BEIJING ( Associated Press) – China said on Monday that its military planes delivered “regular military supplies” to Serbia in its first remarks on an unusual operation in which six Chinese Air Force Y-20 transport aircraft landed in Belgrade early Saturday.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters that the operation was part of the two countries’ annual cooperation plan, does not target any third parties and “has nothing to do with the current situation.”
Zhao did not provide any further details.
The arrival of the planes sparked heavy speculation that they were carrying HQ-22 surface-to-air missiles under the terms of a previous deal signed between the parties. Serbia’s defense ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Associated Press.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic confirmed the delivery of the medium-range systems agreed in 2019, saying on Saturday that he would present the Serbian military’s “latest pride” on Tuesday or Wednesday.
The off-site operation this weekend came amid Western concerns that weapons manufacturing in the Balkans at the same time as the war in Ukraine could threaten the region.
Serbia and China have long shared strong ties, partly because of a common disdain for Washington. Serbians resented NATO’s 1999 air campaign during the Kosovo conflict, which killed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. NATO called the incident, which sparked violent demonstrations in Beijing, a false bombing, an explanation China and many others have long rejected.
Despite claiming to be neutral, China has largely sided with Russia in the Ukraine conflict and many Serbians are sympathetic to Moscow. Although Serbia has voted in favor of UN resolutions condemning Russian attacks in Ukraine, it has refused to engage in international sanctions against its allies in Moscow or outright criticize actions by Russian troops there. .
The apparent arms delivery to Serbia, in areas of at least two NATO member states, Turkey and Bulgaria, was seen by experts as a demonstration of China’s growing global reach.
The Communist Party newspaper Global Times said on Monday, citing Chinese defense analysts, that the weekend flights “could be the largest overseas operation ever undertaken by a Chinese domestically developed large transport aircraft, demonstrating the country’s strategic transportation capabilities”. does.”
The Y-20, first delivered to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in 2015, has previously been used in foreign missions, including 105 members of the PLA Honor Guard to attend the 2020 Russian Victory Day parade in Moscow. and in flights near Taiwan’s airspace aimed at testing the self-governing island’s security and intimidating its democratic government.
There are fears in the West that Russia and China’s arming of Serbia could encourage the Balkan country to escalate to another war, particularly against its former province of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. Had it. Serbia, Russia and China do not grant statehood to Kosovo. , whereas the United States and most Western countries do.