President Xi Jinping visits Europe: France, Serbia and Hungary

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By E. Hellenbroich

From May 5th till May 10th Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time after 5 years made an important state visit to three European capitals: France (Paris), followed by his visit to Serbia (Belgrade) and Hungary (Budapest). His visit marks an important “phase change” in terms of Chinese-European cooperation. The economic and political impact of Xi’s visits stands in dire contrast to the extremely “frosty” US- China relations, characterized by a growing “bellicose” rhetoric as well as an aggressive US trade policy that essentially represents an attack against the world trade order and aims at weakening Europe. Xi’s visits – particularly the one to Serbia and Hungary- resulted in a series of economic cooperation agreements (18 in France, 30 in Serbia and 18 in Hungary), that will contribute to more “connectivity” and a greater role which both countries are going to play as Partner in China’s “Belt and Road Project.” (The “Belt and Road” initiative is a global infrastructure development project conceived by China in 2013. It was inspired by the ancient Silk Road and aims to connect China to Central Asia, Russia and Europe, and Europe by land, and to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa to Latin America, and the Caribbean by sea. It currently includes more than 150 nations, with a dozen more considering to join the initiative. In October 2023 China hosted the third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation.)

The only dark spot in the course of Xi Jinping’s state visit to three European countries, was EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who during a trilateral meeting between French President Macron, President Xi Jinping and herself in Paris, provocatively warned against China’s “flooding of European markets” with state subsidized goods and unfair competition practices. She called for “derisking” and “decoupling” from China. “Subsidized Chinese products like Chinese E-Cars or steel flood the European market, while China at the same time supports its manufacturing industry massively and domestic demand is slowed down.  The world can’t absorb China’s overproduction”, von der Leyen warned, emphasizing that Europe would not hesitate to use “protective trade instruments”.  Another major subject of discussion was the war in Ukraine, where with EU Commission President von der Leyen called on President Xi to “use his influence on Russia” to deescalate Russia’s irresponsible nuclear threats, while at the same time she demanded that deliveries of dual-use goods to Russia should be contained (which the US has sanctioned).

Visit supports Macron’s desire for Europe’s autonomy

During his state visit in France, the two state leaders signed a 10-point bilateral declaration between China and France concerning the situation in the Mideast.  The state leaders stressed that as members of the UN permanent Security Council, China and France worked together to find on the basis of the “UN Charta” constructive solutions for challenges and threats concerning the international security and stability. Both adamantly spoke against an Israeli offensive in Rafah that could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe of unseen dimensions, as well as against the forced expulsion of Palestinian civilians. They urged an immediate and durable ceasefire, in order to transport humanitarian goods and protect the population in Gaza. Both state leaders demanded the immediate realization of the UN resolutions Nr 2712, 2720 and 2728 of the UNSC, as well as safe transit ways to ensure the arrival of humanitarian aid. Both state leaders condemned the Israeli settlement policies, which on the basis of “International law” is illegal and puts a major obstacle for durable peace in the process of constituting a viable and integral Palestinian state. They reminded that a solution can’t be split away from a two- state solution. They also confirmed readiness to find a political and diplomatic solution for the Iranian nuclear question.

Noteworthy was also a French- Chinese Economic Council meeting in order to celebrate the 60-year anniversary of French – Chinese bilateral relations. In his speech President Macron stressed that more than 2000 French business companies are present in China and contribute in sectors such as agriculture, food industry, consumer goods and financial services to the Chinese economy. Direct French investments in 2022 were at 30 Bn Euro and grew even more in 2023. Macron particularly referred to China’s know- how in sectors like battery production, construction of electric vehicles and photovoltaic modules as well as to “Artificial Intelligence”, a field in which France wants to coordinate very closely with China.

Extraordinary welcome of Xi Jinping in Serbia and Hungary

In the follow up state visits to Serbia (7 million inhabitants) Xi Jinping and his wife were enthusiastically welcomed by Serbia and its people. There was a warm welcome on May 8th outside the palace of the Serbian capital and noteworthy was the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy where several Chinese journalists died and 20 were wounded. According to President Xi “NATO flagrantly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia killing three Chinese journalists.  We should never forget that the China -Serbia friendship was forged with the blood of our compatriots.”

Serbia signed 30 agreements with China that will promote economic cooperation and Serbia will become the first European country in years to enter into a “free- trade agreement with China” that will come into effect on July 1rst this year. According to Serbian President Vucic “China since 2020 has been the largest investor in Serbia” and that investments were up 30-fold over the past decade. The free trade deal will guarantee tariff free exports for 95% of Serbia’s products to China over the next 5 to 10 years. Xi in turn stated that “China was ready to import more high-quality product from Serbia and would welcome direct flight between Belgrade and China.”

Both leaders spoke of an “ironclad partnership” along which Serbia is Europe’s foremost supporter of China’s “Belt and Road” infrastructure project across parts of Asia and Europe.   “Serbia has become China’s first strategic partner in Central and Eastern Europe,” according to Vucic. The two leaders stated that they would support each other to establish an “inter- governmental technology Committee” that would enable Serbia to get access to the latest technology and to the use of Artificial Intelligence.”  China is a key partner in Serbia’s much needed Infrastructure development.

The two leaders said they would support each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, meaning that Serbia considers Taiwan as part of China just as China considers Kosovo which declared independence in 2008 as part of Serbia.

