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The outcomes of Xi’s visit to Europe – three leaders, a lackey, a nanny, and the perpetual fool

Photo: Reuters

President Xi Jinping visited Europe for the first time in five years last week. The Chinese leader met with French President Emmanuel Macron, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. The visit had a lot of symbolic value, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of French-Chinese diplomatic relations, the 25th anniversary of NATO’s bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and the 75th anniversary of Hungarian-Chinese diplomatic relations. Additionally, Xi’s visit was organized three weeks after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit to China and two weeks after Anthony Blinken’s visit to Beijing, neither of which had any tangible results.

Through Xi Jinping’s meetings, China reminded us that it has climbed the ranks as a top economic partner for Europe and projected itself as an unstoppable rival to the US, being received with great interest and formality in the West and managing to consolidate and upgrade its relations with its European partners. However, the international media buzzed with various news and even accusations against Xi for choosing to visit Serbia and Hungary—countries more friendly with Russia than with the Collective West—accusing him of trying to divide Europe. Some commentators even considered that the Chinese president is trying to destabilize Russia by becoming the main partner and ally of Hungary and Serbia, a forced propagandistic theory. Regardless, in the coming days, Putin will visit Xi Jinping in Beijing, and the two leaders will likely address European issues, as evidenced by Xi’s discussions in Paris, Belgrade, and Budapest. It’s useful, therefore, to provide a brief summary of each visit and their possible implications, followed by an analysis of some worrisome aspects for us, Romanians.

France: Xi, the lackey, and the nanny

In Macron’s last visit to China last year, Xi reminded the French president that Beijing desires cooperation with France only if France remains sovereign and independent from the US, an idea reiterated in an op-ed in Le Figaro a day before landing in Paris. Although Macron has stated multiple times in recent months that he wants an autonomous foreign policy, independent of the US, Xi knew why he was emphasizing this point, given that Macron’s recent statements and actions were clearly influenced by Washington.

Macron overwhelmed Xi with maximal hospitality, extravagant dinners with global celebrities, and an exotic excursion in the Pyrenees. However, in all official discussions, he was accompanied by Ursula von der Leyen, who seemed to fulfill the role of Macron’s nanny, hired by his American “parents,” clearly indicating transatlantic influence.

The discussions were tense, especially due to the strained economic relations between the EU and China—the Chinese want to sell their electric cars in the European market, but the EU, fearful of competition from cheaper Chinese products, repeatedly told Xi that Europe will heavily tax trade with China from now on, a threat explicitly reiterated by Ursula in the Paris meeting. The EU has already taken many impermissible steps against trade with China, including the sudden arrest of many Chinese on espionage suspicions, the investigation o Chinese wind turbines and medical equipment, and Italy’s withdrawal from the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in March, an initiative aiming to build a global transport corridor funded by China. Although von der Leyen, driven by the US, has imposed a policy of reducing European dependencies on Chinese production chains called de-risking, European companies still need to improve economic relations with China. Xi knows this and symbolically told Macron that if he imposes the sanctions preferred by Ursula von der Leyen, he will, in turn, impose sanctions on French cognac imports to China. Another topic addressed was the war in Ukraine, with von der Leyen and Macron asking Xi to condemn Russia and convince Putin to withdraw, but of course, no agreement was reached on this subject, as the close alliance between China and Russia is too important to jeopardize in any way. The meeting was ultimately considered embarrassing for Macron, who did not address any of these complicated subjects directly with Xi, leaving his “German nanny” to speak on his behalf, ensuring that no mistakes were made as per the instructions from the “American parents.”

