Serbia’s purchase of FK-3s from China marks a shift in Vucic’s diplomatic and defense policy

As the eyes of the world focused on Russia and its invasion of Ukraine, a major military transaction took place between Serbia and China. On April 9, six People’s Liberation Army Air Force Y-20 transport planes landed at Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade, delivering a Chinese FK air defense surface-to-air missile system -3 to the Serbian army.

The deal was signed in 2019 and publicly announced a year later. In March, the Serbian army formed a new unit to take delivery of the FK-3 system. The timing of this transaction is striking given the war in Ukraine. For Beijing, this is part of its well-known ambition to enter European defense markets via Serbia. For Belgrade, the deal is grounded in the need to modernize its outdated defense systems, the foreign policy imperative of balancing major external powers, and its leaders’ desire for domestic support.

China has had ambitions to establish defense industrial cooperation with Europe for decades, an endeavor hampered by the European arms embargo imposed on China in response to China’s crackdown on the Tiananmen protests. (This embargo is still in place, even though some European countries are using the dual-use technology loophole to do business with China.) Serbia, as a candidate for European Union membership, is a useful test subject for Beijing as it seeks ways to enter the European defense market.

As the eyes of the world focused on Russia and its invasion of Ukraine, a major military transaction took place between Serbia and China. On April 9, six People’s Liberation Army Air Force Y-20 transport planes landed at Nikola Tesla Airport in Belgrade, delivering a Chinese FK air defense surface-to-air missile system -3 to the Serbian army.

The deal was signed in 2019 and publicly announced a year later. In March, the Serbian army formed a new unit to take delivery of the FK-3 system. The timing of this transaction is striking given the war in Ukraine. For Beijing, this is part of its well-known ambition to enter European defense markets via Serbia. For Belgrade, the deal is grounded in the need to modernize its outdated defense systems, the foreign policy imperative of balancing major external powers, and its leaders’ desire for domestic support.

China has had ambitions to establish defense industrial cooperation with Europe for decades, an endeavor hampered by the European arms embargo imposed on China in response to China’s crackdown on the Tiananmen protests. (This embargo is still in place, even though some European countries are using the dual-use technology loophole to do business with China.) Serbia, as a candidate for European Union membership, is a useful test subject for Beijing as it seeks ways to enter the European defense market.

This market is the first known purchase of the FK-3 system in Europe. Similarly, in 2020, China’s shipment of CH-92A drones to Serbia was its first export of military aviation equipment to Europe. In March 2021, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe went on a regional tour of southeastern Europe, visiting Serbia, Hungary, North Macedonia and Greece, all important countries for China then. that it seeks to connect to Europe.

Greece is a maritime hub linking Europe to the Middle East and North Africa. Further north is North Macedonia, a conduit for land traffic as it borders several Balkan countries, followed by Serbia, a country connecting the Balkans to Central Europe via Hungary. All of these countries except Serbia are members of NATO while Greece and Hungary are also members of the EU. The visit showed China’s ambition to conquer other defense markets in the Serbian neighborhood, and the delivery of the FK-3 system is part of this endeavor.


For Serbia, the acquisition of China’s air defense system is part of its effort to modernize its outdated military hardware, much of which dates back to the days of the former Yugoslavia. Much of its arsenal dates back to the days of communist Yugoslavia’s large state military industry, which was partly based on Soviet standards. For a while, this created a fighting force that successfully deterred NATO from a ground invasion of Yugoslavia during the Kosovo War. By then, it was no longer enough to fight the technologically advanced wars of the 21st century. Logically, technology has progressed further since then.

Following the aphorism that generals always fight the last war, control of Serbian airspace has always been at the center of Serbian defense planning. The two previous times Serbia was involved in great power conflict, it had to deal with superior air power, including the Nazi bombing of Belgrade in 1941 and the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, when Belgrade and other major cities were also bombed. The need to provide air defense for the capital and other urban centers is helping to encourage defense modernization. As part of this process and driven by both historical experiences and technological transformations, the Serbian military focuses on any weapon system that flies or shoots things that fly.

