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Xi's Euro Trip Showcases Beijing's Expanding Influence

  • Xi received warm welcomes and inked strategic partnerships in France, Serbia, and Hungary, emphasizing China's expanding influence in Central and Eastern Europe.
  • Despite tensions over issues like trade and Ukraine, Xi effectively navigated diplomatic challenges and strengthened ties with key European leaders.
  • China's assertive diplomacy aims to position the country as a dominant player on the world stage, with investments and agreements reflecting its ambition to shape global dynamics.
Xi

While Xi’s trip dealt with everything from trade ties with the European Union to China’s relationship with Russia amid the war in Ukraine, the tour can be boiled down to one overarching message from China: Xi leads a rising global superpower that can’t be contained and its influence in Europe is here to stay.

The Chinese leader received opulent red-carpet welcomes in Paris from French President Emmanuel Macron and from China-friendly leaders like Serbia’s Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade and Hungary’s Viktor Orban in Budapest.

In France, Macron looked to hammer home some tougher European positions on Ukraine and trade subsidies -- particularly over the ongoing EU probe into Chinese electric vehicles on the European market -- while still looking to charm Xi on other issues.

Ahead of the visit, Macron had argued in public statements for Europe to establish “a more balanced” trade relationship with China, and that issue was tackled on May 6 during three-way talks with Xi and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

As Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies, told me ahead of the visit, this would allow for Macron to “play good cop” and von der Leyen “to play bad cop” in dealing with Xi.

However, Xi looked effective at deflecting concerns and driving a wedge between Macron and von der Leyen by either flatly denying any problems, misrepresenting China’s position, or offering concessions that were only rhetorical.

In Belgrade and Budapest, meanwhile, Xi looked triumphant and received highly choreographed welcomes that reinforced Chinese messaging about deep divisions within Europe over how to engage with China.

Xi left both countries after announcing new strategic partnerships and investments that will further cement China’s relevance in Central and Eastern Europe.

Why It Matters: Public opinion on China across much of Europe has soured dramatically in recent years, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe.

When Xi last visited Europe in 2016, he was warmly embraced in Prague by then-Czech President Milos Zeman amid a wave of high-profile investments and visits to the Czech Republic, Serbia, and Poland.

Poland has since slowed its engagement with Beijing, and the Czech Republic, under new leadership, has become one of Europe’s more hawkish governments on China. Only Serbia has continued to deepen its ties out of that 2016 grouping.

While that marked a notable step back in the region, along with the irrelevance of the 14+1 Chinese format for engaging with Central and Eastern Europe, this recent visit shows that China can’t be blocked and that Beijing has plenty of new cards to play in its broader relations with Europe.

Reflecting this Chinese view, Renmin University Professor Wang Wen wrote in a recent column that the strategic scales look set to tilt in China’s favor because “Europe is eager for economic recovery more than ever.”

“Europe is having a rethink: After losing Russia, it can't afford to lose China, too,” Wang wrote.

Three More Stories From Xi's Visit

  1. France: Wining And Dining Can Only Go So Far

Macron, who has sought to develop Europe as a strategically autonomous military and economic power, tackled a host of issues with Xi, but was hoping that this independent line could shine through when discussing the war in Ukraine.

What It Means: During joint statements to the press, Xi announced that he backed Macron’s call for an “Olympics truce,” which the French president saw as an opportunity to “work toward a sustainable resolution [of conflicts] in the full respect of international law.”

The comments and behind the scenes talks reportedly left some in Macron’s circle cautiously upbeat that Xi could be receptive to curtailing some of China’s backing for Russia amid the war in Ukraine.

But Xi also conceded very little, at least publicly.

He reiterated that China will not deliver weapons to Russia and would “strictly control” exports of dual-use equipment, both of which are positions that his government has already vowed to enforce.

Xi also made no acknowledgement of Western concerns that China is helping to keep the Russian economy running by giving it access to goods sanctioned by the West, and he then accused Washington and other Western countries of hypocrisy by fueling the conflict through weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

“We oppose using the Ukraine crisis to cast blame, smear a third country, and incite a new Cold War,” Xi said on May 6.

While some French officials may have walked away with some glimmers of hope, that assessment is not widely shared. As I reported ahead of Xi’s visit, EU officials said that China was looking to bargain its participation this summer in a peace conference on Ukraine as a way to pave “the way for Moscow's participation in similar meetings in the future,” one official told RFE/RL.

Xi’s true stance is also borne out in Russia and on the battlefield in Ukraine. A U.S. intelligence assessment said that, in 2023, about 90 percent of Russia’s microelectronics came from China, which Russia has used to make missiles, tanks, and aircraft. The same research said that nearly 70 percent of Russia’s approximately $900 million in machine tool imports in the last quarter of 2023 came from China.

  1. Serbia: Reverence, Shared Grievance, And A Dose of Caution

Greeted by cheering crowds, Xi and Vucic praised their countries’ “ironclad friendship” with one another, as they signed 28 new cooperation agreements and announced a new deal that would “deepen and elevate the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Serbia.”

