Belgrade, Serbia – Chinese defense companies are tapping into Serbia’s market potential, striving to further expand their activities within the country and the wider Balkan region, manufacturers say.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace referred to Serbia as China’s “open-door” to the Balkan region in a 2019 report. Four years later, their relationship is strengthening, as demonstrated at a Serbian government-sponsored Partner 23 defense exhibition held in Belgrade this week.
Thus far, Chinese military exports have not enjoyed the same level of success in other parts of the region, although many Balkan countries have opened themselves to Chinese firms in infrastructure sectors.
Ahead of the Partner 23 fair, Serbia was the guest country of honor at the 23rd Chinese International Fair for Investment and Trade on Sept. 9. One of the objectives of the conference is to promote Serbian investment policies and environment, according to a statement published on the social media of the organizers.
In the context of the Belgrade defense event taking place here, three of four Chinese defense companies present reported that this was their first time attending.
“There is an obvious interest in the Serbian market, as for most Chinese companies here, it is our first time at the fair, showing part of our products for the first time as well in Europe, so there has been an expansion in our [China-based exhibitors] presence,” a representative of China National Precision Machinery Import & Export Corp. said.
CNPMIEC promoted itself as China’s largest missile weapons systems supplier. It displayed laser weapon systems, including the LW-30, which uses high energy beams to strike incoming targets, including low-altitude and low-speed drones. It is suited for forces looking to gain airspace control and air defenses, as it is able to implement hard and soft kill of threats within three kilometers (1.87 miles).
Another newcomer was ELINC China, which produces electronic warfare and counter-drone systems. Among its best-sellers, also displayed at the fair but not labeled, is the CHL-906 multifunction radar jamming and electronic intelligence station, that can be sold in different configurations.
“As first time exhibitors, we are interested in expanding into Serbia and the Balkan region markets. We are open and ready to cooperate with Serbian industry,” Sun Xuming, assistant general manager at ELINC’s Eurasian Department said.
This sentiment was also echoed by a representative of Norinco Group, a Chinese state-owned defense firm that attended an earlier edition of the Belgrade fair. The company placed at the forefront of its booth mock-ups of anti-tank missiles and armored vehicles, including the VN22 6x6 infantry fighting vehicle.
Surprisingly, almost no drones were displayed by Chinese firms. One of the only visible ones was the Wing Loong II, showcased on the stand of CATIC, also exhibiting for the first time.
No company officials were available to comment on whether they intended to push a possible sale of the Wing Loong II to the Serbian military. Belgrade currently lacks a MALE category drone comparable to the MQ-9 Reaper.
Peter Voinovich, editor-in-chief of Serbian aviation news portal TangoSix, said he is doubtful the country has any interest in it.
“Serbia, at least publicly, has not expresesed an interest in getting the Wing Loong II, as a medium-altitude long-endurance capability,” he said. “The MoD strategy has been to gradually introduce foreign drones for the purpose of fulfilling urgent needs, which manifested in acquiring the Chinese CH-92A and follow-on CH-95 systems.”
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.