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China’s Xi to visit Europe as trade conflicts rise

Beijing, 30 April 2024, (GNP): China’s President Xi Jinping is set to begin a six-day journey to Europe starting this Sunday, marking his first visit to the continent since 2019. His itinerary includes visits to France, Serbia, and Hungary, against the backdrop of growing trade tensions with the European Union and apprehensions regarding Beijing’s alignment with Russia.

Some analysts say that while Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict are likely to come up during the trip, Xi will be looking first to address trade tensions during the trip and to double down on Beijing’s close relationship with Budapest and Belgrade.

“In light of Europe’s growing appetite to investigate what they view as China’s unfair trade practices, Xi’s European tour is a trip to disrupt the EU’s efforts to adopt tougher trade measures against China,” said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an expert on EU-China relations at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan.

By visiting Serbia and Hungary, Ferenczy suggested that Xi aims to demonstrate China’s ongoing influence in Central and Eastern Europe, particularly amidst the increasing number of countries pulling out from the Beijing-led initiative called “Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern Europe.”

Beijing has consistently dismissed Western countries’ concerns about Chinese overcapacity in certain sectors as unfounded exaggeration and has called on the EU to refrain from arbitrarily targeting and restricting Chinese companies on various pretexts.

Rebalancing trade

Even though Beijing has objected to the concerns voiced by Brussels, France has reaffirmed the necessity for European countries to readjust their trade relations with China during recent bilateral discussions between Chinese and French officials.

“The European Union is a very open market, the most open in the world. But the current deficits with a certain number of countries, including China, are not sustainable for us,” said French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne during his trip to China last month.

During a phone call with French President’s Diplomatic Counselor Emmanuel Bonne on April 27, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Beijing hopes “the French side will push the EU to continue to pursue a positive and pragmatic policy toward China,” Wang said.

Although France backs the EU’s endeavors to rebalance trade ties with China, some experts suggest that French President Emmanuel Macron will seek to uphold a cooperative relationship with China.

A special relationship

Since 1964, the bond between China and France has steadily deepened. France took a pioneering step among Western nations in 1997 by forging a comprehensive partnership with China, which evolved into a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2004.

In 2014, Xi Jinping embarked on his inaugural state visit to France, commemorating the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations. During this visit, Xi and François Hollande, the French president at the time, pledged to inaugurate a new chapter marked by a robust and enduring comprehensive strategic partnership between China and France.

During the visit, Xi Jinping emphasized that the China-France relationship holds a unique status, consistently leading China’s engagements with major developed Western nations.

Xi Jinping also lauded China and France as “special friends and mutually beneficial partners” in an article published in a French newspaper before his March 2014 visit, a sentiment he reaffirmed prior to his second state visit to France in March 2019.

China and France have engaged in pioneering collaboration across various fronts, from establishing the first civil air route between China and the Western world to initiating cooperation in civil nuclear energy.

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France made history by becoming the first Western nation to sign an inter-governmental agreement on science and technology cooperation with China. Additionally, it pioneered the establishment of a third-party market inter-governmental cooperation mechanism with China.

France further solidified its ties with China by becoming the first nation to engage in cultural exchanges through hosting a cultural year and establishing cultural centers. Moreover, it took the lead among major Western nations in fostering youth exchanges with China.

In November, Beijing unveiled a 15-day visa-free policy for short-term visits by French citizens to China, while Paris reciprocated by granting Chinese nationals who hold a master’s degree earned through studies in France a five-year visa.

When looking around the world today, China-France ties could be said to be the most stable and positive among the relationships between the East and the West, said Chinese Ambassador to France Lu Shaye in March.

Friend-shoring in Serbia and Hungary

In Hungary and Serbia, Ferenczy mentioned that Xi will prioritize enhancing bilateral cooperation across various sectors, particularly focusing on infrastructure projects and Beijing’s role as a strategic investor in both nations.

She emphasized viewing Xi’s visit to Hungary and Serbia within the context of the Belt and Road initiative, highlighting Beijing’s efforts to rejuvenate the infrastructure project in Europe.

Ferenczy noted that the Belgrade-Budapest Railway will play a crucial role in China’s endeavor to expand its flagship infrastructure initiative in Central and Eastern Europe.

In recent times, the Hungarian government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has actively sought to attract significant Chinese investment, especially in the electric vehicle sector, while simultaneously strengthening security collaboration with Beijing.

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto expressed his opposition to the EU’s anti-subsidy investigation against Chinese electric vehicles during an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN last week.

He also expressed anticipation for the potential impact of the Belt and Road Initiative on Hungary’s electric vehicle and battery manufacturing industry.

Havren in Brussels emphasized the significance of Hungary’s EU membership, stating that the relationship with Budapest holds particular importance for China. “Hungary could influence potential sanctions or any matters of significance to Beijing within the EU,” she told the media.

Regarding the trip’s impact on EU-China dynamics, Havren noted that while it’s improbable to alter the current dynamics, Xi will aim to leverage China’s ties with middle powers like France and its strong friendship with countries like Hungary to enhance its visibility and relevance in Europe.