The Details: The visit to Serbia touched on both substance and symbolism.

Serbia under Vucic has remained solidly pro-Chinese and still looks to China for billions of dollars in investment, something that Vuk Vuksanovic, a senior researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service has turned Beijing into Serbia’s “most important partner in the East at the moment,” even surpassing Moscow now that “Russian-Serbian ties are under constant scrutiny because of Ukraine.”

The elevated strategic partnership reflects that trend, as does a new free-trade agreement signed before the visit that Vucic said would allow Serbia to export 95 percent of its goods duty-free to China.

Belgrade and Beijing also signed 28 documents that would continue to deepen their ties. While most of the agreements were vague and did not have dollar figures attached, they covered a range of issues, from ministerial exchanges to state media agreements, that chart a course for a larger Chinese role in the Balkan country.

When it came to the symbolism of the visit, Xi arrived on the 25th anniversary of NATO’s accidental 1999 bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. In an article published on May 7 by Politika, a Serbian newspaper, Xi said that “NATO flagrantly bombed the Chinese Embassy,” which “will stay in the shared memory of the Chinese and Serbian peoples.”

But Xi also decided to skip the former embassy site during his visit, which is now a large Chinese cultural center that also includes a memorial for the bombing.

While the Chinese Foreign Ministry used the occasion to criticize NATO, the move shows a cautious approach from Xi when it comes to exciting anti-Western bombast at home and abroad, where it could have overshadowed other aspects of his visit.

  1. Hungary: A Risky Gamble That's Paying Off

Xi finished his Europe trip with a stop in another friendly nation, touching down on May 8 in Budapest, where he inked new investments and elevated Hungary’s relationship with China to new heights.

What You Need To Know: Xi’s visit marks a capstone for Orban’s embrace of China that positions Hungary as a bridgehead for Chinese influence in Central and Eastern Europe.

In an article in Magyar Nemzet, which is controlled by Orban’s governing Fidesz party, Xi called for Hungary to “lead” the region’s relations with Beijing and said that China wanted to work closely with Budapest on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects. The Chinese leader also promised to “speed up” construction of a high-speed train line between Budapest and Belgrade that has been delayed for years.

During the visit, Xi and Orban also pledged to elevate their ties to an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” -- a Chinese classification that denotes the highest possible type of relationship that Beijing can have with another country. Only Belarus, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan are labeled as “all-weather” partners.

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The move is sure to further strain Hungary’s already fraught relationship with Brussels, as will the 18 joint projects with China that were announced by Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto.

While the announcement of the deals lacked details, they would include a high-speed rail project to Budapest’s international airport from the city and a new rail line across the country to transport electric cars, batteries, and other products from Chinese factories planned to be built in eastern Hungary. Budapest and Beijing also vowed to cooperate on nuclear energy projects.

The focus on electric vehicles is noteworthy as Hungary is looking to Chinese investment to establish itself as Europe’s premier manufacturing hub for electric vehicles, batteries, and other new technologies.

China’s electric vehicle giant BYD announced in December that it would build an assembly plant in Hungary, its first production facility in Europe. Great Wall Motor, another major Chinese electric vehicle maker, is also looking into building an even bigger factory in Hungary.

More From Xi’s Europe Trip

Taiwan and Kosovo: During his shared remarks with Xi, Vucic used the occasion to tie Serbia’s territorial claims with Kosovo to Beijing’s own claims over Taiwan.

“Just as we have clear positions on the issue of Chinese integrity -- that Taiwan is China -- so they support the territory of Serbia without any reservation,” Vucic said. Xi later said that China “supports Serbia’s efforts to preserve its territorial integrity regarding Kosovo.”

The Next Issue: Ahead of Xi’s visit and amid a slew of Chinese espionage and trade scandals in Europe, my colleagues and I looked at the spread of Chinese-made surveillance cameras from Dahua and Hikvision, two partially Chinese state-owned companies, across Central and Eastern Europe.

An RFE/RL survey of nine countries in the region shows that governments have purchased millions of cameras over the last five years, despite the devices’ security vulnerabilities and the manufacturers’ lax data practices.

No Presser: After their talks on May 9, Xi and Orban held what was billed as a news conference, but was instead just both leaders reading statements without taking any questions.

Xi famously avoids any unscripted media encounters. MTVA, a state-owned and financed Hungarian channel, had the exclusive broadcast rights to Xi’s visit, and my colleagues in RFE/RL’s Hungarian Service were not granted accreditation from the Hungarian prime minister’s office to attend.

Prime Time: As Xi arrived at Belgrade's airport on May 7, Serbia’s state-owned television station even interrupted a broadcast of the Eurovision Song Contest to make way for coverage of the welcoming ceremony for the Chinese leader.

One Thing To Watch

Now that Xi’s big Europe trip is a wrap, attention will turn to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to China. The dates for the Russian leader’s trip have not yet been confirmed, but Bloomberg quoted Kremlin sources saying that it would take place May 15-16.

By RFE/RL

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