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Xi Jinping’s Visit to Europe and Its Significance – World News

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By Rahul Pandey

Earlier this month, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited three ‘carefully chosen’ European countries: France, Serbia and Hungary. This visit from May 5-10, marked President Xi’s first European visit in the past five years. Notably, his previous trip to San Francisco (which led to the signing of the ‘San Francisco Vision’) in November saw the signing of the forward-looking vision for Sino-U.S. relations, signalling a significant milestone in China’s relations with Western countries. The choice of destinations—France in Western Europe, Serbia in the East, and Hungary in Central Europe—reflects a nuanced geopolitical strategy. France, navigating a delicate balancing act between China and the United States, holds particular significance in Western Europe.

Meanwhile, Serbia and Hungary have emerged as influential pro-Russia voices in Europe, each forging comprehensive strategic partnerships with China and actively participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Against the backdrop of ongoing conflicts such as the Russia-Ukraine war and the Israel-Hamas conflict, this visit assumes heightened geopolitical importance. Moreover, 2024 marks the sixtieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and France and the completion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Serbia in 1999. Beyond the immediate diplomatic and economic agreements, this visit is poised to have far-reaching global implications in the medium to long term.

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China-France Relations

In Paris, President Xi Jinping engaged in bilateral discussions with French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen during a two-day visit, coinciding with heightened tensions in various global arenas, including the East-West rivalry, trade disputes, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and the Israel-Hamas crisis. This visit resulted in signing 18 agreements between China and France, spanning diverse sectors such as aviation, agriculture, people-to-people exchanges, green development, and cooperation among small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Additionally, China announced an extension of visa exemption entry for citizens from 12 countries, including France, until the end of 2025, aiming to facilitate further people-to-people exchanges. However, the implementation of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) signed between China and the EU in 2020 still needs to be completed.

During his visit to China in 2023, President Macron advocated for Europe to maintain a neutral stance in the US-China tensions surrounding Taiwan. This diplomatic engagement deepened Sino-French ties and prompted reflections on the United States’ diplomatic influence within the Western sphere.  Before he arrived in Paris, President Xi articulated three key messages in a signed article published in the French media outlet Le Figaro, titled “Carrying Forward the Spirit that Guided the Establishment of China-France Diplomatic Relations, Working Together for Global Peace and Development.” These messages emphasised China’s commitment to advancing the historical ties between the two nations, fostering broader cooperation on a global scale, and collaborating to uphold world peace and stability. During the Sixth Meeting of the China-France Business Council, President Xi Jinping highlighted the remarkable growth in trade between the two countries, which has surged nearly 800 times since establishing diplomatic relations, reaching $78.9 billion.

Furthermore, bilateral investment has exceeded $26 billion, with over 2,000 French companies actively participating in the Chinese market. Notably, China has emerged as France’s largest trading partner outside the EU, while France maintains a significant position as China’s primary trading partner within the EU. Collaborative initiatives such as the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant and the Airbus A320 Family assembly facilities in Tianjin epitomise the mutually beneficial cooperation between China and France in various economic sectors.

The meeting between China and France carries significant global implications across multiple fronts. Firstly, against the backdrop of strained Sino-American relations marked by trade disputes and security tensions, the world is witnessing a growing divide between Western and Chinese spheres of influence. This meeting could exacerbate this division, potentially leading to a realignment of certain significant powers towards closer ties with China. Sari Arho Havren, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in Brussels, notes in the Voice of America that “Beijing has identified France as a weak link in the EU,” challenging long standing alliances. Secondly, amid ongoing regional conflicts such as those between Russia and Ukraine, as well as Israel and Hamas, the collaboration between China and Russia as close partners might offer opportunities for de-escalation. Thirdly, China is grappling with various challenges, including the economic fallout from COVID-19 and security concerns related to its technologies, which have prompted some European countries to withdraw from initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative. In this context, improving relations with European nations becomes imperative for China to regain momentum on the global stage.

China- Serbia

Serbia, an officially recognised EU candidate country, solidified its ties with China by signing 29 agreements during a recent visit. Serbia distinguished itself as the first European nation to join China’s ambitious Global Community of Shared Future initiative. The Serbian leader’s unequivocal stance on the Taiwan issue articulated during an interview with the China-based CGTN TV channel, emphasised support for China’s sovereignty over Taiwan. This alignment was underscored by the timing of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, for which the US later apologised. Seizing the opportunity, President Xi utilised a signed article in Serbian media to critique US actions and highlight the enduring bond between China and Serbia. Serbia further solidified its economic partnership with China in October 2023 by becoming the first Central and Eastern European country to sign a free trade agreement. Serbia is China’s largest investor. This collaboration has facilitated substantial Chinese investment in Serbia’s infrastructure, exemplified by projects such as the E7 highway, the Zemun-Borca bridge, and the acquisition of the Smederevo Steel Mill by HBIS Group. These developments underscore the growing strategic and economic significance of the China-Serbia partnership, shaping regional dynamics in Europe and beyond.

China-Hungary

China-Hungary signed a total of 18 agreements. Xi said, ‘ China and Hungary will embark on a “golden voyage” in bilateral relations using maritime terminology. China’s investment in Hungary, exemplified by the construction of a 350-kilometre high-speed railway line between Budapest and Belgrade, signifies a deepening economic and strategic partnership between the two nations. This railway project promises to significantly reduce travel time between the two capitals from eight hours to three. Hungary’s upcoming assumption of the rotating EU Council presidency further highlights its diplomatic significance within the European Union. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent meeting with Hungary’s Foreign Minister in Beijing underscores China’s interest in fostering a positive perception within the EU through Budapest’s advocacy. Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s longstanding ‘Eastern Opening’ strategy, emphasising increased trade and investment with Asia, particularly China, since 2010, has paved the way for substantial Chinese investment in Hungary. In 2023, China emerged as Hungary’s largest investor, with investments totalling €10.7 billion, indicating the depth of economic ties. Notably, Hungary hosts significant Chinese investments, including Huawei’s major supply centre outside of China and the construction of a €7.3 billion electric vehicle battery plant by CATL in Debrecen. Furthermore, Budapest boasts the largest Chinese community in Central and Eastern Europe, reflecting a longstanding cultural connection between the two nations dating back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. These developments underscore the multifaceted nature of the China-Hungary relationship, encompassing economic, diplomatic, and cultural dimensions with far-reaching implications for both countries and the wider region.

Conclusion

Xi Jinping’s recent visit to three European countries was characterised by strategic considerations, carefully selecting nations to engage with. While in Paris, he attentively listened to European concerns, recognising the importance of diplomatic engagement with a key EU member state. In Belgrade and Budapest, the focus shifted towards emphasising the significance of economic partnerships, particularly evident through initiatives such as the high-speed railway in Hungary and the series of agreements signed in Serbia. Overall, Xi’s visit underscores the evolving dynamics of China’s relationship with Europe, shaped by a blend of economic interests, diplomatic considerations, and geopolitical strategies.

The author is PhD Candidate, China Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University New Delhi.

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.

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