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To what extent is China’s diplomatic offensive towards Europe working?

President Xi has visited Europe between 5th and 10th May for the first time in five years, with stops in France, Serbia and Hungary – three European countries more friendly and open to China’s increasing global footprint and influence and seemingly sharing some of China’s vision of the future international order, although at varying degrees.


Xi last visited Europe in March 2019, when he had visited Italy, France and Greece, the US still being under the Trump administration. The fracture across the Atlantic had given China some tailwinds in deepening in its engagement with Europe, evidenced by Italy’s taking part in President Xi’s flagship infrastructure and influence project Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) despite entreaties and warnings from its Western allies, making Italy the first of the G7 nations to join the BRI.


While in France, Xi had been showered with the pomp of red carpets and honor guards at the Arc de Triomphe, the symbol of French imperial history and power. At that time, Chinese tourists had flooded France for luxury shopping and the Chinese domestic aviation industry still had a seemingly unsatiable appetite for airplanes, purchasing a staggering 300 Airbus planes. At the same time, as one of few old European countries in the then “17+1” initiative, a cooperative framework between China and 17 major Central and Eastern European countries, Greece had signed 16 agreements with China to attract Chinese investments.


A changed European continent and China

Five years later, China’s top leader found himself on a markedly less friendly turf – a result seemingly both of his own making and by forces beyond his control.


Xi still received all the pageantry of an official state visit in all these three countries. And compared to his previous trip, it is fair to say that he received more personal touches like a visit to Macron’s childhood haunts high in the Pyrenees and Serbian President Vucic’s mobilizing a cheering crowd of around 15,000 in front of the Palace of Serbia.


That said, Putin’s surprise invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the flooding of European markets with what Europe sees as China’s overcapacity cast a long shadow over Xi’s latest trip, risking to dilute his continuous diplomacy toward the continent since China lifted its zero-Covid policy in late 2022, when German Chancellor Scholz became the first Western leader to visit China.


Although Xi bristled at Europe’s criticism of China over Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine by repeating that China was “not at the origin of this crisis, nor a party to it, nor a participant”, he was faced with Europeans that felt the war has increasingly become an existential threat to the continent and thus requesting China to use its influence on Moscow to bring it to an end.


Putin, meanwhile, has chosen Beijing as his first overseas trip since winning another 6-year presidency in March 2024. So, if Beijing is believed to continue to aid Moscow’s war machine by buying enormous amounts of Russian commodities as well as supplying it with dual-use equipment, Beijing’s strategic diplomacy to Europe may rapidly lose its luster and instead dampen more European capitals’ mood towards China’s economic orbit.


While in France, although Chinese and French companies signed several cooperation agreements in areas such as agriculture, finance, nuclear power and aerospace, including metro construction contracts for France’s Alstom, there was also no mention of Airbus planes, usually the most symbolic as well as substantive item in China’s purchase diplomacy. Chinese airlines had racked up huge losses during the pandemic thanks to plummeting demands and closed borders. In the same vein, the common sight of Chinese luxury-shoppers in Europe – for now – seems equally left in the dust.


So, as China is defying European calls to address alleged overcapacity by contending the country’s exports are helping ease global inflation and support the clean energy transition while trying to manufacture or export its way out of the current economic downturn, it is hard to see how this trip can quiet European critics and achieve what is intended as a rapprochement with Europe.


In recent months, these perceived overcapacities have caused push-back both in Europe and the US. The EU’s Foreign Subsidies Regulation (the FSR) entered into force in 2023, and the EU Commission has launched first investigations into Chinese electric vehicles and wind turbines. The US is moving even more rapidly and has just announced to raise tariffs on Chinese EV imports from 25 per cent to a whopping 100 per cent on May 14th.


Making gains anyway

China, however, still did manage to solidify its strategic and economic bonds with both Serbia and Hungary by pouring significant investments into both countries and deepening the respective partnerships, henceforth signing a “China-Serbia community with a shared future” on the one hand and an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership for the new era” between China and Hungary on the other hand. As an EU member, Hungary has previously blocked several statements or measures that were targeting Chinese interests on the continent, and Hungary will take over the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of this year.


President Xi’s European tour, his first overseas trip of this year, thus indicates that he puts a personal stamp on Sino-European relations, hoping to actively engage the largest single market left for China in terms of capital and technologies amid Sino-US strategic competition. His friendship diplomacy won’t be missed in Brussels and European capitals. The question, though, is the extent to which this could change the minds and hearts of European leaders and the broader public in the face of several issues where Europe and China don’t see eye to eye.


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