Euro-Chinese relations changed a lot in the 5 years between President Xi’s visits

Euro-Chinese relations changed a lot in the 5 years between President Xi’s visits

Euro-Chinese relations changed a lot in the 5 years between President Xi’s visits
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban sends off Chinese President Xi Jinping following a three-day visit in Budapest. (Handout)
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Though 2019 was not so long ago by most reckonings, it must seem like a different political epoch for China’s President Xi Jinping, who has just concluded his first visit to Europe for five years.

During those years, the world not only experienced the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, the presumed origins of which in China remain shrouded in some mystery, but also witnessed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is tacitly supported by Beijing.

All of this means that much of Europe is in a different political space regarding China than it was in 2019. Aware of this change in mood, Xi chose the destinations for his three-leg European itinerary last week carefully. After a visit to France (China’s ties with which he described as a model bilateral relationship) on Monday and Tuesday, he traveled to Hungary and then to non-EU member Serbia, two of China’s supporters on the continent.

Xi has described Serbia as an “iron-clad” friend. Bilateral trade and investment ties between the nations have been growing, including a $2.2 billion Chinese investment in wind and solar power plants and a hydrogen production facility.

Within the 27-member EU itself, however, Xi’s strongest ally might be long-standing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. He favors deeper ties not only with China but also Russia, which makes him highly unusual among his counterparts.

During his visit to Hungary, Xi welcomed the fact that the nation has become a key production hub in Europe for Chinese automotive suppliers, including makers of electric vehicles. This might help Chinese firms navigate any EU tariffs on such vehicles in the future.

Serbia and Hungary are outliers in contemporary continental opinions on Beijing. A position more reflective of the wider stance at the present time is that of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, with whom Xi met on Monday in France, and who has led the political charge in Brussels toward what she calls a policy of “de-risking” from Beijing.

Certainly, even in France Xi received a respectful and warm welcome during a visit that coincided with the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Paris and Beijing, and met President Emmanuel Macron as well as von der Leyen.

But the underlying political mood music is very different now than it was during his 2019 visit to Europe. Back then, Xi was love-bombed by his Italian hosts, who became the first G7 country to sign up to Beijing’s Belt and Road infrastructure scheme. This was a controversial decision in the West, even then. It infuriated the Trump administration in Washington, which called it “legitimacy for China’s infrastructure vanity project.”

Within the 27-member EU itself, Xi’s strongest ally might be long-standing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Andrew Hammond

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s administration, which came to power in 2022, withdrew from the agreement last year. This is a sign of the undeniable chill in EU-Chinese relations in recent years as a result of a wide-range of political and economic factors. These include Western assertions of human rights abuses by China in Xinjiang province, and concerns that Beijing is “dumping” key products such electric vehicles, batteries, wind turbines and solar panels on the European market through the use of extensive state subsidies.

Worse still, top EU officials have grown increasingly concerned about whether the nature of China’s external interventions in Europe represents a divide-and-rule strategy designed to undermine the collective interests of the continent.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell even asserted that Beijing is a “systemic rival that seeks to promote an alternative model of governance” to that of Europe.

Therefore, EU policies on China are clearly moving in a more hawkish direction. Even on issues in which breakthroughs have been made with Beijing in recent years, such as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, the “long grass” in Brussels has prevented ratification of the deal by the European Parliament owing to EU concerns about the behavior of China.

Yet, despite these greater attempts to encourage more European unity, Brussels is still struggling to find common ground on Beijing across all 27 member states. This is what shaped Xi’s travel itinerary last week, including the choice of France as his first stop.

While Macron has become increasingly hawkish about Russia since its invasion of Ukraine, China has welcomed a string of recent comments by the French president on wider issues. During a joint visit with von der Leyen to Beijing last year, for example, Macron deployed the language of economic reciprocity rather than de-risking. He has also moved away from prior French positions on Taiwan.

Whereas von der Leyen asserted during their trip that “stability in the Taiwan Strait is of paramount importance” and that the “threat of use of force to change the status quo is unacceptable,” Macron said Taiwan is a “crisis that is not ours” and that Europeans should not be “America’s followers.”

While the full motivation for Macron’s comments remains unclear, his position is certainly out of sync not only with the EU position, but also key G7 statements on Taiwan that France signed up to.

The Franco-China discussions last week were closely watched, therefore, not only in Europe but in the US, about a month before President Joe Biden is expected to make his own state visit to Paris.

Perceptions of a divided Europe have also been publicly highlighted by several Chinese officials, including the ambassador to the EU, Fu Cong, who cast doubts on whether all 27 member states fully back the agenda of Borrell and von der Leyen. He recently said that “Europe has not formulated a coherent policy toward China” and it felt like “people quarreling with each other.”

Taking all of this together, Xi will be hoping his tour last week marks an important reset in ties with Europe, post-pandemic. However, while his visits to France, Serbia and Hungary were very cordial, there is no disguising the fact that broader ties between Europe and China remain chilly and could yet go from bad to worse this year.

• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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