Vincent Metten

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.”


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.

Europe must support Tibetan democratic institutions in exile

Penpa Tsering swears in as the new “sikyong,” the leader of the Central Tibetan Administration, on May 27, 2021.

On May 27, Penpa Tsering took over as the new “sikyong,” the leader of the Tibetan government-in-exile, after two rounds of an election fought worldwide. Penpa succeeds Lobsang Sangay, who was not allowed to run for a third term as per the rules of the Charter of the Tibetans in Exile.

Tibetan democracy in exile needs support because it faces numerous challenges in extremely difficult conditions. On the one hand, elections have to be organized in the over 30 countries where Tibetans live in exile, on a voluntary basis and without large financial resources. The Central Tibetan Administration—the official name of the government-in-exile—cannot levy taxes and is dependent on development cooperation or voluntary donations from Tibetans in exile. On the other hand, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tries to undermine the authority and work of the Tibetan government-in-exile wherever it can. Representatives of the Tibetans in exile, although they emerged from free and democratic elections, are still shunned by European governments for fear of the CCP’s reaction.

In 2018, in response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” initiative, the European Union launched the EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy. The concept essentially provides for the establishment of transport links, energy and digital networks, so-called connectivity partnerships and the promotion of sustainable financing. It does not speak of democracy and the rule of law, despite autocracy and enemies of democracy being on the rise in Asia.

The Tibetans, among others, would be ideal partners in a necessary value-based connectivity strategy. The European Union and its different institutions, as well as its 27 Member States, should therefore reach out to the Tibetans in exile and actively support the democratically elected representatives of the Central Tibetan Administration. This also includes receiving and listening to these representatives, including Penpa Tsering.

ICT’s push against the Chinese “divide and rule” strategy in Europe

Poster for the rally organized by ICT and other NGOs in the margins of the 19th EU-China Summit on 2 June 2017. (Photo: ICT)

Since I started leading ICT’s Brussels office in 2006, I have progressively witnessed the development of the Chinese government’s “divide and rule” strategy in Europe. This strategy tries to use the disparities among European member states to play them against each other, creating economic dependency as a tool for political leverage. Today, in light of the large amount of Chinese investment EU members states have received in recent years (and in particular in the framework of the 16+1, a structure of collaboration initiated by China together with 16 central and eastern European states – including eleven EU member states – in 2012), some European governments have become much more reluctant to criticize Beijing, including on human rights and “sensitive” issues such as Tibet. My office has regularly warned against the dangers of this strategy which undermines the EU’s position as a unified bloc, and has consistently called on member states to prioritize values over economic interest or trade relations.

A highly negative consequence of Beijing’s strategy has been the cancellation of the EU-China annual Human Rights Dialogue in 2016, due to the inability of the EU member states to find a common position on China’s demand to downgrade the level of this exchange. We have cosigned a joint letter with other NGOs, calling upon EU leaders to “lead the EU and its member states in demonstrating unified and unambiguous commitment to promoting human rights in China”. On the day of the EU-China summit on June 2 (2016), we organized, together with a coalition of NGOs, a rally in front of the EU institutions, which gathered over 200 people, including Tibetans, Uyghurs and European activists, calling on the EU to take a strong stand on the deteriorating human rights situation in the PRC. Finally, we welcomed the remarks given after the summit by the President of the European Council Donald Tusk saying that he had raised human rights issues with Prime Minister Li Keqiang including the situation of “minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs”. It was also announced that the EU-China dialogue would finally take place – which it did, although at a downgraded level, setting an inacceptable precedent for future dialogues.

The effects of the Chinese “divide and rule” strategy in Europe are now also visible at the United Nations level, as shown by the Greeks’ decision to block an EU statement critical of China’s human rights record at the 35th session of the Human Rights Council this June. This development has, in my opinion, greatly damaged the EU’s credibility as a defender of human rights and undermined its efforts toward bringing positive change in China. It prompted us to write to the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs, reminding him of his country’s commitment to human rights and obligation to cooperate with his European partners. In addition, we have sent letters to all the other EU member states, urging them to promote EU unity on the necessity to continue highlighting China’s abysmal human rights in international fora.

