Author: Mariam Macharashvili


Five years after the breakout of the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Europe on May 5-10, 2024. He visited three European countries – France, Serbia and Hungary, which had both political and symbolic significance. This year marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and France, and the 75th of those with Hungary. The trip also coincided with the 25th anniversary of NATO’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during Serbia’s war on Kosovo. Xi Jinping was welcomed with a red carpet and ovations in Belgrade and Budapest, while the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, feted with him with gifts of luxury bottles of cognac, and hosted him in his favorite places in the Pyrenees. The main topics discussed were the relations between China and the European Union, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and trade issues.

As a result, the following question arises: What specific state interests were highlighted during the Chinese President’s visit to Europe? I will analyze each of them in our blog.

Xi Jinping’s visit to France

In recent years, one of the most significant challenges in China-EU relations has become the rising economic imbalance, which, according to CNN, may soon evolve into a trade war. A clear example of this is the EU’s 292 billion-euro trade deficit last year. Importing large amounts of cheap and state-subsidized Chinese goods, including electric cars and solar panels, is a major problem for local entrepreneurs in the EU. In addition, the EU member states are concerned about Beijing’s global ambitions and influence, particularly its support to Russia. It also includes accusations that China supplies Russia with dual-use goods (which may be used for both civilian and military purposes) that help the Kremlin to wage its war in Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron raised these issues during Xi Jinping’s two-day visit, and invited European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to the negotiation table to demonstrate that those topics were in the best interests of both France and the EU.

France’s main demand was for Xi Jinping to take appropriate measures in the future to resolve the trade imbalance with the EU. In terms of Russia, Macron sees the Chinese president as a political figure with significant influence over Vladimir Putin, who could contribute to the end of the Russia-Ukraine war and persuade Putin to abandon his nuclear intimidation rhetoric. Macron also supported the idea of ​​an “Olympic truce” to stop global fighting during the Paris Summer Olympics. In response, Xi Jinping denied the economic accusations and, regarding Russia, underlined that he can only call on the parties to negotiate. China is unlikely to try to persuade Putin, and if it does, Putin will most likely ignore the call, especially seeing as he began a war with Georgia during the Beijing Summer Olympics in 2008. As Shirley Yu, a researcher at the London School of Economics, noted: “Both trade and Russia are non-negotiable for China. Macron could not achieve anything [on those fronts].” It was clear that Xi Jinping would not give up on economic and trade concerns in Europe. He delivered a severe warning to the EU regarding trade protectionism and its current diplomatic posture. In his own words, he expects “EU institutions to have the right view of China,” which is important for China in terms of its relationship with the EU. The Chinese president’s visit thus served as expected “damage limitation” against the background of the possible imposition of tariffs on Chinese goods by the EU.

France was not selected by chance for this official visit, as Macron has been placing more emphasis on establishing friendly relations with China than other countries. Last year, Macron questioned the European states sharing the US strategy towards China and Taiwan. As he noted in an interview: “The question we Europeans have to answer is: Is it in our interest to escalate the crisis in Taiwan? No.” As such, it seems that, for China, the French president, based on his statements, represents a relatively acceptable political figure in Europe.

As mentioned above, at the meeting, France positioned itself as a member state of the EU with concern about common challenges, but at the same time, Emmanuel Macron had his own agenda and was driven by other interests. On the one hand, this visit was an opportunity to strengthen personal ties with Xi Jinping, and on the other, it may well contribute to the implementation of Macron’s foreign policy strategy. The Global Strategic Partnership signed between China and France, and Macron’s visits to India and Brazil, served this purpose, and showed that France follows global changes. Since Macron’s foreign policy was known to China, Xi Jinping once again brought forward the issue of establishing a multipolar world order, and in this regard, the French president’s idea of ​​”strategic autonomy” was an important contributing factor for him. As Tamas Matura, a researcher at the Center for European Policy Analysis, notes: “Longstanding tensions with Nordic countries, and Italy’s exit earlier this year from the Belt and Road [Initiative], as well as recent visits to China by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, meant none of those countries were ideal for Xi to visit… France was likely seen by Beijing as creating a potential for a diplomatic opening given its advocacy for Europe’s strategic autonomy from the US.” Accordingly, France’s “idea of strategic autonomy” and its support for the Chinese president derive not only from the desire to establish a multipolar world order, but also from antagonistic attitudes with the US.

Xi Jinping’s visit to Serbia

The Chinese President’s visit to Serbia, an EU candidate country with close links to Russia, aimed to deepen political and economic relations. Both parties noted that the free trade agreement signed in 2023 is an important achievement, and it will enter into force on July 1, 2024, which will bring more benefits to both sides. Also, Xi Jinping noted China will increase investments in Serbia and increase imports of Serbian agricultural products to China. Serbia’s growing economic ties with China have been criticized by the United States and the European Union. The European Parliament, in a resolution regarding the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, noted that deepening trade relations between Serbia and China “raise questions about the country’s strategic direction” and hinder Serbia’s “economic and political development.” In addition, the free trade agreement involves an increase in trade flows and the abolition of customs tariffs on goods (including weapons), which means opening the door to Western-sanctioned Chinese companies in Serbia. The mentioned situation poses a threat to the European Union.

