Analysis of the narrative about the role of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in creating a “new multipolar world order” and strengthening the Sino-Serbian “iron friendship”

October 2023.

As part of the program Regional Initiative to Combat Disinformation “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism”, we present you a new monthly analyses of fake news and disinformation narratives.

The role of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in creating a “new multipolar world order” and strengthening the Sino-Serbian “iron friendship”

The Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, which was held on October 17 and 18, 2023, attracted increased attention from the Serbian-language public and media, focused on presenting a potential alternative to the West. The forum under the auspices of the global initiative Belt and Road was organized as a form of marking the first decade of this initiative by Chinese President Xi Jinping, with announcements of the future development and transformation of the project, and was the occasion for narratives about the emerging new multipolar world order in which China will have one of the dominant roles, and finding a place for Serbia through strengthening the partnership with China.

At the two-day summit of the forum, as it was pointed out on official channels, representatives of governments and business communities from over 130 countries of the world were nominally present. From Europe, however, only the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, and the Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, arrived in Beijing. Russian President Vladimir Putin was the central guest of the forum where China marks the first decade of its global initiative. This was Putin’s first official visit outside the post-Soviet space since the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2022.

China also presented a vision for rebranding the initiative in the next decade at the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. Serbia is also part of the Belt and Road initiative and has become one of the most important participants in the Balkans. According to BIRN research, Serbia leads the region in terms of the number of infrastructure projects built or financed with Chinese aid and loans, each to a certain extent under the auspices of the Belt and Road initiative. During this year’s forum, the Serbian delegation, led by President Vučić, despite alleged pressure from the West, and according to pro-government and pro-Russian media, signed a series of memoranda of cooperation, new loans for infrastructure projects were agreed upon and the announced Free Trade Agreement with China was concluded.

The Serbian pro-government and pro-Russian media, which followed the summit in Beijing with special attention, systematically promoted the narrative of the creation of a new multipolar world order, which is already symbolized by China’s successful Belt and Road initiative, and in which Serbia can find its own place continuing to strengthen its “iron friendship” with China.

“The international community is gathering around Beijing”

The most influential pro-government tabloid Informer reported the news under the title “Xi Jinping sent a clear message to Putin, America will not like this!” The Chinese leader published incredible data…” focusing especially on the ever-tightening political, economic, and military cooperation between China and Russia on the international stage as an alternative to the US-led order. The Informer cites the words of the Chinese president after meeting with Vladimir Putin at the Belt and Road Forum “that China is ready to cooperate with Russia to protect international justice…and to contribute to the overall development of the world.”

Večernje Novosti, a pro-Russian media, also paid attention to the meeting between the Chinese and Russian presidents during the Belt and Road Initiative summit from the perspective of shaping an alternative to the West, emphasizing the statement “that China and Russia are constantly deepening mutual political trust and maintaining close and effective strategic cooperation.”

The results of the Sino-Russian summit at the forum in Beijing continued to be interpreted through this key by other media. Srbin.info, for example, writes about the “creation of a triple alliance” of Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang, which was initiated during the meetings at the forum, and concludes that “a new military bloc has appeared on the international scene” capable of challenging the existing ones. On the same portal, a text by analyst Siniša Ljepojević was published, in which he asserts that the Belt and Road initiative demonstrates the emerging multipolar world. “The summit had a strong political message…the reality is that the Belt and Road Initiative is one of the biggest global projects of the 21st century and will fundamentally change world relations as well as the world itself,” the text emphasizes. The Webtribune portal “fit” into the narrative, insisting, regarding the Belt and Road Forum held, that it was “the most important negotiations, on which the geopolitical balance of power on the planet may depend.”

The media that most explicitly and frequently tried to promote the narrative about establishing the contours of a new international order at the centre of which will be China, as evidenced by the forum for international cooperation in Beijing, was Russia Today. The Balkan portal of the Russian state television RT indicates in a series of articles that “the international community is gathering around Beijing,” that “the West cannot match the development projects of the East,” how “the Chinese model of development worries the Western elites” and how “the world is in a referendum on The Belt and Road voted with its feet.” The author’s text, suggestively titled “The International Community gathers around Beijing,” claims that the universal message of the Third Belt and Road Forum is in the interest of countries “to cooperate in the format of mutually beneficial cooperation, and not under the constraints of soft exploitation, geopolitical pressures and blackmail.” RT added that the Belt and Road initiative shows that most countries are not interested in separating from China or reducing risks, which the West is advocates. RT published an interpretation that China’s Belt and Road strategy surpasses the West (US), making it a desirable partner in building a multipolar world order.

