China’s Xi Jinping is visiting Europe for the first time in five years – his goodwill tour will be an uphill struggle

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When Xi Jinping arrived in Italy for a state visit in 2019, he was given a lavish welcome, with private tours of Roman landmarks and a dinner serenaded by opera singer Andrea Bocelli, topped with a crowning flourish – Italy’s decision to join Xi’s signature Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

Five years later, the Chinese leader has returned to Europe in a very different climate. Xi landed in France Sunday and, while the pomp and ceremony may remain during his six-day European tour, views on China across the continent have shifted dramatically since his last visit.

In the past weeks alone, the European Union has launched trade probes into China’s wind turbines and procurement of medical equipment, and raided offices of Chinese security equipment maker Nuctech as part of an investigation into subsidies. Germany and the United Kingdom in recent days also arrested or charged at least six people for alleged espionage and related crimes linked to China.

And in March, Italy formally exited the Belt and Road, costing the program its only G7 member country, in a blow to China and its leader.

Behind these developments are mounting economic grievances that have the EU preparing for a potential major trade confrontation with China — as well as growing suspicions about Beijing’s global ambitions and influence, driven by alarm over China’s deepening ties with Russia as it wages war against Ukraine.

“China is seen increasingly as a multi-faceted threat in many European capitals. But there are divisions within Europe over how fast and far to go in addressing concerns about China, both in the economic and security spheres,” said Noah Barkin, a Berlin-based visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Now, Xi’s trip — with stops in France, Serbia and Hungary — is an opportunity to woo his critics, but also showcase that even as views are hardening in some parts of Europe, others still welcome China with open arms.

Beijing is keen to dampen Europe’s push to address alleged trade distortions, which would come at a bad time for China’s flagging economy. It also wants to ensure Europe doesn’t draw any closer to the United States, especially amid uncertainty over the outcome of the upcoming US election.

Major breakthroughs with China’s toughest critics will be hard to come by unless Xi is ready to make surprise concessions. And the trip could instead serve to underscore divisions — not only between Europe and China but those within Europe that could play to China’s favor, analysts say.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome, Italy, on March 23, 2019. - Abaca Press/SIPAPRE/Sipa/AP
Italian President Sergio Mattarella and Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the Quirinale presidential palace in Rome, Italy, on March 23, 2019. - Abaca Press/SIPAPRE/Sipa/AP

Trade frictions

Xi’s visit started with one of his toughest critics.

The Chinese leader met European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen alongside French President Emmanuel Macron Monday.

Von der Leyen has spearheaded the EU’s rallying cry to “derisk” its supply chains from China over concerns about securing key technologies, and is driving a high-stakes anti-subsidy investigation, backed by France, into the influx of Chinese electric vehicle (EV) imports to Europe.

China earlier this year opened an investigation into the price of brandy imported from the EU in a move that could hit France’s cognac sector and is widely seen as retaliation for the probe.

During a joint press conference in Paris Monday, Macron said Europe was not looking to stir up trouble with its trade policy, but simply trying to stay sovereign. He also thanked Xi for keeping an open mind on the issue of French cognac. The two countries would continue their trade discussions, Macron said.

“China’s direct investment in France is three times lower than that of France in China. We need to rebalance this,” Macron added. “In sectors like electric vehicles, batteries as well as most cutting-edge technologies, digital platforms etc, I would like to see us (the Franco-Chinese cooperation) go a lot further.”

As for Xi, he called for closer relations between the two nations in fields including agriculture, finance, aerospace, nuclear power, and cultural exchanges.

According to Xi, China and France signed a total of 18 interdepartmental cooperation agreements during the visit.

Ahead of the visit, Macron signaled his desire to push Xi on economic ties, and reiterated concerns made by Europe and the United States that China is flooding global markets with cheap goods it can’t sell at home.

“I’m calling for an ‘aggiornamento’ because China is now in excess capacity in many areas and exports massively to Europe,” the French president said in an interview Sunday with French outlet La Tribune Dimanche, using the Italian word for ‘update.’

Xi, however, may win more goodwill during his one-on-one time with Macron, which is expected to include what Elysee sources described as more “personal” time in the Pyrenees mountains of southern France.

“France has built this reputation of being a fairly independent actor in the EU and willing to create some space with the US,” said Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

“Xi may want to work on Macron to see if he can get more European distance from North America,” as well as tightening his rapport with this important EU player, Chong said.

In a statement released by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs after his arrival, Xi said the two countries had throughout their relations set “a model for the international community of peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation between countries with different social systems.”

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron visit a garden in Guangdong during Macron's state visit to China last April. - Jacques Witt/Pool/AFP/Getty Images
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron visit a garden in Guangdong during Macron's state visit to China last April. - Jacques Witt/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Push for peace

The war in Ukraine — a crucial sore point in Europe-China relations — is also on the agenda this week.

Beijing has appeared to do little to move the Kremlin toward European visions for peace in Ukraine, despite repeated efforts to push Xi to use his rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Putin has said he plans to visit China this month, according to Russian state media.

In their joint press conference, Xi reiterated China’s stance on Ukraine, stating that Beijing has been playing an active role in promoting peace. He added that China is against any parties using the Ukraine crisis to incite a “new Cold War.”

Macron said: “The length and quality of our exchanges on this subject is a source of reassurance (for me).”

Xi’s visit comes as the United States and its European allies grow increasingly vocal about concerns that China’s exports of dual-use goods to Russia are powering its war machine. Beijing defends that trade as a regular part of its bilateral relations.

“At some point soon” Europe could decide to move more aggressively in sanctioning Chinese firms selling such goods, according to Barkin at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

A warmer welcome

Xi’s stops in Serbia and Hungary are likely to be much less contentious — something the Chinese government likely factored in when mapping out the visit, observers say.

“In Belgrade and Budapest, Xi will not have to listen to the criticism he hears in other European capitals,” said Barkin. “Their leaders welcome Chinese investment, and they don’t have a problem with China’s deepening ties to Russia.”

Xi’s visit to Belgrade will coincide with the week of the 25th anniversary of NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade that killed three. The attack, part of a wider bombing campaign by NATO in the Balkans during the spring of 1999, drove Beijing’s deep enmity for the alliance, even as the United States said it was an accident.

Any commemoration of the event by Xi could underscore the deep divisions between China and NATO, which Beijing sees as an embodiment of American overreach and a source of Europe’s security challenges – a view that has driven it closer to Russia.

Xi may also look to highlight Chinese investments in both Belgrade and Budapest in a message to the rest of Europe.

Non-EU member Serbia, which Beijing earlier this week described as an “iron-clad” friend, has seen growing trade and investment ties with China under President Aleksandar Vučić.

In January, the Balkan nation announced a deal that could see more than $2 billion of Chinese investment in wind and solar power plants and a hydrogen production facility, Reuters reported at the time.

In Hungary, Xi will look to deepen his relationship with increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban – a useful ally for China in the EU, where he has blocked or criticized EU efforts to hold China to account on human rights issues.

The central European country has also emerged as an increasingly important production hub in Europe for Chinese automotive suppliers including EV makers – a situation that analysts say could help Chinese firms maneuver around existing and potential EU tariffs.

That means Xi is likely to exit his European trip on a very different note from the one he begins with.

“There, at least, the optics will be that there’s a lot of acceptance of Xi,” said Chong at the National University of Singapore.

This story has been updated with additional developments. Julen Chavin in Paris, Xiaofei Xu in Hong Kong and Shawn Deng in Toronto, Canada, contributed reporting.

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