Serbia on Saturday publicly displayed a recently delivered Chinese anti-aircraft missile system, raising concerns in the West and among some of Serbia’s neighbors that an arms buildup in the Balkans could threaten a fragile peace in the region.
The sophisticated HQ-22 surface-to-air system was last month delivered by a dozen Chinese air force Y-20 transport planes in what was believed to be the largest airlift delivery of Chinese arms to Europe in history.
Although Serbia officially seeks membership in the EU, it has been arming itself mostly with Russian and Chinese weapons, including T-72 battle tanks, MiG-29 fighter jets, Mi-35 attack helicopters and drones.
In 2020, US officials warned Belgrade against purchasing HQ-22 missile systems, the export version of which is known as the FK-3, saying that if Serbia really wanted to join the EU and other Western alliances, it must align its military equipment with Western standards.
The Chinese missile system has been widely compared with the US Patriot and the Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, although it has a shorter range than the more advanced S-300 system.
Serbia is the first operator of the Chinese missiles in Europe.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said at the end of the arms display at a military airport near Belgrade that the Chinese missiles, as well as other recently delivered military hardware, are not a threat to anyone and only represent a “powerful deterrent” against potential attackers.
“We will no longer allow [ourselves] to be a punching bag for anyone,” Vucic said, apparently referring to NATO’s 78-day bombardment of Serbia for its bloody crackdown against Kosovo Albanian separatists in 1999.
Serbia, which was at war with its neighbors in the 1990s, does not recognize the independence that Kosovo declared in 2008.
It still has frosty relations with NATO members Croatia and Montenegro, as well as Bosnia, whose separatist Bosnian-Serb leader Milorad Dodik attended the military drill on Saturday.
Serbia is negotiating a purchase of French multipurpose Dessault Rafale jets, as well as British Eurofighter Typhoon fighters, Vucic said.
Only “political hurdles” would prevent the purchase of the Western aircraft, he added.
There are widespread concerns that Russia could push its ally Serbia into an armed conflict with its neighbors to try at least partly to shift public attention from the war in Ukraine.
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