Japan is trying to expand its influence to Serbia, the Japan Times is reporting in the wake of Japanese prime minister’s tour of Eastern Europe.

And “the actual motive behind (Shinzo) Abe’s visit to Belgrade had more to do with the close relationship, established over the past five years, between Serbia and China,” Liubomir Topaloff from the Meiji University writes in a commentary published on the newspaper’s website, cited by Beta.

“While the details regarding the respective strategies of both China and Japan in the western Balkans still unclear, the region is a potential battleground for a number of global actors – China, Japan, the EU, and potentially Russia and the United States – seeking to flex their soft power muscles (and perhaps more),” he writes.

According to the article, “the hope is that this competition could prove beneficial for the region, but it also runs the risk of destabilizing the Balkans, and plunging it into greater turmoil.”

The actual motive behind Abe’s visit to Belgrade had more to do with the close relationship, established over the past five years, between Serbia and China, Topaloff said, noting that the country is an important part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road initiative – “the modern day Silk Road.”

“The initiative envisions a China-dominated network that would reach and connect Asia, Europe, the Mideast, and even parts of Africa, the Americas and Australia into a complex trading system. That vision, if realized, would allow Beijing to increase and spread its global political and economic clout,” he writes.

“Apart from the economic support, Beijing is also reaffirming to Belgrade and its political support, by siding with Serbia against the EU and the United States, and refusing to recognize Kosovo, for example,” states the article, originally published in the Diplomat online magazine.

Tokyo, meanwhile, is “desperate to counter growing Chinese soft power by opening its own purse and extending its political clout to a small Balkan country” – and is s hoping to achieve this “by increasing its diplomatic role in the region, and particularly by wooing Serbia and the other western Balkan states closer to its side.”

“In that context, while in Serbia, Abe proposed a ‘Western Balkans Cooperation Initiative’, part of which provides for Japan to appoint a special ambassador in charge of the western Balkans at the Foreign Ministry. Abe also offered to advocate for Serbia in front of the EU for speeding up the accession process,” writes the author.

More Serbians now believe, he continues, that joining the EU will be bad for the country, “and only a small number of dreamers believe that this will happen by 2025.”

Japan’s prime minister, meanwhile, supports Serbia’s accelerated EU accession.

“Out of the six stops Abe made on this trip, his visit to Serbia deserves a special attention,” Topaloff writes, and adds:

Serbia is the only non-EU member state on Abe’s latest tour, and stands out from the rest for a number of reasons. First, because unlike the other five countries, which were hosting the first visits by a Japanese prime minister, Serbia has been visited before, albeit 30-plus years ago, when Yugoslavia was still a reality. In that sense, Abe’s visit to Belgrade was not like his visit to the other five states, but more of an attempt to revitalize old connections.”