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23 May 2024, WION

Xi’s diplomatic push in Europe

Chinese President Xi Jinping's three-nation tour to France, Serbia and Hungary in early May highlighted China's aim to bolster ties and navigate shifting global power dynamics. The trip's implications are significant for all major powers, including India, which must inject more creativity and energy in building up its strategic partnerships with G7 nations after the elections.

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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The significance of President Xi Jinping’s three-nation tour of Europe (3–10 May) covering discussions with the leaders of France, EU, Serbia, and Hungary transcends China-Europe relations. It has important implications for relations among the major powers. Though caught up with the historic elections, India needs to assess the impact of this visit on its interests carefully.

The Chinese president’s last visit to Europe was in March 2019, which took him to Italy and France. The world has changed much in the past five years. The Covid pandemic, the U.S.-China rivalry, the India-China border clash, the wars in Ukraine and West Asia, Italy’s withdrawal from the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and China’s economic and political woes have all combined to turn the geopolitics upside down. As the U.S. presidential elections slowly advance to a climax in November and the likelihood of Trump 2.0 gains salience, China seemed set to woo friends in Europe seeking to neutralise its growing criticism. This trip is also a precursor to the two upcoming developments: the Russian President’s visit to China later in May, and the U.S. President’s participation in the G7 summit in Italy in mid-June.

Gabriel Attal, 35, the youngest French Prime Minister in history, receiving Xi at Orly Airport in Paris presented a gripping opening scene of the Euro-tour: a fresh-faced host eager to please, and a seasoned international figure, aged 70, keen to impress the world. Another memory that may linger on was of the Chinese President lecturing top European leaders – French President Emmanuel Macron and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about the value of ‘strategic communication’ and more.

Discussions in Paris covered a host of political and economic questions, but what drew the maximum attention was the EU’s unhappiness over China’s trade and economic policies. EU-China daily trade volume is around EUR 2.3 billion, but the economic relationship is stressed “through state-induced over capacity, unequal market access and over dependencies,” as von der Leyen put it. Hence, a strong plea was made for a more balanced trade amidst reports of investigations by the European side of certain Chinese industrial sectors such as electric vehicle exports, and Chinese investigations of mostly French-made brandy imports.

Experts concluded that China seemed unwilling to offer substantive concessions. This compelled von der Leyen to state at a subsequent press conference that “Europe will not waiver from making tough decisions to protect its markets.” This assertive reaction revealed the signs of subtle coordination between the EU and the U.S. regarding their common dissatisfaction with Beijing on access issues. EU’s depiction since 2019 of China as a “systemic rival” remains valid. Executing its own pushback, the Chinese side conveyed that the perception of China’s over-capacity was baseless when judged by the yardsticks of comparative advantage and global demand. On trade issues, the intra-Europe rift is quite well-known: while France favours a tough approach, Germany – ever sensitive to the needs of its big car manufacturers – prefers caution.

On Ukraine, the French president played his familiar tune urging Xi to use his influence with Moscow to move it towards a negotiated settlement. This was in sharp contrast to what Antony Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, bluntly conveyed to China recently: that it must stop the supply of dual-use technology products to Russia that threatens European security, or the U.S. would take suitable countermeasures. The Chinese president urged France to assert its independence, as China does, and help it prevent a new cold war. Paris agrees, but its inability to revive the Franco-German combine as the engine for a strong Europe and Macron’s domestic troubles remain serious constraints for European independence. Moreover, the two-year-old war has made Europe even more dependent on the U.S.

A greater convergence was noted about the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza. Xi Jinping termed the war “a tragedy” and “a test of human conscience.” Macron asserted that France and China shared “the same goals,” namely to achieve an immediate ceasefire to release hostages, protect the population, facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid, encourage a regional de-escalation, and re-open a political perspective. However, the disconnect between such lofty pronouncements and the unfolding ugly reality of continued violence in Gaza is striking.

Xi Jinping’s discussions in more friendly countries – Serbia and Hungary – achieved greater success. As a huge crowd assembled before the presidential palace in Belgrade greeted the visiting dignitary chanting, “China, China,” Aleksandar Vučić, President of Serbia, asserted, “We are writing history today.” He underlined the significance of the 29 agreements signed for promoting economic and other cooperation. Xi recalled that Serbia became China’s first strategic partner in central and eastern Europe. It agreed to build “a community of shared future” with China. The two leaders were resolved to “jointly confront hegemony and the politics of power.” On key political issues, the two nations stood together. Serbia supports China’s position on Taiwan and China supports Serbia’s efforts to preserve the territorial integrity regarding Kosovo.

Spending two nights in Hungary, the last stop of his tour, the Chinese President witnessed the signing of 16 bilateral agreements. Hungary was the first EU member-state to join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Xi Jinping focused on deepening economic cooperation, including cooperation “in the full spectrum” of the nuclear industry. They articulated a similar position on Ukraine. Budapest favours China taking a leading role as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine and has expressed its support for China’s proposed peace plan. In a public letter to Orbán, Xi stressed the importance of China-EU relations, asserting that their cooperation was greater than the competition and there was more agreement than disagreement.

While the Chinese visit will be dissected thoroughly in foreign ministries and think tanks around the world, it is possible to draw a few tentative conclusions as the visit ends.

One, China’s status as the world’s second-largest economy and the No. 2 power stands affirmed. The EU, despite its divisions and weaknesses, remains drawn to the lure of the Chinese market and investments. Hence the endeavours to keep the two sides broadly on the same page are set to continue. Two, China and Europe belong to two opposite ends of the geopolitical spectrum: the former, with Russia, forms the East, and the latter, with the U.S. and others, forms the West. The East-West mix of cooperation, competition and confrontation will go on unabated. It may assume a sharper edge following the forthcoming Russia-China and G7 summits. Three, China will continue to accentuate the U.S.-Europe divergences and intra-EU differences to improve its position in the fluctuating balance of power. Four, the two camps, though powerful, show their utter powerlessness in ending the raging wars and re-establishing peace. This demonstrates the failure of international diplomacy and leadership.

Finally, three takeaways for India may be identified. First, after the elections, New Delhi should inject more creativity and energy into building up its strategic partnership with all G7 nations, while managing the differences with some of them such as the U.S., Canada and the EU. Second, it must continue consolidating solid cooperation and trust with Russia. Third, it may examine its options for introducing some resilience in India-China relations because a reset of some kind can expand India’s manoeuvrability in dealing with the great powers.

As Xi Jinping returns home, he leaves much work to be done in many capitals including New Delhi.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House, and a former ambassador.

This article was first published by WION.

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