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Xi Jinping lashes out at Nato over 1999 Belgrade bombing ahead of Serbia visit

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China’s President Xi Jinping has lashed out at Nato over its “flagrant” bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 as he tries to cement ties with Serbia ahead of a visit to the Balkan country on Tuesday.

Xi, who is travelling in Europe for the first time in five years, will head to Serbia on Tuesday afternoon from the French Pyrenees, where French President Emmanuel Macron is hosting him on the final day of a three-day state visit to France.

In a signed letter in the Serbian media outlet Politika, Xi invoked the 25th anniversary on Tuesday of the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in the former Yugoslavia during the Kosovo war to call for unity between Beijing and Belgrade.

“Twenty-five years ago today, Nato flagrantly bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, killing three Chinese journalists . . . This we should never forget,” Xi said, according to an English version of the article. “The China-Serbia friendship, forged with the blood of our compatriots, will stay in the shared memory of the Chinese and Serbian peoples.”

The Belgrade neighbourhood that was home to the former embassy was on Tuesday decked in Chinese and Serbian flags. At a small demonstration this week, two Serbian communist parties hung banners to welcome the Chinese president, including one that offered a reminder of the similarities between Serbia and China: “Kosovo is Serbia — Taiwan is China”. Belgrade claims its former province broke away illegally in 2008 and Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory and strives to bring it under its control.

Xi’s European trip, which will also include Hungary, is seen by analysts as aiming to exploit differences on the continent in attitudes towards Russia and the US and potentially undermine the unity of Nato and the EU on China.

Chinese academics have praised Macron’s advocacy of a more independent European stance on the global stage while Serbia and Hungary are seen as more pro-Russia despite the Ukraine war.

During Xi’s visit, French and Chinese companies signed several co-agreements, including metro construction contracts for France’s Alstom and a memorandum of understanding with Airbus on deepening aviation co-operation, but no big orders.

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Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who will host Xi, was propaganda minister for former leader Slobodan Milošević during the Nato bombing of Belgrade — an event that solidified Serbia’s anti-American stance.

The Nato bombing remains a “source of persistent resentment in Serbia towards Nato and the US in particular,” said Milos Damnjanovic, an analyst at BIRN, a Belgrade think-tank. “[It] creates a sense of solidarity between China and Serbia.”

Nato has said the Chinese embassy bombing was an accident that happened during a war to protect Kosovans from Serbian aggression.

In one potential sweetener for Serbia, China’s customs administration announced on Tuesday that it would lift an avian flu alert on Serbian poultry products.

China is the biggest foreign investor in Serbia and accounts for 8.5 per cent of Belgrade’s foreign loans, said Branimir Jovanovic, a researcher at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies. “In a way this is a failure of the EU and the west in general that China is so prominent,” Jovanovic said. “The west leaves space that China is more than willing to step into.”

Chinese media have carried several days of blanket coverage of Xi’s trip to Europe. The People’s Daily, the Communist party mouthpiece, quoted him as telling Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at the Élysée Palace on Monday that there was “no such thing as China’s overcapacity problem” in response to western concern over the possible dumping of subsidised Chinese goods.

In a separate interview, Beijing’s ambassador to Hungary extolled the country’s key role in the Chinese infrastructure scheme, the Belt and Road Initiative, in Europe, acting as a rail distribution hub for freight from China.

He also touted a high-speed railway between Belgrade and Budapest built with Chinese companies.

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