In Serbia, Xi emphasizes close ties with an ally who shares mistrust of the United States

China and Serbia proclaimed an “iron friendship” during Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Belgrade on Wednesday, underscoring the close political and economic ties between two countries that share mistrust of the United States.

Mr Xi arrived in Serbia on Tuesday, marking the 25th anniversary of a 1999 plane crash involving the US Air Force during the Kosovo war and destroying the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, the Serbian capital. Three Chinese journalists were killed in the strike.

“We should never forget this,” Xi said in a statement published Tuesday by Politika, a Serbian newspaper, recalling that “25 years ago today, NATO flagrantly bombed the Chinese embassy.” He said China's friendship with Serbia was “forged with the blood of our compatriots” and “will remain in the shared memory of the Chinese and Serbian people.”

Mr. Xi appeared briefly Wednesday morning with the Serbian president, Aleksandar Vucic, before a cheering crowd gathered outside the Palace of Serbia, the former headquarters of Yugoslavia's now-defunct government that now houses Serbia's government offices.

Unlike Xi's last visit to Central and Eastern Europe in 2016, during which he faced noisy protests in the Czech Republic, he received a uniform and friendly welcome in Belgrade, with authorities mobilizing state workers to encourage him.

China is Serbia's largest foreign investor, and increasingly close economic ties have helped expand a relationship forged before the collapse of Yugoslavia, whose capital was Belgrade, in the early 1990s by shared distrust of Western power and Soviet.

The 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing came at a time when Xi's government is seeking to establish stable relations with the United States and Western Europe. He was expected to visit the site of the bombed embassy, ​​usually a mandatory stop for Chinese officials visiting Belgrade, but by late afternoon he had still not shown up there. Mr Xi visited the site, redeveloped as a Chinese cultural centre, during his last trip to Serbia in 2016.

Beijing's underlying suspicions about Western intentions and NATO's role persist, a point that has emerged in Chinese official and media commentary on the anniversary. But Xi refrained from the outrage expressed in Beijing by the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

“The Chinese people will never forget this barbaric atrocity committed by NATO and will never accept such a tragic history being repeated,” Lin Jian, a ministry spokesperson, told reporters in Beijing.

Serbia, which still harbors deep resentment over the defeat of the Christian Serbs by the Ottoman Turks in a battle in 1389, shares with China a vision of itself as a righteous force that has been harmed by hostile foreigners.

Serbia and China are also bound by mutual support for each other's territorial claims: China's to the breakaway island of Taiwan and Serbia's to Kosovo, a former Serbian land that declared an independent state after China's bombing campaign. BORN.

“Just as we have clear positions on the issue of Chinese integrity – that Taiwan is China – so they support the territory of Serbia without any reservations,” said Vucic, who was Serbian information minister under President Slobodan Milosevic during the Kosovo war. on Wednesday.

China, Xi said, “supports Serbia's efforts to preserve its territorial integrity vis-à-vis Kosovo.”

Public opinion has soured dramatically against China in much of Europe, particularly in former communist countries in the east, due to the war in Ukraine. But Serbia, which, like China, has close ties to Russia, has remained solidly pro-China and still looks to China for billions of dollars in investments.

But like almost all European countries, Serbia has an ever-widening trade deficit with China, a gap that Vucic hopes can be narrowed by a new free trade deal that he said Wednesday will allow Serbia to export 95 percent of its goods. free. While Serbia has few products that China needs, Vucic said Serbian farmers would benefit from new Chinese contracts for plums, plums and blueberries.

Vucic was one of only two European leaders, along with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, to attend a meeting in Beijing in October to celebrate Xi's Belt and Road infrastructure program. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin and dozens of other foreign leaders also attended. Mr. Xi's next visit will be to Hungary.

Belgrade was decorated with Chinese flags and placards paying homage to the “beloved Chinese friends”. Crowds thronged the streets to welcome the Chinese leader, an expression of affection that opposition politicians say was artificially manufactured by authorities, who they said ordered street cleaners and other state workers to skip work and to applaud Mr. Xi.

Serbia's state television station even stopped broadcasting the Eurovision Song Contest, a hugely popular event watched by millions across Europe, to make way for coverage of a welcoming ceremony for Mr. Xi at Belgrade airport.

Chris Buckley contributed reporting from Taipei, Taiwan and Alisa Dogramadzieva from Belgrade, Serbia.

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