(Bloomberg) -- Serbia’s president expressed firm support of China’s claim over Taiwan as he announced that Chinese leader Xi Jinping will visit the Balkan nation this year, cementing a bond even as Beijing’s broader relationship with Europe frays. 

“Taiwan is China — and it’s up to you what, when and how you’re going to do it — full stop,” Aleksandar Vucic said in an interview to Beijing-based CGTN, without elaborating. “That’s your territory, this is your people and you’re a sovereign nation.” 

The Serbian leader’s wading into rising tensions over the Taiwan Strait sends a signal of allegiance to Beijing, with which Serbia has cultivated ties even as the European Union takes a tougher stance amid widening divisions over trade and Ukraine. 

China sees the island as part of its territory, to be taken by force if necessary. Vucic’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request to clarify his comments on Taiwan in the interview, which was pre-recorded by CGTN in Belgrade. 

Vucic said late Monday that Xi’s trip had been confirmed in talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, according to a post on the Balkan leader’s website. He spoke at a ceremony with the Chinese ambassador to Serbia, Li Ming. 

Vucic didn’t provide a date for Xi’s visit, but pledged to create a positive atmosphere for “one of the most important world leaders.” 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said she didn’t have any information to offer when asked about a visit during a regular press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday.

Xi’s decision to travel to Serbia would mark his first visit to Europe in more than four years, excluding a border hop in March 2023 to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin. Before that, he came in 2019 with a visit to Greece months before the pandemic closed China’s borders for three years and curtailed Xi’s own travel agenda.

Read More: Xi’s Spent Two Days Outside China in 2023 as Problems Mount

The Chinese leader has since resumed overseas engagements at a slower pace. Xi made just four international visits last year, compared with an average of 14 annually between 2013 and 2019, according to a Bloomberg News analysis of government statements after his meetings.

While Beijing’s relationship with the EU frayed during the pandemic over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ruling Communist Party’s trade policies, China and Serbia have cultivated closer ties in recent years — even as Belgrade seeks to join the 27-member bloc. 

Chinese state media frequently reported on Beijing providing aid to Serbia during the pandemic and on Vucic defending the Asian country’s strict Covid polices.

Xi and Vucic met in October last year at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, with the Chinese leader describing Serbia as “an ironclad friend.” That month, the two countries canceled tariffs on some 90% of tax items under a new free-trade agreement.

And in December, China’s central bank said that a new yuan clearing arrangement with Serbia would help businesses and financial institutions to use the currency for more cross-border transactions. Beijing has been promoting greater use of its currency in a bid to reduce dependency on the dollar.

--With assistance from Colum Murphy, Mark Sweetman, Jing Li and Josh Xiao.

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