Xi’s visit came at the anniversary of the 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during a campaign against the former Jugoslavia to force late Serbia Milosevic to end a crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. NATO said that the bombings which killed 3 Chinese journalists and wounded 20 Chinese nationals was “accidental.” It prompted outrage in China and an apology from the U.S.  President Clinton. Xi said in an article in the Serbian paper “Politico”: “The Chinese people appreciate the peace but will never allow that a historic tragedy repeats itself.”

The Serbian  presidency issued a joint statement according to which “the two sides will take advantage of the new phase of high -quality development of the Belt and Road initiative, jointly implement the agreements reached at the third “Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation” , deepened and expand cooperation in areas such as economy and trade, investment, science and technology, innovation, the digital sector, as well as information and communications, jointly support the security of projects and company personnel, which contributes to building the foundation for the establishment of a China -Serbia community with a shared future in the new era.” In addition, as of this year, 300 Serbian students are going to study in China with the aim to deepen the scientific exchange.

Deepening Chinese – Hungarian strategic partnership

During Xi’s visit to Hungary Prime Minister Victor Orban gave an exclusive interview to CGTN (Chinese Global TV) in which he underlined that the visit of Xi Jinping and his wife offered the opportunity to step up bilateral relations between the two countries. Orban spoke about the “affinity” between both nations, since both nations are of “ancient eastern origin” and referred to President Xi Jinping as “meeting an old friend.”  According to Orban one of the most urgent issues for discussion between the two state leaders was the war in Ukraine i.e. the question of “war and peace” and that China is going to play a role as peace maker.  “Peace has to be given a chance.” In terms of economic cooperation Orban underlined that Hungary’s economic performance today is at its best, especially in the Electro-automotive sector, the IT and Railroad sector. He reminded that Xi had come from Serbia where with Chinese help the Belgrade / Budapest High Speed rail line is being constructed that will be completed in 2026 on the Budapest side. And he pointed out that Xi’s visit coincided with the 75th anniversary of Hungary /China relations.

Given the fact that Hungary was the first country to diplomatically recognize the People’s Republic of China 75 years ago, Orban stated that he “can’t recall any major dispute between the two countries.” Its “an engine for development for the world and cooperating with China is for Hungary an opportunity for economic development and capital inflow.” As an example, he pointed to the “Renminbi Clearing bank in Budapest”, which was characterized as a “very important financial institution.” Given the fact that Orban visited China 7 times and had been participant at all three major “Belt and Road” Forums, Orban qualified China’s “Belt and Road” project as “the most important project in world politics” and emphasized that the Belt and Road Project this is not just a “technical project but offers a base for countries to cooperate and shows how we can organize the world in the next years.”

During the interview impressive film clips were shown about the Hungarian city Debrecen, where the big Chinese company EVE – a battery manufacturer- is building a huge “battery production facility” and where also the Chinese Automobile producer CATL is present. Orban proudly stated in the interview that Hungary is a “hub” for the North / South development within the EU, given the railway interconnectivity and that this is “connected with the question on how to organize the globe in the next years.” He pointed out that the huge Chinese EVE Battery manufacturing company from China is going to be installed for 1 bn Euro in 2026, building cylindric batteries for automotive production and producers (among them for clients such as the German Automobile sector BMW and Mercedes!) in Europe. Orban recalled that it was in “2010 when we decided about Hungary’s new Eurasian policy” and that in 2020/ 23 China was the biggest investor here.” (Chinese investments today amount to 8 Bn Euro). He pointed to CATL – being a huge project with which “Hungary can bring thousands of Hungarian workers – very well-educated ones and engineers to work” and emphasized that Hungary’s “human capacity” that is now coupled with the Number 1 technology in the field of “Electromobility.  “We established the first Electro – Car factory! We are only 10 Mio people in Hungary but we are part of a 400 Mio European market.” Being asked about Chinese “overcapacity” (the argument used by von der Leyen et al.) Orban answered that this is a very bad “word”. “Some countries don’t like that approach. It’s negative for the EU as a whole. We should see China as an opportunity!” 85% of our GDP is exports- so we need markets.”

Serbia and Hungary – ceasefire and peace in Ukraine!

In respect to the crisis in Ukraine- it was impressive to see that both Serbian President Vucic as well as PM Victor Orban, in contrast to the rest of the EU- have an entirely different view of Russia and the crisis in Ukraine. According to Orban Hungary is a “neighboring country”, which feels very directly the impact of the war. “Hungary is and was the only country which directly opposed the war in the West. We vetoed the arms supplies by saying that we would not deliver weapons and that those who support the war will prolong the war!” (sic), Orban stated in the interview with CGTN.  “We started to internationalize the conflict and Europe is suffering because of that decision.”  What was needed is “respect” between nations. He emphasized that he very much appreciated the Chinese “Global Development Initiative” and underlined that “President Xi tries to improve the culture of international relations and wants more respect.”

According to the Budapest Times from May 9th/10th Prime Minister Orban fully backed China’s peace initiative that is “aimed at ending the war in Ukraine.” In a joint press statement with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Budapest, Orban stated that Europe today was “on the side of war with the sole exception of Hungary.” He noted that Hungary has called for an immediate ceasefire and peace negotiations, and backs “all international efforts aimed at peace.” Therefore, he said “we support the peace initiative presented by Xi Jinping.” The Chinese President, according to Budapest Times, had stated that “no solution to the war could be found on the battlefield. We need a ceasefire and peace negotiations.”

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