1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Did China's Xi Jinping expose disunity in Europe?

Yuchen Li in Taipei | Wesley Rahn
May 11, 2024

The Chinese president's visit to Europe yielded little breakthrough on issues like trade and Ukraine. But it did show that Beijing prefers to work one-on-one to avoid collective opposition to its interests.

China's President Xi Jinping arrives for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
Xi's visit to the region was his first since 2019 Image: Gonzalo Fuentes/REUTERS

Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded a high-profile European tour on Friday amid concerns in Europe over Chinese support for Russia's war in Ukraine and European markets being flooded with cheap Chinese electric vehicles.

Xi's first visit to the region since 2019 also came amid growing suspicion that China is seeking to take advantage of divisions in Europe. And analysts pointed out that Xi's itinerary was no coincidence.

Bertram Lang, a research associate at Goethe University in Frankfurt who specializes in China's foreign policy, said the countries on Xi's tour — France, Serbia and Hungary — all have "special bilateral relationships" with Beijing.

Lang added that the Chinese leadership has gradually divided Europe into two groups, "those friendly and unfriendly to China." And this trip aimed to emphasize relationships with the former.

Xi pressed on trade imbalance in France 

Xi began his tour in Paris, where his two-day state visit and talks with French President Emmanuel Macron focused on the war in Ukraine and trade imbalances with the EU.

While China and Xi prefer engagement at a bilateral level, Macron sought to demonstrate European unity by including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

The Chinese president sat down with EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris
The Chinese president was pressed on Ukraine and trade issues during talks in ParisImage: Gonzalo Fuentes/AP/picture alliance

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who recently concluded a visit to China, was invited to Paris but did not attend. However, Scholz and Macron met ahead of Xi's visit on May 2 to touch base on China policy.

In Paris, Von der Leyen's public remarks took direct aim at what she called China's "market distortion practices" with massive subsidies for electric vehicle and steel industries. China has been criticized for "overcapacity" and dumping underpriced products into EU and US markets.

The European Commission announced it would launch anti-subsidy probes into Chinese electric vehicles and solar panels to determine whether to impose punitive tariffs on them. 

During the trilateral meeting in Paris, von der Leyen told Xi that Europe "will not waver from making tough decisions needed to protect its economy and security."

In response to von der Leyen's remarks, Xi said there is no such thing as "China's overcapacity problem," whether from the perspective of comparative advantage or global market demand, state broadcaster Xinhua reported. 

"We are seeing a stronger convergence in the EU between member states" and "a Commission that is quite determined" to level the playing field of trade with China, Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a former political adviser in the European Parliament, told DW.

Nevertheless, Chinese state media framed Xi's France visit as a success. A report in the Global Times cited 18 "cooperation agreements" between government agencies in aviation, agriculture, people-to-people exchanges, green development and SME cooperation as a "positive signal for European entrepreneurs" and a "stabilizer to China-Europe trade ties" against economic "decoupling."

Germany's 'de-risking' strategy not seen pursued with clarity

Xi stonewalls on Ukraine 

On Ukraine, Beijing has still yet to convince leaders that it is not supporting Russia in the Ukraine war. China has also stonewalled on calls from European and US leaders to use its influence on Moscow to help play a constructive role in ending the conflict.

This is despite Xi supporting Macron's call of an "Olympic Truce" of all global conflicts during the Summer Games in Paris.

The US has said China is providing Russia with machine tools, drone engines and technology used for cruise missiles. China is also helping support Russia's economy by supplying industrial and consumer goods.

Xi responded strongly to these accusations in his public remarks in Paris, claiming the Ukraine crisis was "being used to cast responsibility on a third country, sully its image and incite a new cold war." He added that China was "not a participant" in the crisis.

Jean-Philippe Beja, a China expert and senior researcher at the Center for International Studies and Research at University Sciences Po in Paris, told DW that during the talks, Xi was made aware that Russia's war on Ukraine "is a matter of life and death for Europe."

"This is a highly negative factor in Sino-European relations," Beja said.

China-Russia relationship 'without borders'

Ahead of Xi's visit, Chinese state media heaped praise on Macron's continued advocacy of "strategic autonomy" for Europe, which calls for the European Union to be more assertive on strategic and defense issues. China has interpreted this as a rejection of NATO and US-led collective strategy.

After visiting China in April 2023, Macron drew criticism for comments warning against Europe being drawn into a conflict between the US and China over Taiwan, namely that being a US ally doesn't mean being a "vassal" of Washington.

Writing about Xi's visit, Francois Godement, a China expert at French think tank Institut Montaigne, said Macron tried to "minimize these aspects" during the talks, while seeking to demonstrate European unity.

Serbia, Hungary major target of Chinese funds

The state visit turned more upbeat in Serbia and Hungary, both of which are major recipients of Chinese investment and maintain close ties with Russia.

Although Serbia is not an EU member state, Xi's visit to Belgrade projected an image of the Chinese leader "as a key figure not only in the EU, but in the EU's neighborhood," said Ferenczy, who is also an assistant professor at Taiwan's National Dong Hwa University.

Serbia is a major European recipient of Chinese loans under the Belt and Road Initiative, with infrastructure projects including a high-speed rail link to Hungary. Chinese companies are also involved in building sewer and wastewater plants, and operate a massive steelworks.

While lauding the deep economic ties, Xi's visit was also a chance to take a jab at NATO, as he arrived 25 years to the day when a NATO bombing campaign during the Kosovo war hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

"We must not forget that 25 years ago today, NATO brazenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia," Xi wrote in a Serbian op-ed.

Construction of a rail line in Serbia
A Chinese BRI project is building a rail line between Budapest and BelgradeImage: Attila Volgyi/Xinhua/dpa/picture alliance

China building electric vehicles in Hungary

Xi's last stop was in Hungary, which has made no secret of its continued support within the EU for Russia. Budapest also plays a support role for Beijing within the bloc, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government having already vetoed numerous EU proposals condemning Chinese actions.

And as the EU grapples with how to deal with cheap Chinese electric vehicles flooding its market, Hungary is positioning itself as a production center for Chinese EV companies.

In December, Chinese EV maker BYD announced the construction of a passenger car factory in Szeged, Hungary, close to the border with Serbia, as China has become Hungary's No. 1 source of foreign direct investment.

 Xi and Orban on stage in Budapest
Hungary under Victor Orban has supported Chinese positions within the EUImage: Szilard Koszticsak/MTI via AP/picture alliance

Xi's visit also came as Hungary takes up the rotating presidency of the European Council on July 1.

Upon meeting with Orban, Xi said in their joint press conference that "China supports Hungary in playing a bigger role in the EU and promoting greater progress in China-EU relations." 

Undermining unity?

Political analyst Ferenczy said China's overall strategy is to "undermine the EU's unity," while increasing influence in individual member states.

She added that Beijing's strategy is to go around the EU and give member states special access to its markets, attempting to "make these countries feel special that they have a privileged relationship with China."

"The future doesn't look better for EU-China after Xi Jinping's visit," she said. "There is a trust deficit between the two partners."

Ferenczy expects the EU will continue to push back while China will resist by continually reaching out to member states bilaterally to slow down their "appetite to de-risk." 

Before you leave: Every Friday, the DW Asia newsletter delivers compelling articles and videos from around the continent right to your inbox. Subscribe below.

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Wesley Rahn Editor and reporter focusing on geopolitics and Asia