Key takeaways from China’s Xi European tour to France, Serbia and Hungary

Chinese president pushes vision for a more multipolar world and talks trade, investments and Russia’s war on Ukraine in first European tour in five years.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan, right, enjoy a drink with French President Emmanuel Macron in a restaurant, Tuesday, May 7, 2024 at the Tourmalet pass, in the Pyrenees mountains.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron enjoy a drink together at a mountain restaurant in the Pyrenees [Aurelien Morissard/ Pool via AP]

Chinese President Xi Jinping has concluded a five-day tour of Europe, after visiting France, Serbia and Hungary, where he touted Beijing’s vision of a multipolar world and held talks on trade, investments and Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron feted Xi with gifts of luxury bottles of cognac and a trip to a childhood haunt in the Pyrenees mountains, while in Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic organised a grand welcome, gathering a crowd of tens of thousands of people, who chanted “China, China” and waved Chinese flags in front of the Serbian presidential palace.

In Hungary, President Tamas Sulyok and Prime Minister Viktor Orban also rolled out the red carpet for Xi, receiving him with military honours at the Hungarian presidential palace.

The tour marked Xi’s first trip to Europe in five years and came at a symbolic time for China’s relations with the three nations.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and France, and the 75th of those with Hungary. The trip also coincided with the 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during Serbia’s war on Kosovo.

Xi’s main aim with the visit, analysts say, was pushing for a world where the United States is less dominant, and controlling damage to China’s ties with the European Union as trade tensions grow amid a threat of European tariffs and a probe into Chinese subsidies for electric vehicles that officials say are hurting local industries.

People waving Chinese and Serbian flags gather outside the Palace of Serbia during a welcome ceremony for Chinese President Xi Jinping in Belgrade.
People waving Chinese and Serbian flags gathered outside the Palace of Serbia during a welcome ceremony for Chinese President Xi Jinping in Belgrade [Dimitrije Goll/ Serbia’s Presidential press service via AFP]

Here are the main takeaways.

No concessions on trade, Russia-Ukraine

Throughout Xi’s two-day trip to France, Macron pressed the Chinese leader to address Beijing’s trade imbalances with the EU – with the bloc running a goods trade deficit of 292 billion euros ($314.72bn) last year – and to use his influence on Russian President Vladimir Putin to end the war in Ukraine.

Macron invited European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to join his talks with Xi, to underline European unity on calls for greater access to the Chinese market and to address the bloc’s complaints regarding its excess capacity in electric vehicles and green technology. The pair also pushed Xi to control the sales of products and technologies to Russia that can be used for both civilian and military purposes.

But the Chinese leader appeared to have offered few concessions.

Xi denied there was a Chinese “overcapacity problem” and only reiterated his calls for negotiations to end the war between Russia and Ukraine. Xi, who is expected to host Putin in China later this month, said he called on all parties to restart contact and dialogue.

“Both trade and Russia are non-negotiable for China. Macron could not achieve anything [on those fronts],” said Shirley Yu, political economist and senior fellow at the London School of Economics in the United Kingdom.

But she suggested the visit furthered Macron’s personal relationship with Xi, one that is part of the French leader’s strategy to make France a crucial partner to all emerging world powers.

“Macron shares one vision in common with Xi, which is that the US hegemony – including the quest for Europe’s allegiance to the US’s foreign policy – must yield to a multipolar global order by accommodating the rising powers’ interests and concerns,” Yu told Al Jazeera. Macron’s recent visits to India and Brazil also “prove that France wants to stay at the forefront of that global shift,” she added.

And despite the lack of concessions, French officials told the Reuters news agency that the visit allowed Macron to pass on messages on Ukraine and would allow for more open discussions in the future.

As for Xi, Macron’s talk of European “strategic autonomy” helps further the Chinese leader’s vision for a multipolar world. And while there was no apparent reconciliation on the economic front, Xi’s visit would help with “damage limitation” wrote Yu Jie, a senior research fellow on China at the Chatham House, a United Kingdom-based think tank. It could help prevent ties with Europe from worsening even more, as they have with the US, she said, amid the threat of European tariffs on Chinese goods and a probe into Chinese subsidies for electric vehicles.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) address a statement after their official talks in Carmelita Monastery, the prime minister's headquarter, at Buda Castle quarter in Budapest,
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, right, address the press after their official talks in the Carmelite Monastery, the prime minister’s office, at Buda Castle district in Budapest, Hungary on May 9, 2024 [Pool via AFP]

Expanded economic footprint in Serbia, Hungary

In contrast to Xi’s stop in France, his visits to EU candidate country Serbia and EU member state Hungary were marked by pledges to deepen political ties and expand investments in eastern and central Europe. Both countries are participants in Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, the ambitious infrastructure plan which aims to connect Asia with Africa and Europe, and also have close ties with Russia.

In Belgrade, Vucic, the Serbian president, signed up to Xi’s vision of a “global community of shared future” and the two leaders hailed an “ironclad partnership” while also announcing that a free trade deal signed between their two countries last year would come into effect on July 1. Other economic promises included establishment of new air links between the two countries and taking in imports of Serbian agricultural products.

Yu, the political economist at LSE, said Xi’s visit to Belgrade on the 25th anniversary of NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in the city, was meant to make “clear that China and Russia share a common objection to NATO’s east expansion”. It also “reveals that there should be no illusion that China will bow down to Western pressure to curtail economic partnership with Russia,” she said.

In Budapest, Xi pledged more investments in transport and energy, including the construction of a high-speed railway connecting the capital city centre to its airport and cooperation in the nuclear sector, according to Hungarian officials.

Xi also promised to move forward on a $2.1bn project to connect the Hungarian capital with the Serbian capital. The plan, which is mostly financed by a loan from China, is part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

All this demonstrates Xi’s keenness “to reintroduce the Cold War ‘Second World’ as a significant geostrategic player,” said Yu. “With China’s economic support, the periphery of the EU can become more significant European economic players, boasting higher speed of growth and delivering high-tech supply chains,” she said.

To China, Hungary serves as a gateway to the EU trade bloc and Yu added that Beijing’s growing partnership with Hungary could also “potentially deem the EU’s sanctions on Chinese EVs [electric vehicles] ineffective”.

Source: Al Jazeera