When Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic declared a state of emergency on Monday due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he made a specific call for help to his Chinese counterpart. “I believe in my brother and friend, Xi Jinping , and I believe in China’s help,” Vucic said at a press conference in Belgrade. “The only country that can help us is China.” With fewer than 50 cases and zero deaths, Serbia is barely on the radar for epidemiologists and international media – let alone for the leaders of the European Union, to which the Balkan state does not yet belong. But for Chinese officials, Serbia provides a classic opportunity to show Beijing’s solidarity with Central and Eastern European countries, extending coronavirus diplomacy to a region that has in recent years become a geopolitical battleground for influence between the EU and China . As China’s coronavirus outbreak appeared to be under control last week, Beijing has resumed its diplomatic activities all over Europe. On the one hand, there have been provisions of medical equipment – either at market price or for free – to the worst-hit countries such as Italy and Spain. On the other, Chinese officials have been organising sharing sessions with less-developed countries in central and eastern Europe, 17 of which have joined China’s “17+1” platform. One such meeting took place in Belgrade last week – a video conference with Chinese health officials and experts attended by dozens of heads of medical institutes, hospitals and government representatives from Serbia. Poland, Greece, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, have also been in touch with Chinese medical experts, according to state media reports in China. “ China can’t host the 17+1 summit this spring as planned because of the coronavirus. Yet, ironically, the outbreak became a great opportunity for China to build a stronger relationship with those countries,” said an EU diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. Coronavirus: China vows to support Spain amid questions over EU’s response Animosity between Brussels and the Balkan states has drawn the region closer to China. Last year, an initial plan for accession talks by Albania and North Macedonia to join the bloc was struck down single-handedly by French President Emmanuel Macron, who argued for changes to EU enlargement rules to be made first. Vucic, for his part, laid bare Serbians’ grievances with the EU over the coronavirus outbreak this week. “As of today, as you know, we cannot import [medical equipment] according to an EU resolution,” he said on Monday. “European solidarity doesn’t exist. That was a fairy tale on paper. “When they needed Serbian money, tenders would be drawn up in such a way that European companies could get Serbian money. When there is a torment and pain, then Serbian money is no good, as if we asked for everything for free.” An unsigned commentary piece published by state news agency Xinhua took a veiled swipe at the European Union’s failure to assist the region: “A friend in need is a friend indeed. Confronted with the same challenge, China and the [Central and Eastern European countries] can achieve final victory through solidarity and mutual assistance. “When handshakes are no longer encouraged in Europe, China’s helping hand could make a difference,” it added. Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.