Arms procurement is also part of Serbia’s well-established pattern of diversifying its defense partnerships and pitting global and regional powers against each other. The military equipment available to Serbia testifies to this. In 2019, Serbia received MiG-29 fighter jets from Russia and Belarus, but since most of these planes are on the verge of becoming obsolete, they could be replaced by French Rafale jets. Beyond that, Serbia has purchased Mistral missiles from France, an infrared portable air defense system and a rapid-fire Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia. In addition to getting Chinese drones, Serbia is in talks to get Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones motivated by drone performance in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ethiopia and Ukraine.

By obtaining weapons systems from powers like China, the Serbian government hopes to increase its bargaining power with the West. Russia also takes into account. Namely, for two years Serbia has replaced Russia with China as the main partner in the East. Indeed, in 2020, when the purchase of the FK-3 system was announced, Russian media articles expressed anger at Serbia for acquiring the Chinese system instead of the Russian-made S-300 missile system.

While the Russians have developed more advanced missile defense systems since then, such as the S-400 purchased by NATO member Turkey and the recently inaugurated S-500, the original S-300 had a status mythical in Serbia, because it is believed that NATO would not have intervened in 1999 if Serbia had then had this system. The FK-3 represents a new wave of Chinese missile technology, and the fact that Serbia decided to go with the Chinese system instead of the Russian system speaks volumes.

With all eyes on Russia, Serbia and China believe they have more breathing room to develop bilateral relations. The ongoing war in Ukraine is already forcing Serbia to cut some of its ties with Russia. After voting in favor of suspending Russia’s membership of the UN Human Rights Council, Serbia won an exemption from EU sanctions against Russian oil companies that allegedly prevented Serbia to import crude oil, as Serbia’s domestic oil and gas industry is majority-owned by Russia. Gazprom Neft.

Although Europe obviously has a leverage effect on Serbia, it is true that Beijing can also fill a large part of the vacuum that will be generated by Belgrade distancing itself from Moscow, as the Serbian political scientist writes Stefan Vladisavljev. The heat drawn by security collaboration with Russia and Moscow’s mixed military performance in Ukraine could push Serbia to adopt even more Chinese military hardware.

Although Serbo-Russian relations are generally described as an alliance of Slavic and Orthodox nations, it is an opportunistic partnership that depends much more on the need for geopolitical leverage than on historical affinities. While it’s unclear whether Vucic will join EU sanctions on Russia to avoid angering pro-Russia voters, his survival instincts certainly tell him he needs to keep a low profile on Russia, which makes China all the more valuable.


Ultimately, domestic politics informs Serbia’s foreign and security policy. In Serbia, the army remains one of the most trusted national institutions, with an approval rating of 65%. Therefore, being seen by the public as a reinforcement of the army earns you ground. In this regard, the ruling Serbian regime led by Vucic, triggered by the war in Ukraine, has shifted the electoral narrative from economic performance to the idea that Serbia needs a strong and experienced leader to ensure the country’s security. in times of global insecurity, as exemplified by the election slogan: “Peace. Stability. Vucic.

Indeed, during the “Shield 2022” military exercise, where the public could see (among other equipment) the FK-3 system and the Chinese CH-92A drones, Vucic declared: “I don’t care about Western embassies or I don’t care about Americans, Russians, Europeans or anyone else I will make decisions in accordance with the interests of the Republic of Serbia A government that acquires advanced weapons and presents itself as a guarantor of the country’s security in troubled times strengthens the regime’s position in the post-election period.

With all of this in mind, a return to war in the Balkans is highly unlikely. Serbia is surrounded by NATO members. Kosovo has a NATO troop presence in the form of the Kosovo Peacekeeping Force. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU peacekeeping mission, Operation Althea, was reinforced in response to the war in Ukraine. Despite all disagreements, Serbia is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. The country practices an Individual Partnership Action Plan, the highest level of cooperation a non-member state can have with NATO.

Serbian leaders could perhaps bide their time by saying to the West, “We are slowly moving away from Russia, so give us a break on China.” It’s a bet that could pay off in the short term but not in the long term, as the Sino-US rivalry will eventually reach Serbia, making the fallout from the war in Ukraine a picnic for Belgrade.

About Eleanor Blackburn

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