit, Xi wants to push for a new multipolar world order with China at the top, but with mounting pressure at home and abroad, he could overreach.

Read More

● Economic gloom is setting in and the Financial Times digs into China's property bubble, which could be "a slow-motion financial crisis" for the country.

● What would a Chinese invasion of Taiwan actually look like? Former CIA analyst and Atlantic Council senior fellow John Culver explains.

Expert Corner: Can China Benefit From War Fallout in Central Asia?

Readers asked: "Central Asian countries are distancing from Russia over the war in Ukraine. Does a weakened and less influential Russia play into China's hand and strengthen its influence there?"

To find out more, I asked Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

"It's hard to jump to conclusions right now that Russia is in decline and China would immediately replace it in Central Asia. There are still many factors that keep Russia as a dominant power there. The region, even today, still depends on Russia economically and logistically. So, in the near future, it's too early to claim that China is on the verge of replacing Russia.

"But this shift is also inevitable for Central Asia and the region will keep finding alternatives to Russia -- and the No. 1 option is China. Every single crisis Russia has with the West and the world adds fuel and speeds up this process that leaves China more influential in Central Asia than before.

"In the near future, I would also expect more cooperation from Beijing and Moscow in Central Asia and, of course, this would be because Russia is weaker than ever and it needs China and is looking for ways to grow that relationship. Beijing is also very pragmatic and would look to work with Russia, which has better knowledge of Central Asia than Beijing."

Do you have a question about China's growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I'll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. China's New Symbol In The Balkans

China has built a new cultural center in Belgrade at the site of its former embassy that was bombed in a NATO air strike in 1999.

During a recent reporting trip to Serbia, I reported on where the construction of the center stands now and the symbolic role it could play for China in the Balkans.

The Details: Despite not being officially opened yet, the center appears to be in full swing.

Staff come and go regularly and the Chamber of Chinese Companies, which is part of the complex, opened this spring. The center is slated to be one of the largest in all of Europe and will house classrooms, a Confucius Institute, exhibitions, office space for Chinese and Serbian companies, and also accommodation for diplomats and other visiting delegations.

But beyond its practical functions, it holds deep symbolic value.

The 1999 bombing of the embassy by NATO and the perceived tragedy and humiliation suffered at the hands of the West serves as a basis for Belgrade and Beijing's ties.

The emphasis on the center is also a sign that after years of pouring billions worth of investment and loans into Serbia that China is looking to expand its cultural footprint, too.

"We should look at [the center] as not only a hub for China's presence in Serbia, but also as a hub with the potential to spread the influence of Chinese companies and culture across the Balkans," Stefan Vladisavljev, an expert on Beijing's role in the Balkans and program director at Foundation BFPE, a Belgrade-based think tank, told me.

2. What Does Xi Want From Putin?

Amid battlefield losses in Ukraine and a chaotic mobilization campaign under way, Putin finds himself under mounting pressure, raising renewed questions about the future of the "no limits" partnership declared with Xi back in February.

What You Need To Know: September was a dizzying month for developments between Beijing and Moscow.

Like the rest of the international community -- with the exception of North Korea -- Beijing has not recognized Putin's September 30 decrees that four Ukrainian regions are now part of Russia. China never recognized Russia's forceful annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and Beijing abstained from a recent vote condemning the referendums at the UN Security Council, which was eventually vetoed by Moscow.

Before that, the Russian Security Council claimed on September 19 that Moscow and Beijing had agreed on "further military cooperation" with a focus on exercises and senior contacts.

All of this came on the heels of a Xi and Putin meeting on the sidelines of the SCO -- their first since the invasion of Ukraine -- where the Russian president acknowledged Xi's "questions and concerns" with the war (an exchange I dug into here.)

There are no signs that this has had any moderating influence on Putin. Since then, he ordered a "partial" mobilization and declared Ukrainian territory to be part of Russia.

Despite the slew of Russian setbacks, Beijing clearly still sees value in its ties with Moscow, which are becoming increasingly unbalanced in China's favor.

During their SCO meeting, Putin -- a world leader famous for his bravado and making others wait -- appeared deferential to Xi by praising the Chinese leader, saying he respected his "balanced stance" on the war in Ukraine, backing Beijing's One China policy, and opposing "provocations" by the United States in the Taiwan Strait.

3. Central Asia's Model Trains

In a long-awaited announcement for Central Asian leaders, China, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan agreed on construction of a railway network between the three countries that could have a big impact on regional trade, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported.

What It Means: While still facing some skepticism, the agreement was reached at the SCO summit in Samarkand and Beijing agreed to provide $4 billion-$5 billion in financing for the project.