Serbia: Iron Brotherhood

In Serbia, Xi was received like a rock star, with tens of thousands of Serbs cheering and waving Chinese flags in front of the presidential palace. Everyone expected a warmer diplomatic engagement in Belgrade, given that Serbia is not part of the Collective West and is China’s first strategic partner in Central and Western Europe. Moreover, China is the largest foreign investor in our neighboring country. Vučić even called Xi a “true friend” and a “brother of Serbia,” admitting that he had invited Xi no less than 15 times in recent years to visit Serbia, and, similarly to Xi’s description of his relationship with Vladimir Putin, said there are no limits to Serbia’s cooperation with China. Xi agreed with Vučić, declaring that there is an “iron friendship” between China and Serbia, based on equality and mutual benefits. The strong note of Xi’s statements was marked by his promise that China will never forget the 1995 NATO bombing, which killed three Chinese embassy employees, emphasizing NATO’s hostility towards China.

Compared to France, the visit to Belgrade was a great success, with 29 economic agreements signed. From promoting Serbian agricultural products and wine in China to cooperation in energy and transport infrastructure, innovation, culture, education, sports, tourism, it’s clear that Serbia will greatly benefit from this meeting. The most important outcome, however, was establishing a free trade agreement between Serbia and China, opening the Serbian economy to a market of 1.4 billion people and immense economic benefits. Xi and Vučić also declared that they would jointly oppose Western hegemony and collaborate in all possible sectors, including diplomatic and political. Chinese investments in Serbia’s infrastructure are particularly important for the Belt and Road, especially now that routes through Russia and Belarus are blocked due to the war, and many analysts say Serbia is becoming a possible first European candidate for BRICS+, a position that would come with major economic benefits (note that recently, Vietnam and Indonesia also applied for BRICS+ membership, bringing the list of applicants to nearly 50 countries).

Hungary: Respect and Investments

In Hungary, Xi was received with military honors, smiles, and hugs from his old friend, Viktor Orbán. Before summarizing the meeting’s conclusions, I underline the importance of the interviews given by Foreign Minister Szijjártó and Orbán the day before the Chinese leader’s arrival. Orbán explained to the Chinese press the rationale of Hungarian relations with China, highlighting the importance of China’s alliance due to the shortcomings of the EU, which no longer accepts the sovereignty of member countries but wants to create a USA-type union, where Brussels determines the policy of member countries and not vice versa, as it is meant to happen. Orbán also stated that Hungary is the only state in Europe that truly desires peace in Ukraine, hence the relationship with China aligns ideologically since Beijing has proposed several peace options. Szijjártó didn’t lag behind, declaring that due to the Hungarian government’s patriotic, Christian, and conservative stance, which opposes the progressive Western current, Hungary will not bow to the transhumanist policies of the EU, preferring pragmatic economic cooperation with China and Russia despite Brussels’ warnings. Also, when asked about Hungary’s upcoming presidency of the European Council starting July 1, the minister said he looks forward to replacing all high-ranking European officials over whom he will have authority. Furthermore, he talked about the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, stating that Hungary will not support Ukraine’s EU membership until the minority’s rights are restored and hopes that Donald Trump will be re-elected president as he is the only one who could bring peace to Ukraine.

In another interview on the same day, this time with the Chinese press, Szijjártó added that the war in the neighborhood is only between Ukraine and Russia, not Europe, and Hungary wants a quick peace agreement in order to limit the number of Ukrainian and Hungarian deaths, thus distancing itself from the EU’s official policy. Szijjártó also demonstrated the EU’s hypocrisy regarding trade restrictions with China and directly contradicted Ursula von der Leyen, saying that many German companies, like BMW, ask Hungary to be an intermediary in trade with China to register transactions as within the EU, adding that there is a demand for electric vehicles in Europe, a direct reference to future imports from China. So, Hungary made important statements before Xi’s visit, emphasizing its status as a reliable ally for the Russia-China axis.

