China is currently the world's second largest economy and a leader in terms of economic growth, and the Chinese market, covering 1.35 billion people, is also the biggest in the world. Among other things, China is also No. 1 in the world for high-speed rail, and its infrastructure capacity is surely one more of the numerous things that illustrate the country's economic strength and size. Bilateral relations between Serbia and China are traditionally friendly. In this interview, Li Manchang, the ambassador of China to Serbia, speaks to eKapija about the business cooperation between the two countries.
eKapija: China has been the most important foreign trade and financial partner of Serbia in Asia for many years now. How would you, in a general sense, evaluate the business cooperation between the two countries?
- Considering that friendly relations between our two countries are traditional in nature and that China and Serbia have always been friendly to each other, such good political relations demand from us to develop cooperation in other domains as well. We are satisfied with our business cooperation, but we also believe there is much room for its improvement and development. As the ambassador of China to Serbia, I am doing my best every day to make economic cooperation as good as possible.
eKapija: What areas are covered the most and the least by this cooperation?
- So far, aside from foreign trade, our cooperation has been the most successful in the field of infrastructure. For example - a recently completed bridge between Zemun and Borca on the Danube, highway construction by Shandong Hi-Speed Group Corporation, and the works on Kostolac Thermal Power Station that are being carried out China's CMEC (China Machinery Engineering Corporation). These are all large ongoing projects, while negotiations on high-speed rail system between Belgrade and Budapest, Corridor XI and energy cooperation are still underway.
In addition, there is a big potential for cooperation in agriculture. Serbia is a rich country, especially when it comes to agriculture. There is also scientific cooperation and, finally, cooperation in sports. Although much smaller than China, Serbia is a sports superpower and has better sports results. Basketball, waterpolo, volleyball, football... These are the sports in which we can work together, exchanging experience and knowledge. I must stress that Serbia has already helped us a lot in football and it still does. And there is, of course, cultural cooperation too.
eKapija: Is there room to boost economic cooperation? In what ways could we achieve that and are we already working on that?
- When it comes to economic cooperation between our countries, it primarily requires the desire and the will. A basis for this already exists. For example, our prime minister was staying in Serbia last year and had a talk with his Serbian counterpart. The two of them agreed in principle on how to improve cooperation across all industries. This calls for synchronized activities of the two governments, competent bodies, officials and all those involved in both countries. It is for sure that certain difficulties may occur on this path since the policies, natural conditions, mentality and culture of China and Serbia are a bit different, but I believe that all this can breed more solutions than problems.
eKapija: How many companies from your country operate in Serbia and what are their impressions of the business environment in Serbia?
- About ten state-owned companies from China are operating in Serbia, mainly through their local branch offices. Among them are CMEC, CRBC (China Road and Bridge Corporation), Huawei, Shandong Hi-Speed Group Corporation, and others. Delegations of Chinese companies are still coming to Belgrade on a short visit. They share the opinion that now is the right time to boost economic cooperation given that the authorities of the two countries already created an excellent basis for that.
Besides, economic structure in China and Serbia are complementary. Chinese companies can do a lot of things in Serbia, which could result in two countries working together in third markets. For example, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has recently said in Smederevo that negotiations with the strategic Chinese partner Hebei Iron and Steel group (HBIS) are underway and that this company is ready for cooperation with Zelezara Smederevo steelworks.
eKapija: What can you say about the operations of Serbian companies in China? What could be improved in that regard and in what way?
- China is an open country with the market economy. Every company is welcome here, especially if it is coming from Serbia. I think that the Serbian pharmaceutical industry is quite strong in China, and so are agricultural companies.
eKapija: China has a large number of industrial and professional associations and organizations. Are these entites working with similar associations in Serbia? What are the prospects of that cooperation, and to what extent can such cooperation contribute to the development of overall economic relations between China and Serbia?
- In that regard, cooperation is relatively weak at this moment, except between the chambers of commerce of our two countries. I am doing my best to improve it, and it is primarily necessary to develop mechanisms for better cooperation between industrial and professional organizations. Few weeks ago I visited the Football Association of Serbia and talked with its president, and I will try to bring the national team of China or at least our junior team to Belgrade because, as I already mentioned, we need to strengthen our cooperation in sports as well. China too has an association of scientists, but they are not working with Serbia that much. Improvement of this and every other cooperation is my task. I must work a lot on this. If all these associations start communicate and work with each other, our overall interstate relations will be even better.
eKapija: A main contractor for the construction of Zemun-Borca bridge on the Danube was China's CRBC. Are there some other big projects in Serbia that Chinese companies are working on? Could you please specify them and tell us their current status?
- Apart from the several projects listed above, as an ambassador, I see that negotiations are necessary and that China and Serbia should work together in those fields where both countries are strong. China has a lot of experience in the energy sector and special industrial zones, but there is still no Chinese industrial zone in Serbia. This topic has already been thoroughly discussed with the Serbian government and Chinese companies. That is my next task, and we should get it over with as soon as possible.
eKapija: Construction of Belgrade-Budapest railroad is one of the big projects on which China is working with Hungary and Serbia. Can you describe the role of China in this project and share the expected dynamics of project implementation?
- As far as high-speed rail is concerned, China is currently No.1 in the world. More than a half of all high-speed railroads in the world are located in China. Now we have the best railway equipment, designed in line with the world's highest standards. Based on the wish expressed by the governments of both countries, we want to work with Serbia and Hungary. This railroad is the subject of intensive talks which progress much faster with Serbia than with Hungary. We are very thankful for all the efforts of the Serbian government and personal engagement of Prime Minister Vucic. My opinion is that this project is beneficial to all three countries. Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested two years ago we should renovate the former Silk Road. A primary goals is to improve economic cooperation with countries along the route of the Silk Road, and Serbia has a very important place because it is situated between the east and the west and the north and the south.
eKapija: Summit of China and 16 countries of central and eastern Europe should be held in Beijing in November 2015. What are your expectations from this summit in regard to further improvement of economic cooperation between China and Serbia?
- It has already been announced that Prime Minister Vucic is going to visit our country and attend the summit. I expect this to happen because the Serbian prime minister is skillful, diligent, efficient, and I respect him a lot. We believe that he is very ambitious when it comes to cooperation between Serbia and China. I expect his official visit to China to "hit the bullseye".
eKapija: There is no direct air service between Beijing and Belgrade for a long time. Are there any signals this may change and that direct flights between the two capitals could be reinstated? What are your expectation in this regard?
My wish is the same as the wish of many people who travel frequently from China to Serbia and vice versa: a direct air service is necessary, and if direct flights cannot be operated between Belgrade and Beijing, there should be a service connecting Belgrade with Shanghai or any other major city in China. Negotiations between the carriers of China and Serbia commenced early 2015 and are still underway. An objective fact is that it all much depends on commercial interests of airlines. Development of business cooperation between China and Serbia could be of crucial relevance to the reinstatement of direct passenger service between the two countries. I am using this opportunity to express gratitude to PM Vucic for making a personal effort to alleviate the process of issuing visas to Chinese tourists.
eKapija: What message would you like to communicate to Serbian businessmen when it comes to cooperation with China?
China is the world's second largest economy. In terms of economic growth, it is a global leader. As far as the market is concerned, China is the biggest market in the world. China is a huge market. China is an opportunity. The Chinese love their friends and prefer to work with friendly countries like Serbia, cherishing the tradition. If the businessmen from Serbia accept this fact, they will achieve a great success. They only need to be persistent and not give up. Difficulties exist, but they can be overcome.