However, it may still be years before the project truly gets off the ground and impact assessments are still being completed. The railway line has been met with enthusiasm by Central Asian leaders, though, and so far seems to be an example of China stepping in to provide the region with the kind of infrastructure it wants.

After years of scandals with past projects and growing concerns over saddling countries with debt, Beijing is moving cautiously with the railway and appears to be going with a slower timeline despite calls for an accelerated plan from Bishkek.

Across The Supercontinent

Espionage: Valery Mitko, an 81-year-old Russian scientist placed under house arrest after being charged with high treason and allegedly spying for China two years ago, died on October 2, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported.

Speed Limits: The first 41-kilometer stretch of Montenegro's controversial $1 billion highway is open and running. My colleagues at RFE/RL's Balkan Service have a video of the new highway and how locals feel about it now that it's in use.

Karachi Shooting: A Chinese national was shot dead and two others were wounded on September 28, when unidentified attackers opened fire inside a dental clinic in the Pakistani city of Karachi, Radio Mashaal, RFE/RL's Pakistani service, reports.

Holes In The System: A recent study by the Central and Eastern European Center for Asian Studies looked at how vulnerable Hungary's critical infrastructure is to Chinese hacking or snooping and found it to be high, my colleague Akos Keller-Alant from RFE/RL's Hungarian Service reports.

One Thing To Watch

Beijing is looking to change the rules of the game for Taiwan, this time in regards to its military footing toward the self-governing island.

After carrying out war games in early August in response to a visit to by U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, China is looking to keep that posture as part of the new status quo.

The Taiwanese Defense Ministry said that Beijing was looking to "normalize" its military activities near Taiwan, including crossing the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which could pose a challenge for Taipei "unlike [any] it has seen before," according to the ministry.

"In the future, the activities of Chinese communist military aircraft and ships entering our air-defense-identification zone, crossing the median line, and approaching maritime areas close to the island will gradually become more normalized," the ministry said in a statement.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your in-box on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

Beijing has nearly completed it towering Chinese Cultural Center at the Belgrade site where its former embassy was bombed by NATO in 1999.

BELGRADE -- The NATO air campaign had been in full swing in Yugoslav skies for more than a month as the Western military alliance tried to end the deadly assault by Serbian forces on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

But on May 7, 1999, the NATO bombardment escalated and set off a series of events that still bind Beijing and Belgrade together more than 20 years later.

Five NATO bombs from U.S. jets hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, setting the building ablaze as dramatic scenes of employees covered in blood and dust escaping from the wreckage unfolded.

Chinese officials and politicians close to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic quickly appeared at the site to denounce NATO and protests began outside the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that turned violent after the compound was attacked.

At least 20 people were injured and three killed in the bombing, including two Chinese journalists who were killed by a bomb that hit the embassy's sleeping quarters.

People push carts in front of the remnants of the Chinese Embassy during its demolition in Belgrade in 2010.
People push carts in front of the remnants of the Chinese Embassy during its demolition in Belgrade in 2010.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the site of the bombed former embassy is being transformed into an expansive Chinese cultural center set to be one of the largest in all of Europe. It will house classrooms, a Confucius Institute, exhibitions, office space for Chinese and Serbian companies, and also accommodation for diplomats and other visiting delegations.

Once opened, it will serve not only as a potent symbol of China’s growing presence in the Balkans, but also of the perceived tragedy and humiliation suffered by Beijing and Belgrade at the hands of the West.

“That’s why this place brings such symbolism. It’s not only a vision of the future for relations between Serbia and China -- it’s also about lamenting the past together,” Stefan Vladisavljev, an expert on Beijing’s role in the Balkans and program director at Foundation BFPE, a Belgrade-based think tank, told RFE/RL.

As China rapidly extends its reach in the Balkans, its growing influence is unmistakable in Serbia. While Chinese ties date back to the Yugoslav era, the relationship between the world’s most populous country and Belgrade has expanded under the rule of President Aleksandar Vucic, who was first elected in 2017. Billions of dollars in Chinese investment have also flooded into Serbia in recent years, funding mines and factories across the country as billions more in infrastructure loans have built roads, bridges, and new facilities.

In moves that have also caught the attention of Washington and Brussels, the Serbian government has also purchased drones and missile-defense systems from China and bought thousands of Huawei surveillance systems that have facial-recognition capabilities.

But China’s presence is also growing in more subtle ways that the new cultural center will look to build upon. Serbian universities have inked cooperation agreements with their Chinese counterparts and the Balkan country is home to two state-run Confucius Institutes. The Serbian government also recently reached an agreement on direct flights with China.

“We should look at [the center] as not only a hub for China’s presence in Serbia, but also as a hub with the potential to spread the influence of Chinese companies and culture across the Balkans,” Vladisavljev said.

