China Power

Xi Jinping to Visit Europe for First Time in 5 Years

Recent Features

China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Xi Jinping to Visit Europe for First Time in 5 Years

The world – and China-EU relations in particular – look quite different today than they did in 2019.

Xi Jinping to Visit Europe for First Time in 5 Years

From left: French President Emmanuel Macron, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Beijing, China, Apr. 6, 2023.

Credit: European Commission

From May 5 to 10, China’s President Xi Jinping will make state visits to France, Serbia, and Hungary – his first trip to Europe since the pandemic began. The world has changed quite a bit since 2019, when Xi was last in Europe, and Europe’s approach to China is no exception.

In a telling sign, one of the signature accomplishments of Xi’s last multi-country Europe tour has come undone. In March 2019, Xi visited Italy, and Rome officially signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative, becoming the first G-7 member country to do so. In late 2023, however, the Italian government withdrew from the BRI, claiming that the initiative had not brought the promised benefits.

Italy’s open break with the BRI was part of a string of setbacks to China-Europe relations. COVID-19 – and China’s clumsy handling of its diplomacy during that period, which included patronizing insults of European countries for their pandemic management – certainly did Beijing no favors. More broadly, however, sentiments toward China have soured amid increased geopolitical and economic competition. 

In December 2020, for example, China and Europe reached an in-principle agreement on a bilateral investment deal. The Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, as it was formally known, never actually entered into force, however. Less than six months after it was finalized, the European Parliament voted to freeze the ratification process, penalizing China for slapping sanctions on MEPs who had spoken out against China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Tensions between China and Europe in the economic sphere – once the glue that helped bind ties together – have only deepened since then. The EU now scrutinizes Chinese investment in the continent, and “overcapacity” is the watchword of the day, with the European Commission opening a series of trade investigations that could ultimately result in penalties on China’s clean tech exports.     

But the single issue most responsible for fraying China’s relationship with Europe – essentially accelerating a process of China-skepticism that was already developing in European capitals – was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

China has vocally insisted that it is a neutral party in the ongoing conflict. As Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian put it in his press conference on Monday, “China is neither a creator of the Ukraine crisis nor a party to it. We have never done anything to fan the flames or seek profit from the crisis.” 

Despite those protestations, China’s frequent high-profile diplomatic exchanges with Russia make it clear where Beijing’s sympathies lie. China has also rushed to fill in the gaps caused by the withdrawal of Western firms from the Russian market, whether in terms of importing Russian energy or exporting dual-use goods to Russia.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken just wrapped up a visit to China, where he made clear that China’s continued willingness to supply Russia with technology that has military uses was a major topic of discussion. We can expect Ukraine to feature prominently in Xi’s discussions in Europe as well, especially in France. 

While China demurred on giving specific agenda items, France’s own announcement made clear that “[e]xchanges will focus on international crises, first and foremost the war in Ukraine and the situation in the Middle East,” as well as “trade issues, scientific, cultural and sporting cooperation,” and the “climate emergency.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that he will do “everything possible” to ensure an Olympic truce during the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris this summer, and will ask Xi for his help to make that a reality.

Switzerland is hosting a high-level peace conference on the Russia-Ukraine war in mid-June. Macron may be hoping to entice Beijing to take part in the meeting, in the hopes of making real progress. China has reportedly been invited, but is playing coy on whether or not it will attend. 

During a visit to Beijing earlier this month, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that China agreed with Russia that any peace conference that doesn’t reflect Moscow’s position is “futile.” China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, softened that a bit, but expressed a wish for peace talks “in which all parties can participate equally and discuss all peace solutions fairly.”

The visit to France will likely involve some tough conversations about the many serious issues plaguing the China-EU relationship. Xi is following that up with two relative softball visits to Serbia and Hungary – described as the “remaining ‘China loyalists’ in the region” in a recent analysis by researchers with the China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) project. 

Compare the language used to preview Xi’s trips to each country: Lin, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, noted that France and China have “effective strategic communication and fruitful practical cooperation.” By contrast, Lin boasted of China’s “iron-clad friendship” with Serbia, saying, “The two countries firmly support each other on issues of core interests and major concerns, and enjoy solid political mutual trust.” Hungary falls in the middle, with “deepened political mutual trust.”

It’s also notable that Xi will be in Serbia on May 7, which happens to be the 25th anniversary of a NATO airstrike that hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the bombing of then-Yugoslavia. We can expect a commemoration of the tragedy, marked by some vitriol aimed at the United States and its allies. 

While Serbia and Hungary will likely be rewarded with some investment deals and other agreements, few expect much real progress while Xi is in France. At most, China may be hoping for a repeat of Macron’s high-profile proclamation of strategic autonomy – essentially, reserving the right to break from the United States on China policy. But many of the issues in China-EU relations now stem from homegrown worries within European countries and, most damningly for Beijing, European industry leaders. 

Further complicating Xi’s Europe trip, he’s expected to host Russian President Vladimir Putin soon after he returns to Beijing. Although China has not yet officially confirmed the plan, Putin himself announced the trip was coming some time in May. Xi’s hosts in Europe will be well aware that the China-Russia “no limits” friendship is set to go on display just weeks after their own meetings with the Chinese leader.