Xi’s visit builds a crucial bridgehead into Europe

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s decision to visit France, Serbia and Hungary for his first European tour in five years was no random choice.

France is a nuclear power, a member of NATO and one of the leading powers of the European Union (EU). Serbia is neither an EU nor NATO member. Hungary is a member of both, but it is one of the European community’s smaller states.

However, from a Chinese perspective, the three countries have several important common features. Not least, all three have reservations about American policy. And each of the three states, albeit in different ways, is dissatisfied with the EU.

Furthermore, the three are concerned about the problems caused by global economic challenges. And finally, the three countries want to reposition themselves in the ongoing geostrategic realignment.

“Europe must reduce its dependence on the United States and avoid being dragged into the conflict between China and the United States over Taiwan,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview he gave on board his plane a year ago after returning from a three-day state visit to China.

“Europe needs strategic autonomy to become a superpower under the leadership of France. There is a big risk that Europe will get involved in a crisis that has nothing to do with it. This will prevent the EU from building its strategic autonomy,” Macron said.  

The global geostrategic reorganization is already underway and France is looking for its place in the new circumstances.

Germany’s economy is constantly weakening, so Berlin’s international influence is decreasing, and its leading role in the EU has practically been called into question. France wants to fill the vacancy.

An important element of the Paris plan is for the EU to move economically away from America and closer to China. The card is also in the deck to keep France at an equal distance from Washington and Beijing. Needless to say, China likes the idea since it sees the United States as its main rival.

Xi’s talks in Paris, which were not just bilateral, should be placed in this context. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, also took part in the talks.

President Xi Jinping attends a China-France-EU trilateral meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at Elysee Palace, in Paris, France, May 6, 2024. Photo: Xinhua

It is not by chance that Xi said that China views Europe as an important partner on the road to modernization, a theme that plays a prominent role in Beijing’s foreign policy.

At the meeting, Macron also touched on trade relations, urging equal trade conditions – China’s state-supported foreign trade in particular causes problems for the French – between China and the EU.

Appearances, in France, are important and the French staged an American-style show in honor of the Chinese president.

The Élysée Palace was filled with star guests, to name a few: Oscar-winning directors Jean-Jacques Annaud and Luc Besson, world-famous singer Mireille Mathieu and film star Sophie Marceau, the great musician Jean-Michel Jarre and his wife, the Chinese actress, Lida Guan and Paris-based Chinese Lang Lang, arguably the world’s greatest living pianist. Actress Salma Hayek and her billionaire husband were also in attendance. A nice message to America: we can do it too.

Xi’s visit to Paris was surrounded by an atmosphere of rivalry with America. This was not altogether surprising considering that after WWII, especially during the presidency of General Charles de Gaulle, France pursued a strong anti-American policy.

The legendary general had a hard time bearing the fact that the Americans ignored him during the war and did not consider him an equal partner, which left a deep mark.

De Gaulle even withdrew from NATO’s military wing in 1966. France returned to the Western military alliance only in 2007, under the presidency of Nicola Sarkozy, who is of Hungarian origin.

Xi probably sensed real anti-Americanism in Belgrade. The date of the Chinese president’s visit, May 7, was not chosen by chance: it marked the 25-year anniversary of NATO’s bombing of the former Yugoslavia, in which the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was also hit, killing three journalists and injuring 20 Chinese citizens.

At the time, Beijing was outraged and demanded an explanation but NATO said the incident an accident.

Xi last visited Belgrade in 2016, which was the first time in 32 years that a Chinese president visited Serbia. Aleksandar Vucic, president of Serbia, met Xi in Beijing last October, at the One Belt, One Road forum.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony at Belgrade Airport, May 7, 2024. Image: Handout / Serbia Presidential Press Service

Vucic’s visit to Beijing was noteworthy because Serbia has been a candidate for EU membership for over ten years. However, except for Hungary, – Prime Minister Viktor Orban took part in the meeting as well – all EU country leaders stayed away from the gathering at the time.

During Xi’s May 7-8 visit, China and Serbia initialed 18 agreements, including related to a soon-to-be-enacted free trade agreement. Beijing is already Belgrade’s largest foreign investor: This year Chinese financing reached US$20 billion.

The Chinese president’s visit to Serbia came while Belgrade is under political siege, with the EU constantly criticizing the Serbian president.

The president’s party, the Serbian Progressive Party, won an absolute parliamentary majority at elections in January. The European Parliament, on the other hand, judged that the Serbian election was”not fair” because “Belgrade did not fulfill its obligations regarding free elections.

Hungary and all states that do not accept the EU’s liberal policy must face such criticism. With Xi’s visit, Belgrade sent its own message to Brussels: we are not alone.

Russia also supports Serbia at a time when Moscow has been ignored by the EU in every respect since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. Brussels cannot do this with China, however.

At the end of his European tour, Xi arrived in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. Overall, he spent three days in Budapest, two in Paris and one in Belgrade, giving comparative diplomatic importance to Hungry.

This rang alarms in EU media. ”The purpose of Xi Jinping’s three-day visit to Budapest is to ensure that Hungary can help China acquire the market in the EU. Chinese goods could flood the EU market, which could pose a serious threat to Brussels,” the Brussels-based Euronews reported.

“Renovation work is underway on the Budapest-Belgrade railway line, which is one of the symbols of China’s economic expansion in Hungary: 85% of the investment is covered by Chinese loans. Thanks to the modernization of the railways, with the cooperation of Hungary and Serbia, Chinese goods can reach Western Europe in the fastest way from the Greek port of Piraeus,” the report said.

The report added that it cannot be ruled out that China is building a “bridgehead” in Hungary.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Budapest for a state visit to Hungary at the invitation of Hungarian President Tamas Sulyok and Prime Minister Viktor Orban, May 8, 2024. Xi was warmly welcomed by Orban and his wife at Budapest Airport upon arrival. Photo: Xinhua / Xie Huanchi

Last December, China’s BYD, the world’s largest electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer, announced that it would build an assembly plant in Hungary, Europe’s first electric car manufacturing plant.

The location was not chosen by chance. The factory will be built directly on the Hungarian-Serbian border, likely to source labor from Serbia as well, and to export the new cars to non-EU member states through Serbia. Apparently, the Chinese intend to rely on both countries in Southeastern Europe.

On the Hungarian side, the Chinese president’s visit was emphasized for its historical importance. That was not only because Xi came to Budapest after 20 years but also because the two sides signed economic agreements that can rapidly accelerate the Hungarian economy’s development.

Good Serbian-Chinese relations will contribute to this, as witnessed in some of the 18 Hungarian-Chinese agreements signed. One of them includes provisions for a border station with a high throughput on the Hungary-Serbia border; another envisions an oil pipeline connecting the two countries.

Importantly, China plans significant industrial investments in Hungary’s eastern, less-developed region. The Chinese are also investing in the modernization of Hungary’s railway network, an expansion of EV charging stations and railway infrastructure around Budapest.

The most interesting and important agreement: Hungary and China plan for nuclear industry cooperation so that both countries can access the cheapest, safest and most efficient way of producing electricity.

So to what extent does the strong relationship China has with Hungary affect its NATO membership? Answer: not all all.

The Hungarian Atlantic Council, a non-partisan social organization that analyzes Hungary’s NATO membership, held its general meeting in Budapest around the time of Xi’s visit. The debate was initiated by the Hungarian minister of defense who made clear that Hungary still has no alternative to NATO membership.

Peter G Feher is a Budapest-based journalist who writes for Magyar Hírlap. This report first appeared on Stephen Bryen’s Substack Weapons and Strategy and is republished with kind permission. Read the original here.

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