The Ties That Bind

Unanswered questions in the bombing’s aftermath would fuel speculation that the strikes were targeted, but NATO and U.S. officials have strenuously denied that it was deliberate and no clear evidence otherwise has since come to light. China would go on to receive $28 million in compensation from Washington for the bombing but the reputational damage appears irreversible, with many in China and Serbia still viewing it as an intentional strike.

Those events have also helped lay the symbolic foundation for the new Chinese cultural center.

A statue of Confucius at the Chinese Cultural Center in Belgrade
A statue of Confucius at the Chinese Cultural Center in Belgrade

The building’s sleek design and shiny edifice sits at a location redubbed Serbia-China Friendship Square and the center features a statue of Chinese philosopher Confucius with a monument and plaque to those killed during the embassy bombing not far from the entrance.

Serbian and Chinese officials still hold an annual commemoration ceremony on May 7 at the site and it has become a regular stop for visiting Chinese dignitaries, including Chinese leader Xi Jinping during a 2016 state visit to Belgrade. Prior to the pandemic and China’s strict lockdown measures that have limited travel for Chinese citizens, the monument would also be visited by busloads of Chinese tourists during Balkan tours.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping (frot left) pays homage to those killed in the embassy bombing during a state visit to Belgrade in 2016.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping (frot left) pays homage to those killed in the embassy bombing during a state visit to Belgrade in 2016.

In addition to honoring those killed in the bombing, the events of 1999 have been a springboard for Beijing’s ties with Serbia. China supported Belgrade rhetorically and at the United Nations during the Kosovo War, opposing NATO airstrikes alongside Russia even before the embassy bombing. Beijing has also not recognized Kosovo, which formally declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Ties between the two countries received a jumpstart with the launch of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and a new era of investments and engagement with Serbia was paved by the construction of the Pupin Bridge across the Danube in Belgrade, a project mainly financed with a $217 million loan from China’s Export-Import Bank.

The bridge has become an emblematic monument to China’s newfound place in Serbia and was officially opened during a 2014 visit by Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang. The successful project also delivered a soft-power boost to China, with many Belgrade residents referring to it as the “Chinese bridge,” despite it being named after Mihajlo Pupin, a heralded Serbian physicist who lived and earned his accolades in the United States.

“Soft power always follows hard power and economic power is undoubtedly part of China’s hard power,” Nenad Stekic, a research fellow at the Institute of International Politics and Economics, a government-funded think tank in Belgrade, told RFE/RL. “In the eyes of Serbian people, all Chinese activities here -- including hard investments -- will be better perceived if they are complemented by the soft component of China’s cultural power.”

While corruption and environmental scandals have followed many Chinese investment projects around the world and hurt Beijing’s image on the ground, polls show that China is largely well received in Serbia.

In an August survey, the Belgrade-based Institute for European Affairs found that 79.4 percent of respondents see China positively, which the researchers said was partly attributable to perceptions around Chinese deliveries of vaccines during the pandemic and sustained economic investment in Serbia.

'Waiting For Xi’'

Despite not yet being officially opened, the Chinese cultural center in Belgrade appears to be in full swing.

The building is administered by the Chinese Embassy -- which did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment about its opening date and its operations -- and both foreign and local staff are coming and going regularly. The plaza around the center features a collection of restaurants and cafes and an affiliated Chinese-themed hotel nearby, which also hosts a recently opened upscale Chinese restaurant.

The center was originally slated to open in 2019 to correspond with the 20th anniversary of the embassy bombing, but was delayed due to construction setbacks and the COVID-19 pandemic.

On March 3, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Chamber of Chinese Companies, which is housed within the center and already hosts several firms. But the official opening date has still not been made public.

A photo of a billboard taken in April 2020 in Belgrade depicting Chinese leader Xi Jinping with the words, “Thanks, Brother Xi.”
A photo of a billboard taken in April 2020 in Belgrade depicting Chinese leader Xi Jinping with the words, “Thanks, Brother Xi.”

Local analysts and China-watchers have speculated that Chinese and Serbian authorities are waiting for a state visit to Belgrade from Xi to officially launch the center.

In 2019, Vucic announced that another visit from Xi was in the works for early 2020, but this never came to fruition amid the pandemic and the Chinese leader’s international isolation, which saw him not leave China for nearly three years.

But Xi made his first trip abroad to Central Asia in mid-September and with travel back on the agenda, Vladisavljev says Serbian diplomats are likely in overdrive pushing for another visit by the Chinese leader to Belgrade.

“Even if there are already companies and people going in and out, there is a saying in Serbia: It’s not open until Vucic has opened it,” he said. “And Vucic is waiting for Xi.”

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