Xi on six-day visit to Europe amid trade tensions with EU

Over the last week, the EU also increased scrutiny over several Chinese companies, toughening safety rules against Chinese fashion retailer Shein and opening formal proceedings against Tiktok under its Digital Services Act…reports Asian Lite News

Chinese President Xi Jinping has kicked off his six-day trip to Europe amid rising tensions over trade with the European Union and concerns over Beijing’s support for Russia, as reported by Voice of America (VOA).

Xi’s visit, which started on Sunday, is his first to the continent since 2019, which will include stops in France, Serbia, and Hungary.

According to Taiwanese analysts, during the trip, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the Israel-Hamas conflict are likely to be picked up by the leaders.

Moreover, the Chinese president will also be looking first to address trade tensions during the trip and to double down on Beijing’s close relationship with Budapest and Belgrade, VOA reported.

Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an expert on EU-China relations at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan, said, “In light of Europe’s growing appetite to investigate what they view as China’s unfair trade practices, (Xi’s European tour) is a trip to disrupt the EU’s efforts to adopt tougher trade measures against China.”

Highlighting his stops in Serbia and Hungary, Ferenczy said that Xi hopes to show that China remains influential in Central and Eastern Europe despite the growing number of countries withdrawing from the Beijing-led initiative known as “Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern Europe.”

“For Beijing, the symbolism of the trip to Serbia and Hungary is important, as the stop in Budapest serves as an opportunity to amplify divisions within the EU,” she said.

Since last month, the EU has launched investigations against several Chinese products, including green energy products and security devices, and initiated a probe into China’s public procurement of medical devices, according to VOA.

Over the last week, the EU also increased scrutiny over several Chinese companies, toughening safety rules against Chinese fashion retailer Shein and opening formal proceedings against Tiktok under its Digital Services Act.

Beijing has repeatedly characterised Western countries’ concerns about Chinese excess capacity in some sectors as “baseless hype” and urged the EU to “stop wantonly going after and restraining Chinese companies under various pretexts.”

In order to rebalance trade, France has reiterated the need for European countries to rebalance trade relations with China during recent bilateral meetings between Chinese and French officials.

French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne, on his visit to China last month, said, “The European Union is a very open market, the most open in the world. But the current deficits with a certain number of countries, including China, are not sustainable for us.”

Last week, during a phone call with French President’s Diplomatic Counsellor Emmanuel Bonne, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that Beijing hopes “the French side will push the EU to continue to pursue a positive and pragmatic policy towards China.”

While France supports the EU’s efforts to rebalance trade relations with China, some experts say that French President Emmanuel Macron will try to maintain a cooperative relationship with China.

“France wants to demonstrate that it is one of the major countries that can maintain channels of communication at all levels with China,” Sari Arho Havren, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in Brussels, said.

Chinese and French armed forces agreed to establish a mechanism for maritime and aerial cooperation and dialogue on April 25, which Beijing noted as a “vital step” to implement the consensus reached by Xi and Macron, reported VOA.

Trade issues will likely dominate the Chinese president’s meeting with Macron, meanwhile, some analysts said that the French president will try to address the issue of China’s ongoing support for Russia.

“Macron will try to convince Xi to agree [to reduce] China’s support to Russia, but in Europe, hopes that Sino-Russian collaboration will diminish are fading away,” Philippe Le Corre, a Senior Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, said.

During Xi’s visit to Hungary and Serbia, Ferency said that the Chinese president will focus on deepening bilateral cooperation in different sectors, especially infrastructure projects, and Beijing’s role as “a strategic investor” in both countries.

“We need to see his trip to Hungary and Serbia in the context of the Belt and Road initiative since Beijing is trying to revitalise the infrastructure project in Europe,” Ferency said.

She added that the Belgrade-Budapest Railway will be an important part of China’s attempt to expand its flagship infrastructure project in Central and Eastern Europe, reported VOA.

In recent months, the Hungarian government under PM Viktor Orban has tried to attract large amounts of Chinese investment, especially in the electric vehicle sector, while deepening security cooperation with Beijing.

Last week, Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, in an interview, expressed his opposition to the EU’s anti-subsidy investigation against Chinese EVs and said he “looks forward to the potential impact of the Belt and Road Initiative on Hungary’s electric vehicle and battery manufacturing industry.”

Havren further emphasised that since Hungary is a member of the EU, the relationship with Budapest is particularly important to China.

“Hungary could impact possible sanctions or anything that is of importance to Beijing in the EU,” she said.

While the trip is unlikely to change the current dynamics between the EU and China, Xi will try to use China’s relationship with middle powers like France and its “iron-clad friendship” with countries like Hungary to make itself “more visible and relevant” in Europe, Havren said.

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