BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — President Xi Jinping said Saturday that China wants to deepen its relations with Serbia as the two countries signed a series of bilateral agreements, reflecting the Asian power's bid to boost its presence in the Balkans and more widely in Europe.
Xi signed a declaration on strategic partnership with Serbia's President Tomislav Nikolic. He also oversaw the signing of 21 agreements and memorandums ranging from economy, infrastructure, energy and finance to defense industry, technology, culture and media.
"The relationship between our two countries is being widened and taken to a higher level," Xi said in comments translated into Serbian.
China has been seeking opportunities to deepen ties to the Balkan region and also boost relations with the EU. Several meetings of southeast European countries and China have been held in the past years and accompanied by investment projects.
The Asian economic power is interested in energy, infrastructure and other big projects to fuel its economy and improve economic and other links in Europe. Xi said that Serbia holds an important position in China's "One Belt, One Road" initiative — a sweeping plan to deepen trade relations and open new markets.
"The development of our relations is based on big projects," Xi said. "We are expecting an increase in trade and investment."
Xi also said China supports Serbia's bid to join the European Union. Belgrade has sought to move closer to the bloc after years of isolation during the 1990s' conflict, but has also maintained close ties with Russia and China.
Serbia's President Nikolic said "Serbia is ready to become China's most important partner, and not only in the region."
"I am convinced that Serbia's future will look completely different from today," said Nikolic, who awarded Xi with a Serbian state medal.
So far, China has built a bridge over the Danube in Belgrade, moved to revitalize a power plant and agreed to help modernize the railway connecting Hungary's capital, Budapest, with Belgrade. The agreements Saturday envisaged further work on a highway near Belgrade.
In April, China's Hebei Iron and Steel Group signed a 46 million-euro ($52 million) agreement to buy the loss-making Zelezara Smederevo near Belgrade that was previously owned by Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel and which has long struggled to find a buyer.
From Serbia, Xi will travel to Poland, where he will ink deals on finance, aviation, science and education. Xi will wrap up the tour in Uzbekistan, where he will attend a Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit focusing on the fight against terrorism and crime.