Initial Assessment of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Three Nation European Tour
Jayadeva Ranade

Chinese President Xi Jinping, accompanied by his wife Peng Liyuan, Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member and Director of the CCP CC General Office Cai Qi and Politburo member and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, arrived in Paris on May 5, on the first leg of his carefully crafted three-nation 5-day European tour. He was received at Orly airport by French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal. It was Xi’s first trip to Europe in five years. The countries to be visited were carefully chosen with France, the most difficult, was first on Xi’s itinerary. Xi would have been encouraged by German Chancellor Scholz bending his knee in Beijing in April this year, and would have thought that he could build on French President Macron’s visit to Beijing in April 2023. The main aim of Xi’s tour was to tempt EU and European countries with the financial benefits of partnering with China, weaken the EU, and further its decades old effort to drive a wedge between the EU and the U.S. The spokesperson of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs called Xi Jinping's visits as "vitally important for China’s relations with France, Serbia, Hungary and the EU at large".

Nearly 4000 Tibetan and Uyghur activists from across Europe staged a protest in Paris. They unfurled a large banner across the expressway reading “Free Tibet -- Xi your time is up!” French President Macron was aware of the Tibetans’ plans. A small group of Tibetans also travelled to Budapest and staged a protest in May outside the venue of the meeting between Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Xi. The protestors clashed with some Chinese supporting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Hungarian police did not interfere.

Visit to France

Macron extended all courtesies to the Chinese President including taking Xi to his grandmother’s home in the Hautes-Pyrenees to demonstrate reciprocated warmth and ensure a good atmosphere for the visit so that the considerable French business and economic interests are not jeopardised. A variation was that the formal reception and guard of honour were not held in the Versailles, but in the Elysee Palace where, just a week earlier, Macron had presented a former French Senator active in Tibetan affairs the Legion of Honour and met the head of the Central Tibetan Administration, or Sikyong, Penpa Tsering.

Macron’s thinking has also changed since his visit to China last year. He now views Russia as an existential threat to Europe and has set up a 200-million Euro special fund to help Ukraine directly obtain weapons from the French defence industry. This was subsequently hiked by another 200 million Euros. In February this year France and Ukraine also signed a bilateral security agreement which provides for military support of up to three billion Euros. Macron’s views now make the issue of Chinese military and dual-use assistance to Russia more important. His views are now more aligned with those of the U.S. French President Macron also took the precaution of showing that the EU and France are in close alignment and invited EU President Ursula von der Leyen to participate in the talks with Xi.

Timed to coincide with his arrival in Paris, Xi published a signed article in the French newspaper Le Figaro on May 6, where he sought to subtly flatter Macron by comparing his policy with that of the late French President Charles de Gaulle. He recalled that “six decades ago, General Charles de Gaulle, with a strategic vision based on the trend of the time, resolved to establish diplomatic relations with New China. It wasn't easy to make this independent decision at the height of the Cold War, but it has proven to be right and foresighted”. Quoting Confucius that "History is our best teacher”, Xi wrote that "China is ready to work with France in the spirit that guided the establishment of our diplomatic ties to forge a stronger comprehensive strategic partnership between our two countries and make new contributions to stronger cooperation of the global community".

The discussions had contentious issues on the agenda. These included: a French-backed anti-subsidy investigation into electric vehicles from China; complaints about Chinese overcapacity; concerns over Beijing’s indirect support of Russia’s war in Ukraine; and the explosion of the Nordic pipeline.

Xi and Macron had 80 minutes of bilateral discussions at the Elysee Palace. Xi said “As the world goes through transformation and turbulence not seen in a century, China and France should uphold independence and jointly prevent a ‘new Cold War’ or bloc confrontation” and “stay committed to the spirit that guided the establishment of their diplomatic ties, namely, independence, mutual understanding, long-term vision and mutual benefit, and enrich it with new features of the new era”. He said they should “stick to taking a long view and work together for an equal and orderly multipolar world” and “and jointly oppose decoupling, cutting off supply chains.” Xi asserted that “China is willing to maintain strategic communication with France, respect each other's core interests, and consolidate the strategic stability of bilateral relations, tap the vast potential of mutually beneficial cooperation and facilitate growth and balance in bilateral trade”.

Holding out the prospect of commercial opportunities, he added “China is willing to import more quality products from France, push for more practical results from the "French farm to Chinese dining table" mechanism, and hope that France will export more high-tech and high value-added products to China”. He mentioned the need to “deepen cooperation in traditional areas such as aerospace and aviation, strengthen cooperation in nuclear energy, innovation and finance, and expand cooperation in emerging areas such as green energy, smart manufacturing, biomedicine and artificial intelligence” as well as artificial intelligence governance and reform of the international financial system. These areas have become a subject of concern for Beijing since February, after the European Union imposed trade restrictions on three Chinese technology and electronics companies selling dual-use military goods. The EU has also used a new, French-backed anti-subsidy law to launch an investigation into electric-vehicle imports from China.

