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Xi’s Euro-Trip: Visit Full of Symbols

What happened?

Chinese supreme leader Xi Jinping (習近平) arrived in Europe for a six-day trip to France, Serbia, and Hungary. In France, he was hosted by President Emmanuel Macron and met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. In Serbia, where his visit coincided with the 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, he was received by President Aleksandar Vučić. Last but not least, in Hungary, Xi will meet Russia’s best buddy in Europe, Viktor Orbán, and the Chinese leader will probably announce further infrastructure projects.

During his visit to France, discussions covered the war in Ukraine, EU-China trade relations, and the human rights situation in China. As Xi continues his junket further East, he can expect a warmer reception as he brings announcements regarding potential investment in infrastructure projects. This prompts the question: How successfully can Macron, who aims to establish himself as a leader of the European security policy, engage with the Chinese leader on security and strategic matters? Additionally, what does China want from Europe?


What is the broader picture?

During the delegation, members of the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee and Director of General Secretary’s Office Cai Qi (蔡奇), and Director of the CCP Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and foreign minister Wang Yi (王毅) accompanied Chinese leader and his wife, popular singer Peng Liyuan (彭麗媛).

As highlighted in the Chinese press, the Chinese state visit to France commemorates the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Paris. Xi met with his significant critics during his time in France, President Macron and EC President Ursula von der Leyen. It is worth noting that the EU has recently investigated Chinese subsidies for electric vehicles (EVs), wind turbines, and medical equipment. In Germany, the authorities recently revealed severe cases of espionage. Meanwhile, France remains the most vocal player within the EU regarding Chinese EV subsidies and market access freedom.

Von der Leyen expressed the EU’s concerns over Chinese industrial production overcapacity during the trilateral meeting at the Elysée Palace and once again criticized unequal market access and Chinese subsidies, which are longstanding issues for the EU. These censures were not reported in the Chinese press.

On the other hand, President Macron attempted to invoke the Olympic sentiment by jointly announcing with Xi Jinping a call for a “temporary truce” during the upcoming Summer Olympic Games to be held in Paris. It is worth remembering that Xi Jinping and Putin declared a “no-limits partnership” during the opening of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing. The full-scale invasion of Ukraine launched a few weeks later, shortly after the conclusion of the games. Was this an attempt to pressure Xi (who will soon meet Putin) to help put this conflict on hold, at least during the Olympics?

Chinese state media (which have been delayed in publication since Xi left China) reports on the visit positively, focusing on friendship and cooperation. Interestingly, the Chinese version of The People’s Daily completely omits Ursula von der Leyen from the photos in its reporting, showing only the French and Chinese presidents. This illustrates China’s perspective on the EU and its ongoing strategy to divide Europe through bilateral relations.

It’s no coincidence that the high-level Chinese delegation arrived in Serbia on May 7th, marking the 25th anniversary of the tragic bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO forces during the Kosovo war. This event, often used by Chinese diplomats to criticize the West and the US, has brought Serbia and China closer together. China is now the largest investor from non-EU countries, and Serbia is the first European country to “build a community with a shared future” with China. Xi Jinping met with President Aleksandar Vucic and announced a new FTA agreement, direct flight, and study exchanges while emphasizing the “rejection of hegemonism” and “block politics”.

The final stop is Hungary, where Xi met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the most Russia-friendly leader in the EU, and President Tamás Sulyok. Hungary has recently signed a security cooperation agreement with China, allowing Chinese police officers to work in areas with large populations of ethnic Chinese or destinations popular among Chinese tourists. During this “historic” visit, the leaders are expected to discuss the ongoing construction of the high-speed rail between Budapest and Belgrade and sign many bilateral agreements.


Why does it matter?

Significant events have unfolded in the five years since Xi last visited Europe, shaping the dynamics between China and Europe. The COVID-19 pandemic, Russian aggression in Ukraine (with tacit Chinese support), the European energy crisis, and the US-China trade war have all contributed to a deeper understanding of China in Europe. However, despite these events, there remains a significant contingent of “panda-huggers” within Europe, whom the current delegation aims to appease.

Aligned with China’s strategic objectives to sow division within the EU, detach Europe from the US, weaken NATO, and unite democratic alliance against China, the delegation pursues tactics such as providing infrastructure projects as incentives and fostering bilateral relations to undermine EU unity. These maneuvers underscore China’s concerted efforts to exert influence and shape the European landscape in its favor. As Europe navigates these complex dynamics, the continent faces the challenge of maintaining cohesion and safeguarding its interests amidst China’s strategic moves.