For China, Europe visit part of a wider confrontation
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For China, Europe visit part of a wider confrontation

Chinese President Xi Jinping waves next to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at Palace of Serbia during the Chinese president's two-day state visit in Belgrade, Serbia, May 8, 2024. (Reuters photo)
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves next to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at Palace of Serbia during the Chinese president's two-day state visit in Belgrade, Serbia, May 8, 2024. (Reuters photo)

In the Serbian village of Budjanovci outside Belgrade, people have talked for years about the Chinese teams that descended on the area following the shooting down of a US F-117 stealth fighter in March 1999, offering to buy pieces of wreckage taken by villagers as souvenirs.

Exactly how much of the wreckage they were able to salvage remains unclear -- large parts remain in an aviation museum in Belgrade. And Zoltan Dani, commander of the missile battery that brought down the jet, and now a baker after a brief career in politics, says he still has pieces in his garage.

In the last three years, however, what may well be government-backed speculation on Chinese social media has begun to link the stealth salvage operation to the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade less than two months later, on May 7, 1999.

Chinese authorities have never accepted US arguments that the bombing was an accident, and in recent years, Chinese media has publicised the anniversary and said it should never be forgotten.

This week, Chinese President Xi Jinping used the 25th anniversary of that attack -- which killed three Chinese nationals reportedly working as journalists within the building -- as one of the lynchpins of his major state visits to Europe.

In an article for a Serbian newspaper, Mr Xi talked of the relationship between Beijing and Belgrade being strengthened by being forged in "blood and fire" by the attack.

It was a reminder that Beijing sees itself in an era-defining and not always bloodless confrontation with Washington, also signalling Beijing's hopes that as few European states as possible will take the US side. In Serbia in particular, both Chinese and Serbian officials talked of pushing back against US hegemony.

Despite arranging his trip for the anniversary, however, the Chinese leader avoided a visit to the site this week. The South China Morning Post suggested Beijing wanted to "avoid alienating" the United States too much.

Mr Xi's trip, which began with a visit to France before stops in Serbia and Hungary, represents his most significant diplomatic travel since a November meeting with US President Joe Biden in California.

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban is already China's closest friend within the European Union, while Beijing is even closer to Serbian leader Aleksander Vucic. Both also have their own separate relationships with the Kremlin.

Serbia has been wooed by Moscow, Beijing and the European Union, as well as by France which is selling it new fighter jets -- but it has a long-term face-off with the West over Kosovo and is also looking to push back Western influence in other Balkan states.

While those relations are continuously evolving, Beijing's efforts to create divisions within the West are far from new, both independently and in conjunction with the Russians.

In 1958, as the United States threatened to use atomic weapons to deter Mao Zedong from invading Taiwan's outlying islands while also working to deter a Soviet move against West Berlin, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan he believed Moscow and Beijing were conspiring to overstretch Western forces and looking to divide the United States from Europe.

Over the next two decades, it was the United States that successfully helped detach Beijing from Moscow -- although both Russia and China also did plenty to do that themselves. More recently, Vladimir Putin and Mr Xi have again found common ground opposing the West -- if anything, Russian domestic media has hyped the anniversary of the bombing more aggressively than media in China.

Western attempts to detach China from Russia are again under way in earnest -- but Germany and France are also simultaneously working heavily to keep relations open with Beijing.

As Mr Xi visited France last week, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Europe needed to do more to confront China on a number of issues, warning that otherwise, the European Union would be willing to make "full use" of trade sanctions at its disposal to ensure competition remained fair.

Emmanuel Macron used softer language in calling for a more balanced trade relationship, also using Mr Xi's visit to push his vision of a strategically independent Europe dependent on neither Washington nor Beijing.

But he also pushed China to cut back on its non-lethal support for Moscow on Ukraine, arguing that the survival of the government in Kyiv was vital to the rest of Europe.

The mere fact these discussions were taking place largely with little reference to the United States will, for Beijing, likely feel like a victory. Recent direct US-China discussions have had the feel of some of the angriest Cold War confrontations. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken left Beijing after his most recent visit, not a single Chinese official was at the airport to say goodbye.

For Beijing, the value of highlighting the US embassy bombing in Belgrade 25 years ago is multifaceted, but Mr Xi's primary audience is most likely domestic.

Since 2021, Chinese bloggers have suggested the US attack was conducted specifically to destroy parts of the stealth aircraft being held in its basement. Such suggestions have pointedly not been taken down by Chinese censors.

Whatever the truth, such tales support Beijing's growing narrative of ongoing confrontation, one in which China will sometimes be forced to take significant risks against the United States.

The events of 1999 took place only three years after Beijing's humiliation in the so-called "Third Taiwan Strait Crisis", in which US President Bill Clinton sent two US carrier battle groups to waters near the island to block Chinese efforts to intimidate voters in Taiwan's first free presidential vote.

Mr Xi's presence and rhetoric of never forgetting the shared suffering of Serbs and Chinese during the Kosovo war also plays well in Serbia -- and in Russia, which felt itself humiliated by US-led actions in the Balkans.

Within the wider world, it is another reminder of a still-often unpopular era of US-led international intervention, much of it without UN approval.

Finally, it plays to European, and particularly French, concerns over the original strike itself.

Shortly after the Kosovo war ended, French officials complained loudly that the raid was planned unilaterally by the United States rather than being run through a Nato targeting process that might have allowed France and other nations to raise objections.

That, in turn, fed long-running concerns in Paris about US dominance of Nato and wider Western strategy, as well as equally long-running US worries over intelligence leaks from France and other allies.

For many in the US, that single target in Belgrade may now feel like ancient history, a one-off mistake with little wider meaning. For China, it is another transgression in more than a century of "humiliation" by the West, one that the current government in Beijing, and Mr Xi in particular, are still signalling that they hope to dramatically reverse. Reuters

Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues.

Peter Apps

Reuters global affairs columnist

Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist.

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