President Xi’s European Tour: Strategic moves and key outcomes

The Chinese President has just concluded a visit to Europe, his first since 2019. He visited three countries: France, Serbia, and Hungary. Why did China choose these three countries? And what results and lessons can be drawn from the Chinese President’s trip?

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s motorcade passes an overpass on which a Tibetan flag and a “Free Tibet” banner was hung by activists of the Students for a Free Tibet.

Visit to France

The Chinese President’s visit to France follows President Macron’s visit to China in April 2023. It was part of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries when General de Gaulle was in power. Besides being one of the major European countries and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, one reason Beijing chose to kick off this visit of Europe in Paris can be partly explained by France’s position on Europe’s “strategic autonomy” from the USA, which it seeks to promote on the international stage. This approach aims to reduce Europe’s dependence on its American ally, particularly in matters of security and protection. Beijing views this position favorably as it aligns with the vision of a more multipolar world, less dominated by the United States.

Three Main Issues on the Political Agenda

Many subjects were on the agenda in France, but three main issues dominated the discussions: economic relations between France, the European Union, and China, characterized by a large trade deficit and Chinese state aid to its companies, which distorts free competition; international crises, particularly China’s stance on Moscow and its implications for the war in Ukraine. China has never condemned the war (referring to it as a “crisis”) and supports Russia, notably through the delivery of dual-use equipment. More than direct supply of weapons – a red line that China seems careful not to cross so far – it is the supply of machine tools and components for the production of these weapons that is the focus of attention. Thanks to commercial transactions by its companies, Beijing has enabled Moscow to revive its arms industry and gain an advantage in the conflict. China is unlikely to change its position on this issue.

Finally, the last major issue concerns environmental questions and climate change, in which France has played an important role in the past. In 2025, France will host the next United Nations Ocean Conference in Nice.

Human Rights marginalized

It’s highly probable that human rights were also discussed between the two Presidents, but in any case, in the public communication surrounding the visit on the French side, no mention was made of this subject, which is to be regretted. Prior to the Chinese President’s arrival and during his visit, the media, political representatives, NGOs, and members of the Uyghur and Tibetan communities widely highlighted the deplorable human rights situation in the country. A few days before the Chinese leader’s visit, the French President Macron met the President of the Central Tibetan Administration in Exile, Mr. Penpa Tsering, at an event at the Élysée Palace, to present the Legion of Honor to former Senator André Gattolin, known for his support to Tibetan. A meeting of this nature set a political precedent!

For their part, Tibetan supporters undertook protest rallies and even hung pro-Tibet banners from the Arc de Triomphe or from a bridge under which Xi Jinping’s convoy passed on its way from Orly airport to the capital. A major Tibetan demonstration was held on Place de la République on May 5, with several thousand participants. The Uyghurs also held a demonstration at Place de la Madeleine, despite intimidation and counter-demonstrations by pro-Beijing groups. On the political front, an open letter to the French President signed by 14 members of the French Senate’s Tibet Information Group highlighted Tibet’s geostrategic importance in Asia and urged the French President to put human rights and Tibet at the heart of his discussions with his Chinese counterpart. Also worthy of mention is the open letter published in Le Monde by Raphaël Glucksmann, Member of the European Parliament and head of the Socialist Party and Place Publique list in the European elections. In this open letter, he denounced the French President’s “obsequiousness” towards the Chinese leader and his lack of strategic vision.

Lack of European Unity

The French President invited the President of the European Commission to join a meeting with the Chinese President, which she accepted. A similar offer was made to German Chancellor Scholz, who apparently declined, having visited China a few days earlier. This lack of Frehc-German unity in the face of China is certainly not in the European camp’s favor, as it is yet another illustration of the lack of unity in the face of Beijing. China is well aware of this and is playing the “divide and conquer” card in its relations with European states.

Visits to Serbia and Hungary

This logic explains the subsequent visit to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia (which is not a member of the European Union), and then to Budapest in Hungary. In Serbia, Xi Jinping was warmly greeted at the airport by Serbian President Vucic (in France, it was Prime Minister Gabriel Attal who did the honors). The same was true in Hungary, where the Hungarian President met Xi at the plane. Red carpet, Chinese flags, glowing remarks from both sides: the aim was to demonstrate the excellent relations that unite Serbia, Hungary, and China.

One of the purposes for Xi’s visit to Serbia was to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade – an opportunity to criticize NATO in a European country that is not an alliance member, and implicitly reprimand NATO’s growing involvement in the Asia-Pacific region. China and Serbia proclaimed an “ironclad friendship” and a “shared future.” Serbia’s Vucic became the first European leader to commit to joining China in building a “community with a shared future.”

China has also successfully established military cooperation with this ally and has provided some military equipment to Belgrade (such as missiles and drones). Serbia’s military is relying on Chinese arms suppliers as tensions have increased with its smaller neighbor Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 but the government in Belgrade does not recognize it, even though the U.S., U.K., and many other countries do. China and Kosovo do not have formal diplomatic relations as China does not recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state. On the contrary, China is supporting Belgrade’s position on Kosovo, and in exchange, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said that Serbia had “a clear and simple position regarding Chinese territorial integrity: Taiwan is China.” It is difficult to be more explicit than that.

Hungary and China signed some 18 cooperation agreements in sectors such as railways, IT, and nuclear energy. Hungary is emerging as an increasingly important production hub in Europe for Chinese automotive suppliers, including electric vehicle (EV) makers. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that “The two sides are ready to take the announcement of the establishment of an all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership for the new era as a new starting point to take bilateral relations and practical cooperation to a higher level.”

Conclusion

Xi’s visit to Serbia and Hungary has served several purposes: it has shown to its domestic audience that China has close friends in Europe, it tries to decrease the pressure on trade, security, and human rights coming from Europe, and these visits are chipping away at a world order he sees as dominated by the United States.

Serbia and Hungary don’t care about democracy or human rights. For them, foreign policy is strictly pragmatic and focused on economic interests. They are strategic gateways for Beijing toward Europe.

On the other side, China has not been successful over the past years in deepening its relations with other central and eastern European countries (with maybe the exception of Slovakia). Although China never recognized Russia’s behavior in Crimea or in Eastern Ukraine, China did not blame Russia for its military actions and is even supportive of Moscow in providing some dual-use equipment, which is feeding the war. This position is not appreciated by most of the eastern and central European countries, who have been under the domination of a communist country during the Cold War and are very supportive of Kiev against Russia’s aggression.

About author View all posts

Vincent Metten

Vincent Metten is the EU Policy Director for the International Campaign for Tibet since September 2006. Based in Brussels (Belgium), he is in particular in charge of developing and implementing advocacy strategies vis-à-vis European Union Institutions, most of European countries and the UN, in cooperation with other ICT offices. Previously he used to work four years for the European Commission as National Detached Expert in the security field (space policy and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction) and two years at the Office of the Belgian Minister for Defense as advisor on International Issues.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *