Serbia shows off Chinese missiles amid Balkan concerns

Serbia displayed a sophisticated Chinese anti-aircraft missile system recently delivered at an event at a military airport near Belgrade, the capital.

BELGRADE, Serbia – Serbia on Saturday publicly displayed a newly delivered Chinese anti-aircraft missile system, raising concerns in the West and among some Serbian neighbors that a buildup of weapons in the Balkans could threaten the fragile peace in the region.

The sophisticated HQ-22 surface-to-air system was delivered last month by a dozen Chinese Air Force Y-20 transport planes in what is believed to be the largest aerial delivery of Chinese weapons to Europe.

Although Serbia officially seeks membership of the European Union, it has been arming itself mainly with Russian and Chinese weapons, including T-72 main 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. They said that if Serbia really wants to join the EU and other Western alliances, it must bring its military equipment in line with Western standards.

The Chinese missile system has been widely compared to the American Patriot and Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems, although it has a shorter range than the more advanced S-300s. Serbia is the first operator of Chinese missiles in Europe.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said at the end of the weapons display at a military airport near Belgrade that the Chinese missiles, as well as other recently delivered military equipment, are not a threat to anyone and merely 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 bombing of Serbia for its bloody crackdown on Kosovo Albanian separatists in 1999.

Serbia, which was at war with its neighbors in the 1990s, does not recognize Kosovo’s independence declared in 2008. It still maintains icy relations with NATO members Croatia and Montenegro, as well as Bosnia, whose Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik participated in the military exercise on Saturday.

Vucic said Serbia is also in talks to purchase French Dessault Rafale multirole jets, as well as British Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets. He said only “political obstacles” could prevent the purchase of the Western aircraft.

There are widespread concerns that Russia could push its ally Serbia into armed conflict with its neighbors to try, at least in part, to divert public attention from the war in Ukraine.

While Serbia has voted in favor of UN resolutions condemning the bloody Russian attacks on Ukraine, it has refused to adhere to international sanctions against its allies in Moscow or openly criticize the apparent atrocities committed by Russian troops in Ukraine.

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