China's Xi visits Europe, seeking strategic opportunities

During his first visit to Europe in five years, Chinese President Xi Jinping appears intent on seizing opportunities to loosen the continent's ties with the United States and forge a world free from American rule.

The Chinese leader has chosen three countries to visit – France, Serbia and Hungary – all of which, to a greater or lesser extent, view the post-war American order of the world with suspicion, see China as a necessary counterweight and are eager to strengthen economic ties.

At a time of tensions with much of Europe – over China's “unrestrained” embrace of Russia despite the war in Ukraine, its surveillance state and its apparent espionage activities that led to the recent arrest in Germany of four people – Xi, who will arrive 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 the delicate balance between China and the United States and will no doubt be seen by Washington as a not-so-subtle effort by Xi to divide Western allies.

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. That misguided attack on May 7, 1999, for which the White House apologized, killed three Chinese journalists and sparked furious protests around the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

“For Xi, being in Belgrade is a very economical way to ask whether the United States really takes international law seriously,” said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, “and for say, how about overcoming NATO being a problem for other countries?”

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

“The United States always sees itself as the leader – or hegemon – of the world, so China is a competitor or adversary that is challenging its hegemony,” said Tu Xinquan, dean of a business institute at the University of Economics and International trading. 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 like lip service, 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 sectors.

In March, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters that the European formula was unworkable. “It's like driving to an intersection and finding the red, yellow and green lights on at the same time,” he said. “How can we move forward?”

Now, Mr. Xi would like to move the traffic light to green.

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

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

“Macron is trying to create a third way in the current global chaos,” said Philippe Le Corre, a leading French expert on relations with China. “He is trying to maintain a thin line between the two major superpowers.”

Just over a year ago, Macron was lavishly entertained during a visit to China that ended with a Sino-French declaration of a “comprehensive strategic partnership.” The French leader echoed China's lexicon of a “multipolar” world, free from “blockades” and the “cold war mentality.”

Now, in anticipation of Xi's visit, China praised France as a great power and expressed hope that its 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 the People's Daily.

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 Xi in Paris on Monday before, with a personal touch, introducing him to one of the country's favorite haunts. childhood in the Pyrenees.

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

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

From France, Xi will move on to the warm embrace of Serbia, where China is its second-largest trading partner, and Hungary, where its prime minister, Viktor Orban, has supported huge Chinese investments and capitalized on his country's position as the European Union . member to tone down criticism of China. Both countries oppose American power.

Beyond these two friends of China, there are, however, serious European differences with Beijing, whose economy was roughly the same size, measured in dollars, as that of the European Union during Xi's last visit in 2019. China's economy is now about 15% larger.

Last fall, the European Union opened an investigation into whether electric vehicles made in China were unfairly subsidized, with a decision expected this summer. This has caused tensions with Beijing and Germany, whose presence in the Chinese car market dwarfs that of other European countries. China accounts for at least half of Volkswagen's annual profits.

German manufacturers, with factories in China, fear that any imposition of European tariffs could affect their exports from China, as well as cause retaliation.

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

This, however, is always elusive.

Anger towards Russia in Europe is strongest in states on Russia's front line, such as Poland and the Baltic states. They are perhaps the most attached to the alliance with the United States that Macron wants to counterbalance by building a sovereign Europe. They are also the most wary of China, which has never condemned Russia's war in Ukraine.

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

The problem, as during Macron's visit to Beijing last year, is that China has shown little or no inclination to do so. Indeed, Xi is expected to host Putin in China later this month.

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

However, there is no doubt that Macron will again try to gain Xi's support ahead of the Ukraine peace conference in Switzerland in mid-June.

On a deeper level, Macron seems certain to seek to use Xi's visit to push forward an agenda that ensures Europe's relevance in the coming decades. 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 unite, there will not be a clash of blocs, the world will not fall apart 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 Xi has chosen to visit appear to embrace this Chinese claim.

Reporting contribution was provided by Olivia Wang From Hong Kong, Keith Bradsher from Beijing, Christopher F. Schuetze AND Melissa Eddie from Berlin e Ségolène Le Stradic from Paris.

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