China has delivered three anti-aircraft missile systems in a covert delivery to Serbia over the weekend in what is believed to be the biggest overseas airlift using the Chinese Y-20 transport planes. This is reportedly part of Serbia’s efforts of bolstering its military capabilities through a purchase deal that also includes drones.

Serbia, a Russian ally, purchased these missiles in 2020 together with the CH-92A attack and reconnaissance drones. It had received its attack drones in 2020, which made Serbia the first country in Europe to field the Chinese-made UAV. The recent delivery was reportedly a battery of FK-3 medium-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM), the export version of the HQ-22 SAM system. However, the exact contents of the cargo could not be independently verified. However, Hong Kong-based military expert Liang Guoliang said that Serbia bought three FK-3 missile systems, three launcher vehicles, a command vehicle, and additional missiles. He also estimated that it would need to be delivered with 12 Y-20 planes.

These missiles can reportedly fly up to Mach 6, with a range of 93 miles. In comparison, the HQ-22 variant has a longer range of 105 miles. Each FK-3 system is composed of 3 launch vehicles with 4 missiles with a radar vehicle. The missiles are reportedly equipped with a semi-active radar CNS, a two-way radio command line for data transmission, with its flight controlled by a combined guidance system. Its track-via-missile method enables the missiles to have reduced sensitivity to electronic countermeasures, making them more difficult to shoot down. It’s reported that each battery of the missile system can engage 6 targets simultaneously.

At a time when security in the region is at its most fragile, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that it had nothing to do with the current situation, referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He added that the delivery of the missile systems was part of China and Serbia’s annual cooperation plan and did not include any third parties.

These missile systems reportedly landed in Belgrade early Saturday, where news outlets and military experts reported that six Chinese Y-20 transport planes were spotted arriving at Serbia’s Nikola Tesla airport.

The Chinese reportedly utilized air bridges to deliver the missile systems to the Serbians in two days. In those two days, a total of 12 flights (or 6 per day) had been undertaken. These Y-20s reportedly made stopovers in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Turkey as they made their way to Belgrade. The Chinese Air Force’s 13th Transport Division, 37th Air Regiment from Kaifeng, is said to be responsible for the delivery.

While Serbia has not publicized the weapons’ arrival, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic later confirmed the delivery of the FK-3 medium-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM). He said that he would unveil the “newest pride” of their military on Tuesday or Wednesday, according to a report by The Associated Press.

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While the country does lean toward Russia, it has voted in favor of the UN resolutions that condemn and deplore the Russian invasion of Ukraine. However, it has not taken part in any international sanctions against Russia. It has also kept silent about Russian atrocities that had recently happened in Bucha.

In 2020 when it was procuring Chinese-made weapons, the US warned the country that their weapon systems must be aligned with the European Union as the majority of EU nations have military weapons that align with their standards. More so, it is not a secret that a large majority of the EU also comprises NATO members. Serbia, which formally seeks EU membership, will definitely experience some backlash with its neighbors as the European Union heavily backs Ukraine and its campaign to thwart the Russian invasion.

“Procuring military and defense equipment is a sovereign decision. However, governments should understand the short- and long-term risks and costs involved in doing business with Chinese companies,” the US Embassy in Belgrade said in 2020.

The US also stated back in 2020 that Serbia’s procurement choices reflected their policy goal in terms of European integration. The US went on to say that there were numerous other alternative choices for Serbia that were not beholden to authoritarian regimes that could also provide them with all of their defense needs.

In response, Vucic asserted Serbia’s sovereignty and said it was their decision alone to make. “Whenever we decide to buy something, somebody has something against it,” he said.

Despite the weapons delivery, Vucic stated that Serbia would continue to seek integration and be a neutral state militarily. Along with this, he is also seen to be increasingly close with China, where he visited Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Many analysts argue that by procuring these Chinese-made systems and weapons, more integration and cooperation with Beijing are expected to come in the near future. With its relations with Russia and China, the West rings its alarm bells as they might encourage Serbia to occupy Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008.