The People's Daily (May 7) quoted Macron as saying “The world now faces many pressing challenges, and the profound and rich France-China relationship is at a critical juncture” and “will play an important and positive role in addressing global challenges and opposing any logic of bloc confrontation”. According to it, Macron said France hopes to export more agricultural products to China, will continue to open its market to China, will not adopt discriminatory policies against Chinese companies, and welcomes investment and cooperation by more Chinese companies, including high-tech firms. He said France is ready to step up cooperation with China in such areas as aerospace and aviation, and nuclear energy for civilian use, biodiversity protection, and AI, and jointly uphold multilateralism, the UN Charter and international law.

The China-France-EU trilateral meeting with Xi and Ursula von der Leyen on May 6, also at the Elysee Palace, lasted double the allotted time stretching over 100 minutes. Macron said “The future of our continent will clearly also depend on our ability to continue developing a balanced relationship with China”. Xi, who throughout the two meetings read from his prepared script, brushed off concerns about Chinese goods overwhelming European markets. He told Macron and von der Leyen that China’s production of renewables is helping the global energy transition and, according to China’s foreign ministry, added: “There is no so-called problem of Chinese overcapacity.” In a pro forma response to Macron and von der Leyen’s concern about Chinese military assistance to Russia, Xi said that China would closely monitor the export of dual-use goods. He stressed that “China is not at the origin of this crisis, nor is it a participant” adding that the crisis should not be used to tarnish China’s image or start a new Cold War. Interestingly, in all the meetings Xi referred to the war in Ukraine as a “crisis”.

After the meeting EU President Ursula von der Leyen said she had pressed Xi on all the contentious points and urged him to rein in Chinese subsidies and manufacturing overcapacity and give European companies more access to the Chinese market. She said she was counting “on China to use all its influence on Russia to end Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” and urged Beijing to stem the supply of dual-use goods helping Russia’s military. She pointed out that “Given the existential nature of the threats stemming from this war for both Ukraine and Europe, this does affect the EU-China relations.”

At a joint press briefing after the talks, but where no questions were permitted, the two sides issued four joint statements on the situation in the Middle East, on AI and global governance, on biodiversity and oceans, and on agricultural exchanges and cooperation. Nearly 20 bilateral cooperation documents were signed in areas such as green development, aviation, agri-food, commerce and people-to-people exchanges.

On May 6 evening, Macron and Madame Brigitte Macron hosted a welcoming banquet for Xi and Madame Peng Liyuan at Elysee Palace. Among the more than 120 guests invited to the state dinner were actress Gong Li – famous for her roles in films including Raise the Red Lantern and Farewell My Concubine – and her husband, the musician Jean-Michel Jarre, cinematic luminaries like Salma Hayek and nearly 60 corporate leaders including LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault, the owner of the French Cognac Hennessey, and his daughter Delphine Arnault, CEO of Christian Dior Couture. At the start of the dinner, Xi Jinping told the assembled French and Chinese guests that the two countries are “special friends”, who have a “special relationship among world powers”. Xi said “As important representatives of Eastern and Western civilisations, China and France have always appreciated and attracted each other. The ideas of Confucius profoundly influenced Voltaire and others, and provided inspiration for the French Enlightenment.”

Macron presented Chinese President Xi Jinping two bottles of Cognac – a Hennessy XO and a prized Louis XIII by Remy Martin – along with rare volumes by Victor Hugo, the first French-Chinese dictionary and a sculpted glass vase from the town of Amboise. Xi Jinping presented French President Macron French-language books published in China as well as a painting.

The next day Xi arrived at Macron's grandmother's home in Tarbes, Hautes-Pyrenees, where he was welcomed by Macron and his wife, Brigitte Macron, at the airport. The Zhongguo Qingnian Bao (China Youth Daily; May 8) said the "two heads of state and their spouses sat by the window, overlooking the mountains, tasting local delicacies, discussing world affairs, and having strategic communication on some important issues in a relaxed and pleasant atmosphere”. It said Xi asserted that "China will surely achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”.

Visit to Serbia

Xi and his entourage arrived in the Serbian capital Belgrade on May 7, which was also the anniversary of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade 25 years ago. This was Xi’s second state visit to Serbia. Two Serbian Air Force fighter jets escorted Xi's plane after it entered Serbian airspace and he was greeted at the airport by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and his wife, Tamara Vucic. In a written statement upon arrival, Xi said “the two countries are bound by rock-solid political mutual trust, and have seen fruitful results in high quality Belt and Road cooperation” and that "our ironclad friendship has taken deeper roots in the heart of the two peoples." He added that “China and Serbia have rendered each other firm support on issues concerning their respective core interests and major concerns”.

In a signed article in the Serbian newspaper 'Politika' published a day prior to his arrival, Xi wrote: “Whatever changes in the international landscape, China and Serbia remain true friends and good partners” and "Our ironclad friendship has withstood the test of blood and fire, and shines even brighter in the new era". Xi said "We should deliver on the midterm action plan for Belt and Road cooperation, and build more flagship projects. We should expand cooperation in technological innovation, advanced manufacturing, green energy, digital economy, artificial intelligence and other emerging areas". Stating that China and Serbia hold similar positions on many major international and regional issues, Xi said they “should step up coordination and cooperation in the United Nations and other international organizations, and advocate an equal and orderly multipolar world and a universally beneficial and inclusive economic globalization”. Referring to the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade 25 years ago in which three Chinese journalists were killed, Xi declared the Chinese people “will never allow such tragic history to repeat itself.”

