Xi’s Tour Of Europe Puts China’s Self-Delusion On Display – Analysis

By David Camroux and Earl Wang

If the purpose of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s European tour in May 2024 was to rewarm increasingly frosty relations with the European Union and weaken transatlantic ties, it was a failure. The European Union’s announcement of duties on Chinese electric vehicles (EVs) and the anti-Chinese tone of the G7 Leaders’ Communique less than a month later made this clear.

Three countries were carefully chosen by China for Xi’s European tour. In France, Xi celebrated 60 years of diplomatic relations. The two sides leveraged the occasion to sign cooperation agreements and letters of intent across the environment, aviation, agriculture, cultural exchange and more. As a committed supporter of the European Commission’s anti-subsidy investigation into Chinese EVs, France was seen by China as a key interlocutor to lobby against potential import duties.

Serbia has been an EU candidate since 2012. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s EU-sceptic and Russia-friendly stances have complicated EU–Serbian relations, and cosying up to China is rather counter-productive for Belgrade. But for Xi the visit was, above all, an occasion for China to denounce the United States in foreign affairs by commemorating the 25th anniversary of NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.

Hungary is an outlier in EU foreign policy. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is friendly with both Russia and China, and Hungary was the first European country to sign an agreement on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with China. China is now the largest foreign investor in Hungary — accounting for 75 per cent of Budapest’s total foreign investment — especially in sectors such as lithium-ion batteries and EVs.

In Paris, Xi had a bilateral meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, followed by a trilateral meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Two contentious subjects were on the table for both meetings — the Russian invasion of Ukraine and EU–China economic and trade relations. Macron and von der Leyen called on China to exert its influence on Russia to help end the war in Ukraine and stated that they count on China’s commitment not to supply military or dual-use assets to Russia. But Xi remained inflexible in refusing to address the requests, maintaining that China had and would continue to act as a peacemaker. Instead, Russia and China reinforced their strategic partnership in mid-May 2024.

China looks favourably on the more strategically autonomous Europe advocated by Macron. But Beijing has deluded itself in thinking that Macron’s autonomy is an echo of former French president Charles de Gaulle’s strategy 60 years ago, when France established diplomatic relations with Beijing and withdrew from the NATO command structure. In reality, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has given NATO — and France — a renewed sense of purpose. A more autonomous and capable Europe is now seen to strengthen the transatlantic alliance.

Economic and trade relations were also discussed, spanning fairness and reciprocity, state subsidies, over-capacity and de-risking as well as economic security. Xi responded that China is against ‘de-coupling’ and pushed back on the idea of a ‘Chinese over-capacity problem’.  

Xi’s approach in Serbia and Hungary was drastically different from in Paris. In Belgrade, Xi stressed China’s ‘ironclad friendship’ with Serbia. The two sides upgraded their bilateral relations from a ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ to ‘building a China–Serbia community with a shared future in the new era’.

Xi insisted on the need for continuous cooperation on the BRI and the 14+1 cooperation mechanism in response to the European Union’s attempts to confront China’s ‘divide and rule’ tactics through its Global Gateway strategy. Xi also ‘[rejected] hegemonism and power politics’ as a foreign policy signal to both the United States and the European Union.

In Budapest, China and Hungary upgraded their bilateral relations to an ‘all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership for the new era’. Besides touching on cooperation on the BRI and the 14+1 mechanism, the Xi–Orban meeting statement included two important aspects.

The first concerned Xi’s appreciation of Hungary’s support of Chinese policies on Hong Kong, human rights and Taiwan. Hungary had blocked the European Union’s unanimous statementcriticising China’s implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong and inked a highly controversial agreement with China on joint police patrols.

The second aspect was that Orban concurred with Xi on the over-capacity concerns raised by Macron and von der Leyen and the need for ‘de-risking’. As an EU national capital, Budapest has been an obstacle for unity in the European Union’s foreign policy towards China.

After Xi’s European tour, the European Union announced provisional duties of between 17.4 per cent and 38.1 per cent on Chinese EVs, on top of the standard 10 per cent duty on imported EVs. Three days later at the G7 Summit in Italy, Canada, Japan and the United States joined European participants in condemning Chinese subsidies and over-production, and also warned of potential sanctions on Chinese entities ‘enabling’ Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The Europeans also highlighted serious concerns regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Beijing’s tit-for-tat approach — anti-dumping investigations against EU pork after cognac — will hardly contribute to warmer EU-China relations. More importantly, China has failed to understand that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a watershed moment for Europe. It marks the end of a purely ‘normative power Europe’ and signals the arrival of a Europe incorporating realpolitik thinking — shifting towards a more pragmatic and realist approach. Xi’s selective tour of European capitals did not change that fundamental adjustment.

About the authors:

  • David Camroux is honorary senior research fellow and adjunct professor at the Centre for International Studies (CERI) Sciences Po. He is also the Co-coordinator of the Franco-German Observatory of the Indo-Pacific.
  • Earl Wang is doctoral researcher and adjunct lecturer at CERI Sciences Po. He is also a researcher in the Franco-German Observatory of the Indo-Pacific and is associated with the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM).

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum