China starts construction of cultural centre in Serbia on former embassy site bombed by Nato

China starts construction of cultural centre in Serbia on former embassy site bombed by Nato
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic toasts Xi Jinping on his visit to Serbia. / Photo by CC
By Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade June 20, 2016

The Chinese and Serbian presidents laid the cornerstone for the construction of a new Chinese cultural centre in Serbia’s capital Belgrade on June 17, the first day of Xi Jinping’s visit to Serbia. The new cultural centre will be built on the site of the former Chinese embassy that was destroyed by Nato bombing in 1999 and is symbollic of the growing diplomatic and economic links between the two countries.

The circumstances surrounding the bombing of the Chinese embassy on May 7, 1999, in which three Chinese journalists were killed and dozens injured, remain murky. Nato insists it was a mistake, though senior military and intelligence sources in Europe and the US have since reportedly said that the Chinese embassy was removed from a prohibited targets list after Nato electronic intelligence detected it was sending signals to the Serbian armed forces, which may have helped bring down a US Stealth aircraft. Nato bombed Serbia, including the capital, from March 24 until June 9 as part of efforts to halt the Kosovo War. 

Xi’s three-day visit to Belgrade started by paying a tribute to the Chinese victims. In the former embassy compound, Xi together with Tomislav Nikolić also unveiled the name plate of the Square of Serbian-Chinese Friendship as well as a monument to Chinese philosopher Confucius and newly-named Confucius Street. Thus, a part of the street on which the destroyed embassy was located will not anymore be the Street of Cherry’s Flower (Tresnjinog cveta street).

Chinese Culture Minister Luo Shugang said the cultural centre will be open to Serbian citizens and contribute to deepening the friendship between the two nations.

“Cooperation has a very important place on the New Silk Road - also known as One Belt, One Road - and transcends space and the limitations of time, connects the past with the present and is in line with the principles of peace, development and well-being, connecting China with all other countries of the world,” Shugang said during the June 17 ceremony, adding that the two countries have long histories and rich cultures, as well as a traditional friendship, Tanjug reported.

“By laying the cornerstone, the two countries are building another bridge of friendship,” Serbian Culture Minister Ivan Tasovac said, expressing confidence that the cultural centre would be a meeting place and a place for discussions about new partnerships.

The cultural centre in New Belgrade will occupy 24,000 square metres, Beta news agency reported on February 2.

“The future cultural centre will look beautiful. And it will represent a bridge connecting China and Serbia,” Shandong International general manager Meng Yen told daily Politika on February 1 when China's Shandong Hi Speed Group announced its plans to build a cultural centre.

Serbia was one of five CEE countries (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Serbia and Slovakia) that have signed a memorandum with China to promote China’s Belt and Road initiative on November 26, 2015 during the fourth 16+1 summit, the framework of China-CEE cooperation.

The Belt and Road Initiative, which is focused on connectivity and cooperation among countries throughout Asia, Europe and Africa, consists of two main components: the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt and the oceangoing Maritime Silk Road. It was unveiled by President Xi in September and October 2013.

During the second day of Xi’s visit, China and Serbia signed over 20 bilateral agreements from various fields like trade, investment, finance, culture, education, healthcare and technology, pledged to improve the overall bilateral relation. Xi and Nikolic also signed a declaration on strategic partnership between China and Serbia on June 18.

"The development of our relations is based on big projects. We are expecting an increase in trade and investment," Xi said, emphasizing that China supports Serbia’s EU path. 

China also lends "support to Serbian territorial integrity", which in practice means it won't support a vote to allow Serbia's erstwhile province but now independent state Kosovo to join the UN.

Belgrade aims to improve cooperation with China in order to help the country’s economy grow, and is seeking Chinese investments in industrial production to boost employment and exports. This hope has grown after the government reached a deal with China’s Hebei Iron and Steel Group (HBIS) on the sale of Zelezara Smederevo, Serbia’s only steel mill. HBIS'  acquisition of Zelezara saved some 5,000 jobs, averting a crisis in the region, where Zelezara is the main employer. Xi spent his last day in Serbia visiting Zelezara and Smederevo.

Serbia is the first stop of Xi's trip to the region, which will be followed in the coming days by visits to Poland and Uzbekistan.