During this visit, the two countries further developed their economic cooperation, with Hungary already having $12 billion in trade with China and 75% of foreign investments in Hungary coming from China. Hungary is also the only EU country that is a Belt and Road Initiative member, and China invests billions of dollars to renovate the railway line between Budapest, Belgrade, and the Greek port of Piraeus. So Hungary will have access, through Chinese investments, to maritime trade routes via high-speed trains! Additionally, China will finance the construction of a railway connection between Budapest Airport and the city center and deepen the cooperation of Hungarian companies with Huawei to advance the digitalization of our neighboring country. CATL, the largest Chinese battery manufacturer, announced a $7 billion investment in Hungary. More importantly, Chinese electric vehicle giant BYD Co publicly revealed that it will open its first European electric car factory in Hungary, an $8 billion investment creating thousands of jobs for Hungarians, even though all German electric car companies already have factories in Hungary. Ursula von der Leyen had made statements against the commercialization of Chinese cars just two days earlier. In vain!

Thus, Hungary now has over 30,000 new jobs created by Chinese companies and ranks third in the world in battery manufacturing, becoming the most important commercial hub in Europe for electric car trade, an exceptional achievement for a country as small as Hungary.

Xi declared that relations between China and Hungary are at their best in history and that he wants Hungary’s development through the efforts of Chinese companies. Therefore, the two countries will start cooperation at all levels (even regarding nuclear energy!), and Hungary was invited as a guest of honor at China’s international trade and economy expo. Xi and Orbán also discussed a status of ‘all-weather cooperation’, the second level of cooperation between China and other countries, which China only shares with Pakistan (you can see the hierarchy of Chinese diplomatic relations in the image below). So, the only ally closer to China than Hungary would be Russia if this partnership is signed, undoubtedly including many economic benefits.

Romania – The Country that Can’t Benefit from Its Own Relations

I closely followed Xi’s visit, analyzed it extensively here, and this brought me a feeling of frustration and anger regarding Romania’s inability to benefit from its long history and friendship with China. In the 17th century, we had Nicolae Milescu, who wrote a unique book about his journey to China. Romania was the third country in the world to establish diplomatic relations with China on October 5, 1939, later helping China consolidate its natural gas exploration sector. In 1970, when Romania was devastated by floods, China contributed a third of the funds needed for reconstruction. Ceaușescu visited China six times; I have many more examples showing the depth of Sino-Romanian relations, but now China officially declares its relations with almost all European countries more important and friendly than those with Romania (note how low we rank in the relationship hierarchy in the image above). Since 2019, we have canceled all development projects with China, including the one in Cernavodă, at the request of the US. We were the first European country to ban Huawei (the largest Chinese electronics company) from the Romanian market and the 5G network, also at the request of the US. We restricted Chinese companies’ participation in public tenders (especially in infrastructure), implemented a rigorous screening mechanism for non-EU investments, and reduced participation in the China-Central and Eastern Europe summit to the ministerial level, while all other countries sent presidents or prime ministers, even telling the Chinese that we see no possible benefit from this platform. At the parliamentary level, we went even further, proposing the forced closure of Confucius Institutes in Romania, while those in Germany, France, and the US still exist. That’s why we are no longer invited to cooperation summits with China, even though China is the third largest investor in the EU, after the US and the UK.

I believe we all understand how important Romania’s relationship with the US is, and we should support and deepen it, but it is shocking that we now have (almost) the worst relations with China among all EU countries. Why are we the only ones who have to refuse cooperation with China? Even Macron, the president of a country with traditionally abrasive relations, managed to develop economic relations with China during this week’s meeting. And yes, France is a more “strategic” country than Romania, but let’s note the truth, namely that Romania’s economic and geopolitical potential is greater than those of Serbia and Hungary combined! We are also EU members, like France and Hungary, and have older diplomatic relations with China than all the countries visited by Xi on this tour. Do we really have to destroy our relations with China, willing to invest billions in trade and infrastructure in our favor, just to maintain relations with the US? Clearly not. It’s one thing to favor a strategic partner, but being the first country to destroy its old friendship with the world’s largest economy is entirely different, and it’s shocking that the government accepted, even promoted, Romania’s distancing from the world’s largest infrastructure investor. It would be time to condition our geopolitical support with tangible benefits and investments, just as our neighbors Serbia and Hungary do, and not remain in the position of true “perpetual fools” who give everything but ask for nothing in return.

By Daria Gusa

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