Serbia shows off China missiles amid build-up concerns in Balkans

Serbia is striving to balance relations with NATO, the EU, and its religious, ethnic and political alliance with Russia.

Serbia has unveiled its new Chinese-made surface-to-air missiles, a display of military clout at a time when Belgrade is performing a delicate balancing act over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The purchase of the Chinese missile system, which was displayed publicly on Saturday, has raised concerns in the West and among some of Serbia’s neighbours that an arms build-up in the Balkans could threaten the fragile peace in the region.

Members of the public and the media were invited to the display at the Batajnica military airfield near Belgrade, where Chinese and French missiles were lined up beside helicopters, Chinese-armed drones and Russian fighter jets.

“I’m proud of the Serbian army, I’m proud of a great progress,” said Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who attended the display flanked by military commanders who watched an aerobatics show featuring overhauled MiG-29 jets donated by Russia in 2017.

Vucic said the weapons system was not a threat, only a “powerful deterrent” against potential attackers.

“We will no longer allow to be a punching bag for anyone,” Vucic said, apparently referring to NATO’s 78-day bombardment of Serbia in 1999 for its bloody onslaught against Kosovo Albanian separatists. Serbia, which was at war with its neighbours in the 1990s, does not recognise Kosovo’s independence, which was declared in 2008.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, shakes hands with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic after a news conference in Belgrade, Serbia in 2021 [Darko Vojinovic/AP]

Belgrade still has frosty relations with NATO members Croatia and Montenegro as well as Bosnia, whose separatist Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik attended the military display on Saturday.

Although Serbia officially seeks membership in the European Union, it has been arming itself mostly with Russian and Chinese weapons, including T-72 battle tanks, MiG-29 fighter jets, Mi-35 attack helicopters and drones.

The sophisticated Chinese HQ-22 surface-to-air system, whose export version is known as FK-3, was delivered last month by a dozen Chinese Air Force transport planes in what was believed to be the largest-ever airlift delivery of Chinese arms to Europe.

Although Serbia has voted in favour of UN resolutions that condemn the bloody Russian attack on Ukraine, Belgrade has refused to join international sanctions against its allies in Moscow or to outright criticise the apparent atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.

Serbia is striving to balance relations with NATO, and aspirations to join the EU, with its centuries-old religious, ethnic and political alliance with Russia.

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