Xi Jinping's Recent European Tour Highlights Diverging Eastern and Western Views

Xi Jinping's recent trip to Europe has been a tale of contrasts, starting with intense scrutiny in France and ending on a high note in the Eastern capitals of Belgrade and Budapest.

by Faruk Imamovic
Xi Jinping's Recent European Tour Highlights Diverging Eastern and Western Views
© Getty Images/Kiran Ridley

Xi Jinping's recent trip to Europe has been a tale of contrasts, starting with intense scrutiny in France and ending on a high note in the Eastern capitals of Belgrade and Budapest. Amidst questions about trade policies and Russia's war in Ukraine, Xi's visit showcased China's influence and the complex web of relationships it maintains across the continent.

Warm Receptions in Eastern Europe

In stark contrast to the reserved reception in Paris, the streets of Belgrade and Budapest were adorned with Chinese flags, signaling a warm welcome. Folk dancers performed on the tarmac as Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan arrived, welcomed by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. This enthusiastic greeting underscored the strong ties between China and these nations, both of which are significant recipients of Chinese investment.

During these visits, China's state media highlighted the "ironclad" bond with Serbia and the "golden friendship" with Hungary. These nations have been pivotal in advancing their relations with China, which could potentially influence European policy on China regarding trade, security, and human rights. The reception by Vucic and Orban, known for their illiberal stances and friendly relations with Russia, might not resonate well in other parts of Europe, emphasizing the limited appeal Xi holds in the continent's capitals.

Divergent Approaches in Western and Eastern Europe

While Europe grapples with economic grievances against China, which could lead to a trade war, the EU is also wary of Beijing's global ambitions and its support for Russia. Early in his visit, Xi was pressed by French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on these very issues. Despite these tensions, Xi maintained that China's role was solely to aid peace in Ukraine and dismissed claims of industrial overcapacity affecting European markets.

In contrast, Xi's stops in Serbia and Hungary were devoid of such pressures. His interactions there seemed to send a reassuring message to his domestic audience about China's strong alliances in Europe. According to Philippe Le Corre of the Asia Society Policy Institute, these visits were strategically important, albeit potentially embarrassing for Paris, given both Orban's and Vucic's participation in the Belt and Road Forum alongside Putin.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping© Getty Images/Kevin Frayer

Building a "Community with a Shared Future"

Xi's tour also aimed at reshaping the global order, viewed as U.S.-dominated. In Serbia, Xi and Vucic signed a joint statement on building a "community with a shared future," a concept that promotes cooperation beyond traditional alliances and without regard for domestic politics or human rights records. This declaration, coupled with a free-trade agreement and pledges to boost agricultural imports and direct flights, signifies the deepening of bilateral relations.

In Hungary, Orban, despite EU and NATO affiliations, upgraded his country's ties with China to an "all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership." This move, amidst EU concerns about dependency on Chinese supply chains and the potential for tariffs, could influence Orban's pushback against these concerns. Xi's remarks in Budapest reflected hopes that Hungary would use its forthcoming EU presidency to foster stable China-EU relations.

Moreover, the cooperation agreements signed between Xi and Orban, encompassing sectors like railways, IT, and nuclear energy, highlight an ongoing commitment to deepen economic ties, a strategic move given Hungary's role as a key European hub for Chinese investments, particularly in the automotive sector.

Economic Strategies in Focus

The economic dimensions of Xi's visits are particularly revealing. The agreements signed in Hungary and Serbia cover extensive ground, from infrastructure projects like the Budapest-Belgrade railway to initiatives in technology and nuclear energy. These projects underscore the mutual benefits touted by leaders of the involved nations but also highlight China's ambitions to cement its presence as a key economic player in Europe.

Hungary has emerged as a significant production hub for Chinese firms, particularly in the automotive industry. This is part of a larger trend where Eastern European countries are becoming increasingly pivotal in China's global economic strategy. The presence of companies such as BYD, which has announced plans to establish a manufacturing plant in Hungary, showcases the region's growing importance to China's economic expansion abroad.

In Serbia, the focus on expanding agricultural imports and establishing direct flights is part of a broader effort to increase bilateral trade and investment flows. Such moves are not just about economic gains but also serve as strategic tools for China to enhance its geopolitical leverage.

The Political Undercurrents

The warm reception Xi received from leaders like Orban and Vucic, who have both shown tendencies toward authoritarian governance, adds a layer of complexity to the Europe-China relationship. These alliances challenge the more traditional diplomatic approaches taken by Western European leaders, who are increasingly concerned about issues of governance and human rights.

This alignment with more authoritarian regimes can be seen as a part of China's "periphery diplomacy," which seeks to cultivate close ties with countries on the edge of major geopolitical blocs. By strengthening relationships with nations that may feel overlooked or marginalized by dominant Western powers, China is carving out a sphere of influence that could have long-term implications for global balance.

Furthermore, these relationships offer China potential leverage within European political dynamics. As Hungary prepares to assume the rotating EU presidency, its relationship with China could influence EU policies in ways that might counteract the bloc's recent strategies to reduce dependence on Chinese goods and technology.

Global Strategy and Future Trajectories

Xi's visit signals not only China's intent to maintain and expand its influence in parts of Europe but also reflects broader shifts in global alignments and power structures. The development of a "community with a shared future" and the strategic use of economic partnerships highlight China's approach to crafting a global narrative that positions it as a central player in international affairs.

In a world increasingly defined by rivalry and competition, particularly between China and the United States, Europe's role and its interactions with China are crucial. The divergent paths taken by EU member states, from cautious engagement to enthusiastic collaboration, will likely shape the future contours of international diplomacy and economic interactions.

Xi Jinping Europe France