At the recent session of the Human Rights Council this September, the EU managed this time to deliver a statement on China’s human rights situation on behalf of all its member states, which also directly referred to the case of detained Tibetan language advocate Tashi Wangchuk. It was a relief, but the fight is far from over; as China’s political and economic influence continues to grow, more and more countries will be tempted to shy away from criticizing Beijing for fear of economic retaliation, and there will probably be other attempts to block such statements in the future. My office in Brussels, as well as other offices of the International Campaign for Tibet in Europe will therefore strengthen their efforts both at the EU and UN level to counter this divide and rule strategy. I am sure other NGOs such as Amnesty International, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), or Human Rights Watch will join in.

The ambivalent attitude of the Brussels based European Institute for Asian Studies on Tibet

Serious questions are raised by the lecture on 4th December at EIAS by a Chinese Communist Party official who has been notable for his attempts to stifle independent debate and adherence to aggressive policies against the Dalai Lama.

Vincent Metten

Vincent Metten (ICT) asking questions during the Q&A Sassion. On the panel from left to right: the chinese interpreter, Mr Pema Thinley and EIAS moderator Mr Fouquet.

Pema Thrinley (Chinese transliteration: Baima Chilin) the Vice Chairman of the Ethnic Affairs Committee, National People’s Congress of China spoke about “Assessing Economic Development in Tibet”. We believe that this is in direct contravention of the mandate of the European Institute for Asian Studies, as a “leading Brussels-based Think Tank and Policy Research, which provides a platform for the promotion of dialogue and understanding between the European Union and Asia on affairs of strategic regional and global importance, hereby ensuring indepth, comprehensive research and information exchange.” (

Pema Trinley served in the People’s Liberation Army based in Tibet from 1969 to 1986, a military career which could be as an important credential for the continued implementation of harsh security policies in the region that have become the norm for the Party in handling Tibet. He is seen as a man who had played a prominent role in justifying the crackdown on Tibetans after the March 2008 protests in the Tibetan capital city, Lhasa. This year Pema Trinley accused the Dalai Lama of “profaning religion and Tibetan Buddhism” as a reaction to Dalai Lama’s remarks that he might not be reincarnated when he dies.

The decision by EIAS to invite this official delegation also appears contradictory in the light of its recent decision to reject a discussion with an authoritative independent expert on Tibet’s environment, a matter of regional stability and increasing global concern.

The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) contacted the EIAS and proposed them to host an event with an expert in environmental issues in Tibet, Mr Gabriel Lafitte, a researcher in the Department of Management, Faculty of Business and Economics, of Monash University, in Australia, and editor of a specialist website which focuses on Tibetan encounters with global modernity.

EIAS responded to the proposal as follows: “After discussing internally, and while unfortunately organizing a public seminar on Tibet is not possibility for EIAS, we would be very interested in having an internal meeting with Mr Lafitte, should he be interested (together with some of our senior associates and researchers).”

Very surprisingly, a few weeks later we received an invitation from the same organization to attend a Briefing Seminar on Tibet by Pema Thinley as the main speaker.

During the Q&A Session, I asked why the Institue had changed its attitude towards Tibet and has now included it on its agenda, EIAS’ “moderator” Mr David Fouquet answered: “Even in small organisations, there can be bureaucratic misunderstanding and miscommunication. I was not involved in process you describe, but we can maybe talk about it later with the person you were in contact with. My approach would be that it would have been a possible topic of interest.”

EIAS Briefing

Participants to the EIAS Briefing.

diplomat from the Chinese

The diplomat from the Chinese EU mission trying to prevent me from taking pictures.

I was also quiet surprised by the attitude of a diplomat form the Chinese EU mission (the person with the pink tie) who tried to prevent me physically from taking picture during the event without any reaction from the organizers! The diplomat had forgotten his visit cards and did not mention his name to me. The EIAS did not mention publicly to all participants at the beginning of the event nor on the invitation that Chatham House rules were applying and that pictures were not allowed. Several other participants took pictures during the event without any reaction from anyone.

In my view, there is a real need for additional investigation by independent experts and journalists on how some of Brussels’ based think tanks and research centers dealing with Asia, in particular active on China, position themselves and tackle sensitive issues such as human rights, Tibet, Taiwan or Hong Kong.

And most importantly there is a need to understand what are the interests and reasons behind such attitudes and what is the added-value for these organisations to side-line sensitive issues from a public debate.