China’s self-delusion highlights Xi’s trip to Europe

Beijing is wrong if it thinks that President Macron’s autonomy policy will weaken transatlantic ties

If the purpose of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s European tour last month was to thaw frosty relations with the European Union and weaken transatlantic ties, it was a failure. 

The EU’s announcement of duties on Chinese electric vehicles, or EVs, and the anti-Beijing tone of the G7 Leaders’ Communique weeks later made this clear.

Three countries were carefully chosen by China for Xi’s trip. In France, he celebrated 60 years of diplomatic relations

The two sides used 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. Then there was Serbia, an EU candidate since 2012. 

Foreign affairs

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s EU-sceptic and Russia-friendly stances have complicated EU-Serbian relations, and cozying 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. Prime Minister Viktor Orban is friendly with Russia and China.

Budapest was the first European country to sign a Belt and Road Initiative with Beijing. 

Inside the plant of Chinese EV company BYD. Photo: File

China is now the largest foreign investor in Hungary, accounting for 75% of Budapest’s overall total, 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 and stated that they count on Beijing’s commitment not to supply military or dual-use assets to Moscow. 

But Xi remained inflexible in refusing to address the requests, maintaining that China had and would continue to act as a peacemaker. 

Strategically autonomous

Instead, Moscow and Beijing reinforced their strategic partnership in mid-May. Still, China does look favorably on the more strategically autonomous Europe advocated by Macron

Yet again, Beijing has deluded itself into thinking that Macron’s autonomy is an echo of former French president Charles de Gaulle’s strategy 60 years ago when Paris 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.

A roll of the dice in the game of global geopolitics. Image: Dreamstime / China Factor

Xi responded that China is against “de-coupling” and pushed back on the idea of a “Chinese over-capacity problem.”  

Yet his 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 Belt and Road Initiative and the 14+1 mechanism in response to the European Union’s attempts to confront China’s “divide and rule” tactics through its Global Gateway strategy

Bilateral relations

He also “rejected hegemonism and power politics” as a foreign policy signal to both the United States and the EU.

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 statement criticizing China’s implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong and inked a highly controversial agreement with Beijing on joint police patrols.

The European Union has warned China over subsidies. Photo: File

The second aspect was that Orban agreed 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 to unity in the European Union’s foreign policy towards Beijing.

After Xi’s European tour, the EU announced provisional duties of between 17.4% and 38.1% on Chinese EVs, on top of the standard 10% duty on imported electric vehicles. 

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.

They also warned of potential sanctions on Chinese entities “enabling” Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The Europeans further highlighted serious concerns regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Selective tour

Beijing’s tit-for-tat approach – anti-dumping investigations against EU pork after cognac – will hardly contribute to warmer EU-China relations. More importantly, Xi 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 realpolitik thinking – shifting towards a more pragmatic and realist approach. 

Xi’s selective tour of European capitals did not change that fundamental adjustment.

David Camroux is an 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 a doctoral researcher and adjunct lecturer at CERI Sciences Po. He is also a researcher at the Franco-German Observatory of the Indo-Pacific and is associated with the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM).

This article is republished from East Asia Forum under a Creative Commons license. Read the original here.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.