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China’s Xi welcomed with ‘respect and love’ in Serbia

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Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic reaffirmed his strong support for China’s sovereignty over Taiwan Wednesday as he gave a lavish welcome to President Xi Jinping, who is seeking to deepen political and economic ties with friendlier countries in Europe.

China has poured billions into Serbia and neighbouring Balkan countries, particularly into mining and manufacturing, and last year Beijing and Belgrade signed a free trade agreement.

Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan were greeted by Vucic on a red carpet outside the main government offices in Belgrade on Wednesday.

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The Chinese leader was met by a gun salute and the Chinese national anthem before shaking hands with officials including the prime minister and the National Bank of Serbia governor.

The two leaders waved from a balcony to several thousand people waiting outside, with some waving Chinese flags.

“Such respect and love as he will find here in our Serbia, he will not find anywhere else,” Vucic added.

He told the crowd as Xi applauded: “We have a clear and simple position regarding Chinese territorial integrity. Yes, Taiwan is China”.

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Beijing claims the self-ruled island as its own, and said it will not rule out using force to bring the island under Chinese control.

As the two leaders sat down for meetings, Xi told Vucic in opening comments that there was a “strong feeling of friendship between our two countries”.

Xi arrived in Belgrade on Tuesday evening following a state visit to France that saw sometimes robust exchanges with President Emmanuel Macron on trade and China’s close ties to Russia despite the Ukraine war.

The other two countries chosen for Xi’s first trip to Europe since 2019 — with Hungary as the final stop after Serbia — are among the most sympathetic to Moscow in Europe.

Streets in the Serbian capital were decked out with Chinese flags, along with posters and billboards that proclaimed a “warm welcome” to “Chinese friends”.

Xi’s visit also coincided with the 25th anniversary of the 1999 US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which killed three people.

“Do not forget that our Chinese friends were with us 25 years ago when this country was being demolished and bombed,” Vucic told the crowds.

“They paid a high price, they lost people only a few hundred meters from here on this very day.”

The embassy was hit during a months-long, US-led NATO campaign targeting Serbian security forces who were at war with ethnic-Albanian insurgents in Kosovo.

The US later apologised, saying outdated maps had led the pilot to strike the wrong target.

On Tuesday, Xi wrote in the Serbian daily Politika that NATO had “flagrantly bombed the Chinese embassy”, warning that China would “never allow such tragic history to repeat itself”.

China has long backed Serbia’s territorial claims over the breakaway province of Kosovo and along with Russia has prevented its recognition at the United Nations.

Serbian finance minister Sinisa Mali told state broadcaster RTS that discussions Wednesday would centre on “a great project” and a “major investment from China in a very promising area.”

“For Serbia, this is without a doubt one of the most significant visits,” Marko Tmusic, a political sciences professor at the University of Belgrade, told AFP.

“Standing ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with France — with whom China marks 60 years of diplomatic relations — and Hungary… is certainly a great honour” for Serbia, he added.

People in Belgrade welcomed Xi’s visit. “I think it’s an excellent thing, this visit from the president of one of the most powerful countries in the world,” 67-year-old Stojan Vidovic, a retiree, told AFP.

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In France, Xi met with Macron and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

They urged him not to allow the export of technology that could be used by Russia in Ukraine and to do all it could to end the war.

Xi warned the West not to “smear” China over the conflict and also hit back at accusations that Chinese overcapacity was causing global trade imbalances.

Europe is concerned that while officially neutral over the Ukraine conflict, China is essentially backing Russia, which is using Chinese machine tools in arms production.

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After meeting with Vucic, Xi will go later Wednesday to Hungary where China has invested heavily in vast battery and electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing plants.

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