“Serbia is an iron friend of China”

Another of the related narratives present in this period, in the second half of October, during and after the forum in Beijing, was that Serbia, as one of the few participants from Europe, is becoming an “iron friend” of China and that its international position – “sovereign” and “libertarian” policy – advances with Chinese support. The pro-government Informer published many articles in which the friendship between China and Serbia, the two presidents Xi and Vucic, as well as the “historical significance” of the Serbian delegation’s visit to Beijing, were apostrophized. The interlocutors of Informer pointed out that China is the first power in the world, that it offers Serbia “cooperation, stability and economic prosperity,” and that Serbia has an alternative to conditioning and sanctions from the West in China.

In its detailed analysis of the Belt and Road Summit, Večernje Novosti emphasized that “this gathering was perhaps even more important than the UN Assembly and…everyone witnessed China’s support for Serbia.” It is added that Serbia is China’s most reliable partner on European soil and that he can continue his “sovereignty policy without accepting blackmail.” The Serbian service of the Russian Sputnik reported in a similar tone. In addition to the assessment that Serbia has received “incredible attention” in Beijing, Sputnik also states that the signed agreements are an excellent opportunity for Serbia and its economy. It is predicted that Serbia “finds its place in the changes taking place in the world,” whereby the principle of mutually beneficial cooperation followed by China suits Serbia, in contrast to the “Western neo-colonial approach.”

In the author’s text for RT, it is interpreted that Serbia’s presence at the Belt and Road Summit is an expression of Belgrade’s independent policy despite pressure from the USA and the West. It is estimated that through participation in this initiative, Serbia could gain space for cooperation in building a multipolar order “with equal opportunities for all parties.”

Open questions about the scope of the Belt and Road initiative and the economic benefits for Serbia

Despite exaggerated domestic media coverage and systematic promotion of these narratives, in reality China’s Belt and Road Initiative faces challenges and open questions about its future reach as China’s ticket to global superpower status. The undisguised ambitions of the Belt and Road Initiative are encountering obstacles that may slow down and limit results and, therefore, China’s intentions to develop an alternative to the US-led world order.

Although it was reported that the gathering in Beijing gathered lower representatives of states and business communities from over 130 countries, a more important signal was sent by the reduced presence of heads of state and government. The limited high-level visit indicates that enthusiasm for the Belt and Road Initiative has waned. There were 29 leaders at the first forum for international cooperation in 2017, 37 at the second in 2019, and now only 23 heads of state and government have arrived in Beijing for the third forum for international cooperation of the Belt and Road. The Council on Foreign Relations recalls in its analysis that the absence of European and EU leaders, except Viktor Orban and Aleksandar Vučić, is noticeable, which “highlights growing European scepticism of Beijing.”

A review by the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes growing scepticism about the initiative and waning interest in China’s Belt and Road efforts and the benefits it can bring. Illustrative data was presented, showing that “the combined value of overseas investment and construction projects in the countries of the Belt and Road fell by 44% compared to their highest level in 2018.” The umbrella Chinese venture, which, according to many, represents the path to establishing a different world order with a more significant redistribution of power in the direction of China, has begun to slow down, thus affecting China’s other global efforts.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace writes that the “momentum of this gala initiative” has stalled due to domestic economic problems that have placed restrictions on borrowing and investment abroad. An analysis by the United States Institute of Peace also notes that “financial difficulties have begun to outweigh China’s hoped-for diplomatic gains,” citing a 2021 study that confirmed that over 35% of Belt and Road projects ran into implementation problems caused by corruption, excessive debt or labour exploitation.

The assessment of numerous international relations experts is that the mega projects within the initiative are mostly completed and that the second decade of the Belt and Road will not look like the first ten years. The expected rebranding of the initiative already began at the Beijing summit in mid-October with a focus on digital connectivity and human connections, as well as an increasing reorientation towards the global South. China will seek to give new impetus to the Belt and Road Initiative by continuing to bolster support in the global South, the Council on Foreign Relations said, “in the hope of counterbalancing the US-led international order,” but the outcomes are far less certain than it is emphasized in the Serbian media.

Regarding the positioning of Serbia and the importance of the agreements reached at the summit in Beijing, although they represent the raising of Chinese-Serbian relations to a new level, and how open questions are about long-term benefits. Serbia is one of the most important participants in the Belt and Road initiative in the Balkans, but the projects have been accompanied by numerous controversies in previous years, and the broader global challenges facing the Chinese initiative should also be taken into account.

It is also essential to state that the signed Agreement on free trade between Serbia and China can manifest its full effects only in five to seven years. Economists estimate it will bring very asymmetric effects, and the Serbian economy can only offer little to the Chinese market. Last year, Serbia imported goods worth 4.98 billion dollars from China, while exports from Serbia were four times smaller, i.e. worth 1.17 billion dollars. However, it is also illustrative that the three largest exporters from Serbia to China are Chinese companies – Zijin Mining, Zijin Copper and HBIS Group.

Additionally, it is known in advance that Serbia will have to terminate that agreement before joining the European Union since EU membership is not compatible with individual arrangements on free trade. Therefore, it is uncertain how much the agreements from Beijing will qualitatively affect Serbia’s international position.

Author: Igor Mirosavljević