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Xi Jinping’s visit to Europe

The visit of Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), to France, Serbia and Hungary is his first foray into Europe for five years. Why did he choose those three countries and what might he have hoped to achieve?

On the surface…

France and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) established diplomatic relations 60 years ago, and 60 is an important number in Chinese culture and astrology, being the end of the cycle of 12 animal years multiplied by the five elements.

France is important to the PRC. It is a United Nations Security Council permanent member, one of the leaders of the European Union (EU), a major trading partner, and a science and technology powerhouse. It has a tradition of independence in its foreign policy.

Xi’s next stop was Serbia, where he arrived on 7th May. The trip coincided with the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by the United States (US)/NATO. The CCP rarely misses an opportunity to remind the world of American imperialism and bullying. 

Serbia has long been close to the PRC. It is part of the southern route into eastern Europe with the Belgrade-Budapest railway, built as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Its closeness to Russia goes some way towards a quiet nod to the PRC’s own support for Moscow. A nod so quiet will not be the order of the day when Vladimir Putin visits Beijing later this month.

Hungary might unkindly be described as the PRC’s Trojan horse inside the EU. It certainly offers more support to the PRC than other member states. It is keen to attract Chinese investment, particularly in the automotive industry, now developing into a sensitive area for the EU and the PRC. The visit is a reward for loyalty.

…and below the surface

The main driver of the CCP’s foreign relations is a fundamental anti-Americanism. Driving a wedge between the EU and the US is therefore a major aim. In this instance, adding a sideways dig in Serbia at NATO’s expense is in line with the PRC’s increasing complaints that the organisation is interfering in eastern Asia. Xi would like to reinforce the natural French tendency towards a more independent foreign policy, something which Emmanuel Macron, President of France, underscored during his April 2023 visit to the PRC – to the dismay of some of France’s allies. Wang Yi, Foreign Minister of the PRC, reinforced the same point when he met his French counterpart four months later: ‘We regard Europe as a major pole in the multipolar world and support France to push the EU toward strategic autonomy.’

The major issue upon which the CCP does not wish to see European unity is trade disputes. France has been supportive of the EU Commission’s subsidy investigations into automotive, wind turbine, and other areas, as well as into the PRC’s procurement practices in medical devices. Like most member states, France is coming to view the PRC more as a ‘systemic rival’ than ‘partner for cooperation’ or ‘economic competitor’ – the troika the EU uses to transport relations into slogan. It fears for the survival of its big industries. By contrast, Germany, worried about retaliation against its companies’ large investments and markets in the PRC, has played down the threat from the export to Europe of the PRC’s overcapacity industries. Xi will want to blunt French support for the EU Commission’s measures.

Divide and rule is a favoured policy of the CCP. While it pays lip service to the idea of a strong and united Europe, the reality is that an EU in disarray better suits its interests, particularly trade and investment. And in Viktor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister, the CCP has found a disruptive partner. A visit will aim to strengthen bonds and Orban’s support for the PRC within the EU.

Xi will have wanted to persuade Macron that the PRC is neutral in the Russian war against Ukraine and that no more Chinese companies should be sanctioned. The EU’s 13th list of sanctions issued in February this year included three Chinese and one Hong Kong company. It is likely that the 14th list will include others. If Xi realises how damaging support for Russia is to the PRC’s relations with the EU, so far he has not been inclined to change direction. Macron welcomed an apparent commitment to ‘strictly control’ sales of products and technologies which can be used for both civilian and military purposes. However, Xi made no mention of this at the joint press conference. The Chinese are more likely to continue their exports and to hide behind the claim that they are not being used on the battlefield. 

Finally, the press likes to animadvert on the value of personal relationships between leaders. The Chinese themselves often confer the title of ‘old friend’ [老朋友] on foreigners. During Macron’s April visit to the PRC, Xi intimated that they were bosom friends. Many foreign leaders believe that such protestations are evidence of their ability to influence. They deceive themselves. CCP leaders do not have personal relationships with foreigners, something which, even with the best will in the world, would be difficult given constraints of culture, ideology and language (interpretation consumes half the time, formalities part of the rest). But Xi does not have the best will in the world. He plays a game rigorously based on the CCP’s and the PRC’s interests. 

However, Macron did have the opportunity of transmitting directly to Xi his views on the PRC’s relations with France and Europe, unfiltered by a bureaucracy which is thought by some only to send up the chain what it thinks the General Secretary might want to hear. That opportunity is something rare and valuable.

Charles Parton is an Associate Fellow in Indo-Pacific Geopolitics at the Council on Geostrategy. He spent 22 years of his 37-year diplomatic career in the British Diplomatic Service working in or on China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

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