Mission accomplished: Given China’s ambitions, this was probably the dominant feeling in the Chinese presidential plane as it took off from Budapest on Friday, May 10, at the end of Xi Jinping’s first tour of Europe in five years. The trip, which took the Chinese president to France, then Serbia and Hungary, principally enabled him to display the commercial and geopolitical objectives of Chinese power, without offering any concessions to the leaders of the European Union.

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The itinerary chosen by Xi was a message in itself. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban are both difficult partners for European leaders and make no secret of their good relations with the Kremlin. The choice of Belgrade and Budapest after Paris was a way of highlighting Europe’s divisions.

In Paris, President Emmanuel Macron conveniently included European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in his first talks with Xi, as he has always done. Unfortunately, he failed to attract German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose policy toward China remains dominated by the interests of his country’s industrialists.

Minimum required on Ukraine

This absence – Angela Merkel was in Paris during President Xi’s previous visit in 2019 – weakened the firm stance clearly set out by von der Leyen and Macron on the serious trade disputes between China and the EU, which were one of the two big issues, seen from Paris, in the discussions with the Chinese leader. As Brussels seeks to counter Beijing’s public policies, which have seen Chinese producers of electric cars in particular flood European markets, Xi imperturbably denied “an alleged overcapacity problem.”

The same was true of the second priority issue for Paris and Brussels: the war in Ukraine. When asked not to support Russia’s war effort, Xi did the minimum required in private, then took offense in public at the fact that this could be used to “blacken the image” of China, or even “incite a new Cold War.” The Chinese president will welcome Vladimir Putin to Beijing later this month.

The Serbian and Hungarian stops were considerably more cordial – and economically more fruitful. In Belgrade, the choice of the anniversary of the bombing of the Chinese embassy by NATO during the Kosovo war on May 7, 1999 – Beijing has never accepted Washington’s claim that it was a mistake – was a way of perpetuating NATO’s image as an aggressor. As for Hungary, whose “independent” foreign policy Xi praised, it was graced with 18 economic cooperation agreements and a promotion to one of the highest ranks in the qualification of its strategic partnership with Beijing.

Clearly, Xi has chosen his camp in Europe, that of autocratic rulers, eager for Chinese investment without being fussy. Experts who thought the Chinese president was ready to flatter Europe’s strategic autonomy in order to drive a wedge with the United States and reinforce his idea of a “multipolar world” have been proven wrong. Xi’s multipolar world is first and foremost a world with Chinese features.


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