Thursday, June 20, 2024
 
 

Xi challenges a divided Europe

Xi’s first European tour in five years included France, Serbia and Hungary
High level French emissaries await the arrival of President Xi Jinping in Paris to launch his European tour

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After the May 5-9 visit of President Xi Jinping to Europe most of the political analysts in Brussels who argued that the Chinese President’s trip was an attempt to divide Europe, might be missing the point. Europe never had a common foreign and defense policy and declarations from High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell on several issues are often contradicted by the foreign ministers of some EU member states. This happened in Gaza, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and during the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. The Chinese President just did what all the other officials of third countries are normally doing, setting up a bilateral dialogue with each EU member state so it’s much ado about nothing in this case.

The Chinese President had four crucial meetings that showed us the degree of partnership he has with each player. He met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Paris with hot issues starting from Beijing’s public subsidies for electric cars, solar panels (an old confrontation topic with the EU) and wind turbines that raise the question of violations of the EU’s competition rules, with the inevitable trade policy consequences that this entails.

On the human rights side, Hong Kong and Taiwan are still “irritants” with no agreement from both sides (apart from some declarations of French President Emmanuel Macron on Taiwan). On the other side, the President of the Commission asked for more market access for EU goods but on this side, Beijing wants to be sure first that there will be no EU retaliatory actions against Chinese electric cars and solar panels. For this reason, Xi has made no opening on these European dossiers, limiting himself to softening his position on a purely bilateral trade front: imports of French cognac into China.

Macron, in agreement with Washington, also pushed Xi to demonstrate greater efforts to slow down Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military campaign in Ukraine – all the more so as the visit coincided with Moscow’s announcement of nuclear maneuvers – but even here Xi did not go beyond the well-known commitment to a “cease-fire,” adding his formal support to the French proposal for an “Olympic truce” in Ukraine in homage to his French host. The problem now for Paris is that the Ukrainian President is currently against any idea of a “cease-fire,” this is proof that regarding Ukraine there was a huge problem of communication.

In this case, we can say that President Macron was smart to sell to the French audience the good results of a summit that was not spectacular if compared with the previous one before the pandemic. If we want to summarize Xi’s European trip we could say “impasse with the EU, constructive discussions with the EU on one side while good strategic partnership with Hungary and even top cooperation with Serbia.”

In Budapest on May 8-9 then the music changed radically, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi explained, they discussed a “broad strategic partnership” that looks towards a “new era” because Budapest is a “welcome partner in China’s journey towards modernization.” President Xi defined the visit as a “golden journey” in order to emphasize how the ties with Budapest – the most important EU partner on the “New Silk Road” – aim to be consolidated and extended, starting with the upcoming six-month Hungarian EU presidency. The EU is worried also about some Chinese investments in the rail transportation net especially if this connection is developed with Serbia. For the moment Hungary will continue to play in both “tables” knowing that if the game becomes too hard and any new EU tariffs target China, Budapest will have to follow EU decisions like in the case of funding for Ukraine. Balázs Orbán, a Hungarian lawyer, university professor, and politician clearly stated that “Hungary’s goal is for advanced, high-value-added technology, including IT, telecommunications, electro-mobility, electric vehicle manufacturing, and the development of high-speed railways, to be present in the Hungarian economy. Here the interest in tighter cooperation with China is very clear.

Serbia is outside the EU but still an important piece of the European puzzle; Xi’s Belgrade stop was his second state visit to Serbia in 8 years. During the May 7-8 visit, the two countries signed 29 agreements promoting legal, regulatory and economic cooperation.

Serbia will soon become the first European country in years to enter into a free trade agreement with China when a deal signed in 2023 comes into effect on July 1; such a bilateral free trade agreement is of course impossible for individual EU member states. It remains to be seen how trade patterns within Europe will shift as a result of Beijing’s pact with Belgrade, the self-designated “gateway to the Balkans.”

China owns several mines and factories across Serbia and has lent billions for roads, bridges and new facilities, gradually becoming a key partner for Serbia, along with the EU, in much-needed infrastructure development.

Along with Hungary, Serbia is Europe’s firmest supporter of China’s huge Belt and Road infrastructure projects across parts of Asia and Europe, but neither European country owns major seaports or strategic rail links that would connect them directly to China’s neighbors farther east.

Serbian and Chinese leaders talk of an ironclad partnership. “China will work together with the friendly people of Serbia and make tireless efforts to build a China-Serbia community with a shared future in the new era,” Xi pledged in a banquet toast.

President Xi Jinping signs agreement with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade

“Serbia became China’s first strategic partner in central and eastern Europe eight years ago, and it becomes the first European country with which we shall build a community with a shared future,” Xi announced during his Belgrade visit.

There can be no doubt that an element of nostalgia permeates the bilateral relationship from the days when the former Yugoslavia worked tirelessly to lead the global non-aligned movement in the closing decades of the Cold War, and it conducted a cooperative dialogue with China, which at the time had also been deeply engaged in modernizing the reclusive communist regime in neighboring Albania.

To drive a point home and generate extra attention in Washington, Xi´s visit to Serbia was scheduled on the anniversary of the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the brief war against the former Yugoslavia which succeeded in forcing Serbia’s former leader Slobodan Milosevic to end the slaughter of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. NATO declared that the bombing, which killed three Chinese journalists and injured 20 Chinese nationals, was accidental. The attack enraged China and required an apology from then-U.S. President Bill Clinton.  It is interesting to note that Xi himself did not visit the Chinese Embassy site itself on the anniversary, possibly to signal his intent to avoid raising tensions with NATO countries.

Even so, the Kosovo War connection does not end there, neither for Serbia nor China, as the two sides share urgent concerns about “breakaway” regions.

Both leaders reaffirmed they would support each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, meaning that Serbia considers Taiwan, viewed by Beijing as simply an unrepentant breakaway province, to be part of China, just as China considers Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, as a part of Serbia. China has accordingly helped to block attempts by Kosovo to gain full UN membership, siding with Russia against the NATO countries since the UN Security Council must not cast a single veto against membership applications by new countries/candidates. Thus, China retains a critical lever over Serbia’s international borders, tying the two countries tightly together until the situation changes radically, if ever.

 

 

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Managing Editor of European Union & Italian Political Affairs

Author

CEO/Editor-in-Chief.  Former US diplomat with previous assignments in Eastern Europe, the UN, SE Asia, Greece, across the Balkans, as well as Washington DC.

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