China tests European unity through Xi Jinping’s trip

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Taipei, Taiwan — Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded his high-profile European tour Friday after signing dozens of agreements with France, Hungary and Serbia, while reiterating Beijing’s desire to enhance “mutually beneficial cooperation” between China and Europe.

Some analysts say Xi’s trip to Europe is part of Beijing’s attempt to undermine European unity while deepening its foothold in the European Union through elevated economic ties with Hungary, a member of the 27-nation bloc.

“Beijing has identified France as a weak link in the EU” that it could potentially influence because of French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to prioritize his country’s “strategic autonomy,” and the Chinese government “thinks they can use Hungary and Serbia to influence Central and Eastern Europe,” said Sari Arho Havren, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in Brussels.

Chinese state media outlets are framing Xi’s European tour as a success by highlighting the positive aspects of the trip. The state-run Global Times described the 18 deals that China and France signed this week as “a positive signal for European entrepreneurs and a stabilizer to China-Europe trade ties against [the] decoupling push.”

Meanwhile, the state-run Xinhua News Agency said China’s decision to elevate ties with Hungary marks “the most recent stride in China’s effort to deepen cooperation with Central and Eastern European nations.”

Judging from the substance of his trip, Arho Havren said, Xi did achieve some success in testing unity in Europe.

Additionally, Arho Havren said Xi’s recent interactions with Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also expose a fault line between Germany and France — the EU’s top two economies — regarding how to handle relations with China.

“Since Scholz prioritized German interests due to fear of Chinese countermeasures during his trip to Beijing, [it’s clear] that Beijing has been successful in influencing the German businesses and through them, the chancellor,” she told VOA in a written response.

Unlike Scholz, some experts said Macron tried to show that he supports the EU’s common approach toward China by inviting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to join his initial meeting with Xi in Paris.

“I think conveying the sense that [projecting European unity] is the top priority for French diplomacy has been the successful part of Xi’s European tour for Paris,” Mathieu Duchatel, director of international studies at the French policy group Institut Montaigne, told VOA by phone.

Overall, Arho Havren said some European countries should understand they can’t influence China’s behavior by engaging with them individually. Rather, such practice runs the risk of creating disunity within the EU, which is what Beijing seeks.

“China will continue its efforts to keep the EU disunited by playing the target countries’ vulnerabilities and egos against one another,” she told VOA.

EU’s economic security agenda

Some observers say one of China’s initiatives to challenge the EU’s unity is to slow down the bloc’s efforts to carry out key parts of its economic security agenda. In recent months, the EU has launched anti-subsidy investigations into several Chinese products, including green energy and security devices.

During his meeting with Macron and von der Leyen, Xi said there is no such thing as “China’s overcapacity problem,” and he urged the EU to “develop the right perception of China and adopt a positive China policy.”

Despite Beijing’s denial, von der Leyen reiterated on Wednesday that Europe needs to stop China from flooding the European market “with massively subsidized electric cars.”

“We have to tackle this, [and] we have to protect our industry,” she said during the party convention of the Christian Democrats in Berlin.

Duchatel said China has not been “very successful” in slowing down the EU’s economic security agenda. “I don’t think China can turn away that wave because when it comes to using [the economic security] instruments to reestablish some form of balance in our relations with China, there is a broad agreement across Europe,” he told VOA.

While there is a consensus across Europe that the EU should strengthen its capacity to defend its interests, Duchatel said there is a lack of unity in the bloc about how to build leverage against China. “We are failing in terms of having a more offensive agenda to force some concessions [from Beijing],” he told VOA.

Countries may “get some nuances in the Chinese language regarding Ukraine, or words regarding withholding tariffs on [French] brandy. [They] don’t really get anything tangible [from Beijing],” Duchatel said.

Following his meeting with Xi and von der Leyen, Macron said he welcomed China’s pledge not to supply arms to Russia, while Xi said he supports Macron’s proposal for a global truce during the Olympic Games in Paris this summer.

No major changes

Despite Beijing’s attempt to portray Xi’s visit as productive regarding improving EU-China relations, some analysts say they don’t expect the trip to reshape the dynamics between Beijing and Brussels.

Justyna Szczudlik, deputy head of research at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, told VOA that since France is the most important stop for Xi’s trip and Macron showcased his support for the EU’s approach toward China, she doesn’t anticipate “any huge change to EU-China relations” following Xi’s visit.

While the economic security agenda will remain the EU’s main approach to handling trade relations with China, Duchatel said many European countries say that China’s investment environment “has become very risky” and that Beijing has failed to persuade European governments that its partnership with Russia “is not something that goes against European security.”

“I don’t think Xi’s words in Paris have changed this perception, so his visit [won’t] make up for the trust lost over the last few years,” he told VOA.

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