In terms of political collaboration, Xi Jinping and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic praised the two countries’ “iron partnership,” and Vucic stated that he shared China’s vision of world order – the “Chinese Dream.” The latter is known as the “Global Civilization Initiative,” which includes the following three main principles: 1) countries should fully harness the relevance of their histories and cultures; 2) appreciate the perceptions of values by different civilizations; 3) refrain from imposing their own values or models on others. The initiative is related to the Chinese vision of establishing a multipolar world order, in which one of the poles will be itself. His vision actually involves the emergence of a few hegemons who will impose their own interests and values ​​on smaller actors. In this regard, in reality, nothing changes, especially when China already has the right of veto in the UN Security Council. For China, it is unacceptable that the world order be based on Western values, such as democracy and liberalism, which can only benefit the Western capitalist states. Accordingly, China is trying to create an order in which “democracy and liberalism are no longer a universal ideal, but only hold sway over certain parts of the world. The liberal world order will transform into a regional order….autocratic forms of government will no longer be rejected out of hand, and the rules in this multipolar world order will mainly be set by China and its partners.” Accordingly, from China’s point of view, such a world order will be beneficial for China.

Thus, it appears that Serbia is siding with Russia and China, and this is a narrative that Vucic actively uses to preserve his regime (as does Putin). For the President of Serbia, this visit is a great achievement against the backdrop of Western criticism regarding Serbia’s relations with Kosovo. This is Beijing’s support for Serbia’s territorial integrity, and clear political alignment with the Serbian government in the disputed case of Kosovo’s independence. For China, close ties with Serbia mean an opportunity to expand its influence in Central and Eastern Europe and show other countries that China still has friends and allies in Europe.

It is no coincidence that Xi Jinping’s visit to Belgrade coincided with the bombing of the Chinese embassy by NATO forces during the Kosovo war. The Chinese president once again had the opportunity to portray China as a victim of Western aggression. As Shirley Yu explains, it is “clear that China and Russia share a common objection to NATO’s east expansion… there should be no illusion that China will bow down to Western pressure to curtail economic partnership with Russia.” The Chinese president is more concerned about the involvement of the US and NATO in the Asia-Pacific region than the eastward expansion of the alliance. Vucic also became the first European leader to subscribe to China’s “idea of ​​a Global Community of Shared Future,” according to which countries should not join alliances and judge each other based on domestic policies and human rights.

Xi Jinping’s visit to Hungary

During the meeting between Victor Orban and Xi Jinping, the importance of economic cooperation was highlighted, and the Chinese president stated that investments in transportation and energy infrastructure will increase. The two sides will also collaborate in the nuclear sector. It should be emphasized that in Central and Eastern Europe, Hungary receives the largest amount of foreign direct investments from China. Xi Jinping welcomed the plan to restore the railway connecting between Budapest and Belgrade, making the two countries a transportation hub. As Shirley Yu points out, with such a connection, “China wants to reintroduce the Cold War ‘Second World’ as a significant geostrategic player.”

For Viktor Orban, growing economic ties with China are an opportunity to make Hungary an important economic player in Eastern Europe. For China, cooperation with Hungary is part of its geostrategy, and at the same time, gives it access to the EU market. In addition, Hungary has the largest ethnic Chinese population in Central Europe, which strengthens cultural ties as well. Additionally, based on the rotational principle, Hungary will take over the EU Presidency in July until December 2024, which will be a good opportunity for China to give some impetus to the improvement of relations with the EU, and at the same time strengthen economic ties.

Thus, the visit of the Chinese president to Europe had both symbolic and political significance. For Xi Jinping, it was an opportunity to demonstrate that Europe’s approach toward China differs. China has allied with European countries, one part of which present an opportunity to gain economic benefits and access to the EU market, while others may support China’s idea of a multipolar world order, which clearly opposes the dominant role of the US in the world. The Chinese president’s visit also showed that Xi is keen to head off a looming trade war with the EU, and is trying to use French President Emmanuel Macron’s more Beijing-friendly stance to ease the EU’s growing concerns about China’s trade policy. Further, China is not going to change its position regarding the Russia-Ukraine war. By visiting Serbia and Hungary, Xi Jinping emphasized how close relations with China can be beneficial. For European countries (Serbia, Hungary), where democracy is under threat, partnership with China is a good opportunity to increase economic opportunities and strengthen the regime, and, for France, it is part of Macron’s foreign policy strategy.