Xi met Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on May 8, and later signed a joint statement on the “building of a China-Serbia community with a shared future in the new era”, making Serbia the first European country to partner China in building such a community. The joint statement said the two countries had also decided to elevate the China-Serbia comprehensive strategic partnership. Serbia was the first Central and Eastern European country to become China's comprehensive strategic partner eight years ago. At the joint press conference that followed, Xi Jinping announced six measures to support the building of a China-Serbia community with a shared future. One of them was to invite a total of 300 Serbian youths to study in China in the next three years. He also announced that China will aid 50 young Serbian scientists in exchange programmes with China for the next three years. 28 documents were signed during the visit, including on economic, space and lunar and media cooperation.

China-Serbian relations have been very good and are poised to receive a boost after Xi’s visit. The visit is indication to Serbia, which is not a member of the EU, that partnering China would bring far more financial and other benefits more quickly. Two-way trade in 2023 surged to US$ 4.35 billion and in 2022, China became the largest source of direct investment for Serbia. Under the framework of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative are flagship projects such as the Smederevo Steelworks and the high-speed railway between Belgrade and Budapest, which has transported some 6.83 million passengers over the past two years.

Visit to Hungary

In Budapest too, on May 8, Xi arrived to a warm welcome with two Hungarian Air Force aircraft escorting him from the time his aircraft entered Hungarian airspace. He was warmly welcomed at the airport by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his wife. In a written speech upon his arrival, Xi said "As a good friend and a comprehensive strategic partner", China rejoices over Hungary's achievements." He observed that Hungary was one of the first countries to recognize and establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China in 1949. They elevated their relations in 2004 to “a friendly and cooperative partnership” and further to a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in 2017.

The People's Daily (May 8) reproduced the full text of Xi’s signed article published in the Hungarian newspaper Magyar Nemzet, where Xi said this was his second visit to Hungary and he had "forged a deep friendship" in meetings with Hungarian leaders. He said over 75 years, China and Hungary “have developed a high degree of political mutual trust. Our bilateral relationship is at its best in history, and has embarked on a golden voyage". He added that the two had focussed "on high-quality Belt and Road cooperation” and today Hungary is China's top investment destination as well as its important trading partner in Central and Eastern Europe. He said the China Cultural Center in Budapest will soon be officially inaugurated and that Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms are gaining popularity. Xi added "as comprehensive strategic partners”, China is ready to work with Hungary “to deepen and substantiate China's cooperation with Central and Eastern European countries and to ensure steady and sustained growth of China-Europe relations". He reiterated that “We should advocate an equal and orderly multipolar world and a universally beneficial and inclusive economic globalization, endeavour continuously to build a community with a shared future for mankind, and inject more positive energy into safeguarding world peace and promoting common development".

At the joint press conference on May 9, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced that China and Hungary will expand cooperation in several areas, including in the nuclear power industry. Orban said "China is one of the pillars of the new world order." He added that Chinese investment in Hungary had burgeoned and by last year three-quarters of all foreign investment in Hungary was by China and it had provided jobs for tens of thousands of Hungarians. Orban also said Hungary would support China's peace plan for Ukraine. Speaking alongside Orban at the Budapest press conference, Xi said China will deepen economic, trade, investment, and financial cooperation with Hungary. Xi also said that "China supports Hungary in playing a bigger role in the EU and promoting greater progress in China-EU relations."

An article in the People's Daily (May 5) publicised the extent of Chinese investment in the Balkans and highlighted the Hungary-Serbia railway, a flagship project of the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Stating that once fully operational, this railway will reduce the journey between their capitals to just three hours and enhance freight transport, promote trade, and invigorate the two economies, it claimed "the railway is among a range of Belt and Road projects that have delivered tangible benefits to Europe and beyond, and such achievements are not possible without visionary leaders who are keen to harvest shared benefits from win-win cooperation". It added that Hungary has been China's primary investment destination in Central and Eastern Europe for consecutive years and that China-France relations have long been at the forefront of China's relations with major Western countries and "the two serve as crucial stabilizing forces in the increasingly volatile China-Europe relations". It said there is ample evidence that "China and Europe are partners, not rivals; they offer opportunities to each other, not threats; their common interests far outweigh their divergence". Chinese investment in Hungary is exemplified also by the China-based Contemporary Amperex Technology building a US$ 7.8 billion electric-vehicle battery plant in Hungary and BYD similarly building a manufacturing plant in the Hungarian city of Szeged.

Xi’s agenda in all three countries was primarily dominated by economic cooperation. Equally important, though, were strengthening ties with political elites and enhancing media collaboration. Beijing sees closer ties with the EU and European countries as important for its objective of weakening their ties with the US. It is also crucial for adoption of China's Global Civilisational Initiative, Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative, seen as vital for its agenda of fashioning a more fair and equitable world order.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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