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China Is Arming Its European Friends

May 23, 2022
Serbian media.

In late April the Serbian Armed Forces showed its newest air defense weapon system during the SHIELD 2022 exercises at an airbase. The event was attended by the country’s leadership and thousands of visitors who were allowed to view the military equipment on display. Carefully orchestrated exercises on an open field served to advertise national strength at a time when Belgrade is disenchanted with the EU and cultivates a long-term alliance with Beijing and Moscow. During SHIELD 2022 this alliance was best represented by at least one battery of Chinese-made HQ-22 SAMs (pictured above) operating alongside the Russian-made Pantsir-S1’s. Yet Serbia’s high tech military-industrial sector manages to collaborate with suppliers from NATO member countries.

The appearance of HQ-22 medium-range SAMs (also known as the “FK-3” when exported) at SHIELD 2022 on April 30 was deeply symbolic for other reasons. It marked an impressive leap in Serbia’s air defense systems and the branch responsible for these after its almost total collapse in the late 1990s followed by decades of no recapitalization. As a result, until last year the Serbian military’s air defense branch only maintained aging Soviet vintage SAMs. Contrary to its resemblance with another Chinese-made SAM the HQ-9/9B/9BE the HQ-22’s role is plugging the coverage “gap” in a multi-layered air defense network. When operated by the PLA its self-propelled and towed anti-aircraft artillery, along with HQ-7’s and HQ-17/17AE’s occupy the shortest layer in an air defense network while the HQ-16’s and HQ-22’s are the mid-range systems for eliminating cruise missiles and drones and finally the HQ-9’s and even the S-400’s supplied by Russia track and target incoming strategic bombers and strike aircraft as well as high altitude drones. It would serve the reader well to take this description as an approximate of how China’s military employs networked air defenses.

The brand new HQ-22 SAM battery delivered by China, which arrived on April 10 when they were flown in by Y-20 heavy transports, is the most sophisticated weapon system Beijing has shared with its landlocked ally in the Balkans. Prior to this, cooperation between Chinese and Serbian entities in the military-industrial sector was decades old but poorly understood. There’s ample evidence that Serbia’s state-owned armaments manufacturers transferred their expertise to China and vice-versa. At least three weapon systems of Serbia’s modest ground force are analogous to Chinese weapon systems; a tracked infantry fighting vehicle; a truck mounted 122mm howitzer; and a medium-range rocket artillery system on a flatbed truck. The manufacturing of 107mm short-range rockets also proliferated across the ex-Yugoslav republics since the 1990s.

Recent Chinese arms sales are less subtle. In 2020 Serbia did receive a small batch of twin-boom CH-92 combat drones and their laser-guided munitions and there are persistent rumors larger medium-altitude combat drones are coming next. With at least a single HQ-22 battery now in service the Serbian air defense branch, along with the rest of the armed forces, are poised to receive more weaponry and equipment that elevates it beyond a territorial role. In the last handful of years China demonstrated it can harness its state-owned military industries to build up cash-strapped armies struggling with modernization. Advanced combat drones; armored combat vehicles; road mobile ballistic missiles and rocket artillery; and third-generation fighter aircraft such as the L-15 and the J-10C (the latter can be powered by either a Chinese or Russian engine) are premium weapon systems that challenge the readiness of even the more credible NATO members.

Officially, Serbia’s government aspires for membership in the European Union at an undetermined date. This process is hindered by its deteriorating relationship with its neighbor Bosnia-Herzegovina and a territorial row with Kosovo. Since 2016, however, Belgrade and Beijing formalized a “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” that continues until today. China has poured billions of dollars into Serbian companies–steel mills and automotive manufacturing–while earning goodwill through road construction. Many European countries benefit from diplomacy and trade with China but a select few, including Belarus, are receiving sophisticated weapon systems. This is a drastic change from 30 years ago when communist Albania was the only European country to have substantial military support from China; Yugoslavia’s collapse and the four civil wars that erupted saw a flood of Chinese weapons pour into the Balkans. There are now proper channels where Chinese-made weaponry enter the continent through legal arms dealers allowed to import these in bulk. The ongoing war in Ukraine led to stronger demand for Chinese off-the-shelf quadcopters and handheld radios.

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