China’s Xi Visits Europe, Seeking Strategic Opportunity

On his first visit to Europe in five years, Chinese President Xi Jinping appears determined to seize opportunities to loosen the continent’s ties with the United States and forge a world free of American domination.

The Chinese leader chose three countries to visit – France, Serbia and Hungary – which, to a greater or lesser extent, look askance at the US-imposed post-war world order , see China as a necessary counterweight and are eager to strengthen economic ties.

At a time of tension with much of Europe – over China’s “unlimited” adherence to Russia despite the war in Ukraine, its surveillance state and its apparent espionage activities which led to the recent arrest in Germany of four people – Mr. Xi, who arrived in France on Sunday, wants to demonstrate China’s growing influence on the continent and pursue a pragmatic rapprochement.

For Europe, the visit will test its delicate balance between China and the United States and will no doubt be seen in Washington as an unsubtle attempt by Mr. Xi to divide Western allies. Sino-French relations “have established a model for the international community of peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation between countries with different social systems,” Xi said in a statement released shortly after his arrival in Paris.

He timed his arrival at his second stop, Serbia, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the deadly NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War. This erroneous strike on May 7, 1999, for which the White House apologized, killed three Chinese journalists and sparked furious protests around the American embassy in Beijing.

“For Xi, being in Belgrade is a very economical way of asking whether the United States is really serious about international law,” said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, “and say, what about NATO overreach could be a problem for other countries?

The Chinese government has continued to commemorate the Belgrade attack, using the occasion to denounce what it sees as Western hypocrisy and intimidation.

“The United States still sees itself as the leader – or hegemon – of the world, so China is a competitor or adversary that challenges its hegemony,” said Tu Xinquan, dean of a business institute in the University of International Business and Economics. In Beijing. “The European Union does not have a hegemonic mentality. »

The official doctrine of the 27-member European Union defines China as “a cooperation partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival”. If this seems exaggerated, and perhaps contradictory, it is because the continent is torn between how to balance economic opportunity in China with national security risk, cybersecurity risk and economic risk to various industries.

In March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that the European formula was unworkable. “It’s like driving up to a railroad crossing and finding the red, yellow and green lights on at the same time,” he said. “How can we keep driving?

Today, Mr. Xi would like to turn the light green.

To that end, Mr. Xi’s first and most important stop will be in France, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, has often made the Gaullist point that Europe “must never be a vassal of the United States.” , as he did last month at a conference. speech at the Sorbonne. The French leader insists that the survival of the European Union depends on “strategic autonomy” and the development of military resilience to become a “European power”. He rejects the notion of “equidistance” between China and the United States – France is one of the United States’ oldest allies – but wants to keep his options open.

All of this is music to Mr. Xi’s ears.

“Macron is trying to introduce a third way into the current global chaos,” said Philippe Le Corre, a leading French expert on relations with China. “It is trying to draw a thin line between the two major superpowers. »

Just over a year ago, Mr. Macron was thoroughly entertained during a visit to China that ended with a Sino-French declaration of “global strategic partnership.” The French leader echoed the Chinese lexicon of a “multipolar” world, free of “blocs” and “cold war mentality”.

Today, ahead of Xi’s visit, China hailed France as a great power and expressed hope that their ties “will always be at the forefront of China’s relations with Western countries.” in the words of Lu Shaye, Chinese ambassador to France. , in People’s Daily.

Mr Macron, who recently warned that “our Europe is mortal” and will only be saved if it can become “sovereign”, will host a state dinner for Mr Xi on Monday in Paris before, in a personal touch, the invite you to a favorite childhood place in the Pyrenees.

The chemistry between the two men seems to lie essentially in a shared vision according to which the post-war order is moribund and must be replaced by a new architecture that takes into account changes in power. The fact that Mr. Xi is certainly the most repressive and authoritarian leader in recent Chinese history and that China’s military threats against Taiwan have intensified is not an obstacle between the two leaders.

Over the past six months, Mr Macron has visited India and Brazil in a bid to put France at a fulcrum between the BRICS group of developing countries, which includes China, and Western powers . At a time of growing tensions between the “South” and Western powers, he sees France as a bridge.

From France, Mr. Xi will move on to the warm embrace of Serbia, where China is the second-largest trading partner, and Hungary, where his Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has supported huge Chinese investments and used the position of his country as a European Union. I would like the member to dilute the criticism of China. Both countries stand up to American power.

Beyond these two friends of China, however, there are serious differences between Europe and Beijing, whose economy was roughly the same size, measured in dollars, as that of the European Union during Mr. Xi’s last visit in 2019. China’s economy is now about 15 percent. bigger.

Last fall, the European Union opened an investigation into whether Chinese-made electric vehicles benefited from unfair subsidies, with a decision expected by this summer. This has caused tensions with Beijing and with Germany, whose presence in the Chinese auto market eclipses that of other European countries. China accounts for at least half of Volkswagen’s annual profits.

German manufacturers, which have factories in China, fear that any imposition of EU tariffs could affect their own exports from China, as well as provoke retaliation.

European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will join talks in Paris with Xi. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose relations with Mr Macron are strained, had dinner with the French president in Paris last week. All of this is clearly part of an attempt to forge a united European front.

However, this still remains elusive.

In Europe, anger towards Russia is strongest in states on the front line with Russia, such as Poland and the Baltic states. They are perhaps the most fiercely attached to the alliance with the United States that Mr. Macron wants to counterbalance with the construction of a sovereign Europe. They are also the most suspicious of China, which has never condemned the Russian war in Ukraine.

Mr. Macron, like Mr. Scholz during a visit to China last month, believes that Chinese influence in ending the war in Ukraine is essential. According to the French analysis, only Beijing can exert real pressure on Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who will be sworn in for a fifth term during Mr. Xi’s European visit.

The problem, as was the case last year during Mr. Macron’s visit to Beijing, is that China has shown little or no willingness to do so. Indeed, Mr. Xi is expected to welcome Mr. Putin to China later this month.

“It is difficult to imagine another discussion on Ukraine,” François Godement, a special adviser and senior researcher at the Montaigne Institute in Paris, said of the talks between Mr. Macron and Mr. Xi. “These dice have been rolled.”

There is, however, no doubt that Mr. Macron will try again to secure Mr. Xi’s support before the Ukraine peace conference to be held in Switzerland in mid-June.

On a deeper level, Mr. Macron appears certain to try to use Mr. Xi’s visit to advance an agenda that ensures Europe’s relevance in the decades to come. He is wary that the United States could re-elect former President Donald J. Trump in November, with unpredictable consequences.

Mr. Wang, the Chinese Foreign Minister, said: “As long as China and Europe join forces, there will be no bloc confrontation, the world will not collapse and a new Cold War will not take place. »

For all the fundamental differences in governance between China’s one-party state and Western liberal democracy, the leaders of the three European countries Mr. Xi chose to visit appear to adhere to this Chinese statement.

The report was provided by Olivia Wang from Hong Kong, Keith Bradsher from Beijing, Christopher F. Schuetze And Melissa Eddy from Berlin and Ségolène Le Stradic from Paris.

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