Aiming for Rosier Ties, Xi Wraps Up Europe Visit

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The Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, received a gift of fine cognac at the Élysée Palace in Paris and was cheered in Belgrade by Serbians waving Chinese flags, albeit most of them were bused-in government workers.

And by the time he left Hungary on Friday at the end of a six-day European tour, the clouds over his country’s relations with the West looked much less dark, at least from China’s perspective.

Mr. Xi told President Emmanuel Macron of France that relations would be “as vibrant and thriving as springtime.” At his next stop, he said the “tree of China-Serbia friendship will grow tall and sturdy.” In Hungary, Mr. Xi told Prime Minister Viktor Orban that their countries were poised to “embark on a golden voyage.”

The Chinese state-run news media, never less than glowing about Mr. Xi, went to strenuous lengths to present his European meetings as a triumph.

There were no breakthroughs on trade, the war in Ukraine or other issues that have soured ties — just a long list of new joint projects that China says it will help finance. Hungary got 18, Serbia dozens more. French companies inked deals on energy, finance and transport projects.

But the red carpet receptions Mr. Xi received in all three countries helped cast a rosier hue on ties between China and Europe, which have only worsened since he last visited five years ago.

China’s rigid restrictions on travel for much of the Covid-19 pandemic deterred high-level visits in either direction. And just as the Covid crisis began to fade, Europe’s estrangement from China deepened when President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia launched his full invasion of Ukraine in early 2022.

This week, after first stopping in Paris, Mr. Xi traveled to Serbia and Hungary, which have remained reliably pro-China on a continent where, according to opinion polls, China’s reputation has taken a nosedive.

In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic declared that his country felt only “reverence and love” for the Chinese president, and the police detained followers of the banned Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong to make sure they wouldn’t disrupt the government-orchestrated welcome for Mr. Xi.

In Hungary, Mr. Orban assured Mr. Xi, the leader of the world’s biggest communist country, that he would “feel at home” in Budapest, though the city is studded with monuments to the fight against communism. The police banned a protest planned for the center of Budapest and cleared a busy district of people so Mr. Xi could visit an office tower undisturbed on Friday.

Mr. Xi’s goal on his European tour was to “demonstrate and strengthen China’s ability to retain friendly ties with Europe despite NATO and Ukraine,” said Yun Sun, the director of the China program at the Stimson Center in Washington. France, Serbia and Hungary, she added, are “about the most China-friendly countries” in Europe.

And though it is only about the size of Indiana and has fewer than 10 million people, Hungary will play an outsize role when it takes over the European Union’s rotating presidency this year. That role is mostly bureaucratic, but it will allow Hungary to try to set the agenda for meetings of the Council of the European Union, the bloc’s dominant power center.

“Hungary is China’s Trojan horse in the European Union,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert at the Asia Center, a research group in Paris. Mr. Xi, he added, did not achieve much during his stop in France, but he “helped China’s position” by cementing his country’s ties to Serbia and Hungary.

In an interview with Magyar Nemzet, a Hungarian news media outlet controlled by Mr. Orban’s governing Fidesz party, Mr. Xi expressed hope that Hungary would “take the lead” in “maintaining the correct direction of E.U.-China relations.”

Noah Barkin, a visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States who studies European-Chinese relations, said China would be wrong to hope that Mr. Orban can use Hungary’s council presidency, which lasts only six months, to shift European policy significantly. “The idea that Hungary will be able to do China’s bidding during its presidency is fanciful,” he said.

But Mr. Orban has a long history of swimming against the tide set by more powerful European countries. He was the only E.U. leader to travel to Beijing in October for a gathering celebrating Mr. Xi’s pet foreign policy initiative, the Belt and Road infrastructure program. He was also the only leader who blocked a statement the European Union had planned to issue in 2021 criticizing China over its crackdown in Hong Kong.

China and Hungary are “natural allies” because they share a commitment to pursuing their own national interests no matter what anyone else says, a pro-government Hungarian commentator, Levente Sitkei, told Magyar Nemzet.

“China makes alliances that it thinks useful and will never, in any forum, care about how others think,” Mr. Sitkei said. “Hungary acts in exactly the same way.”

Even before Mr. Xi’s trip, China had been making some progress on restoring influence in Europe. Olaf Scholz, the chancellor of Germany, flew to Beijing last month and softened his warnings on trade tensions by emphasizing his country’s commitment to doing business with China.

Some in Beijing seem confident that China will succeed in coaxing European governments away from alignment with Washington.

“Even if European politicians often put on a big show of shaking their fists at China, in their hearts they well know that Europe cannot do without the contribution from economic cooperation with China,” Wang Wen, a researcher at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University in Beijing, told Guancha, a Chinese news website, this week. “More and more Europeans are waking up to the fact that after losing Russia, they cannot now lose China.”

Many in Europe, however, remain deeply wary of Mr. Xi’s partnership with Mr. Putin — a relationship that will be back in the spotlight when Mr. Putin visits China in the coming weeks. A rash of recent arrests in Britain and Germany of people accused of spying for China has also raised anxieties.

And even on trade, which Mr. Xi highlighted as the lifeblood of cooperation, tensions are rising over a surge of Chinese-made electric vehicles and other products.

“Xi’s trip will not have reassured anyone who was hoping for signs that China is taking Europe’s concerns seriously,” Mr. Barkin said.

The final day of Mr. Xi’s stay in Hungary was strikingly uneventful for a leader whose usually full agenda has earned him the nickname chairman of everything. Mr. Orban gave Mr. Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, a tour of Budapest, Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported.

“The two leaders sat gazing out the window at clouds rolling by,” the Xinhua report said. “They spoke at ease about their experiences growing up and thoughts on governance, and they reached many points of consensus.”

Barnabas Heincz contributed reporting from Budapest, and David Pierson from Hong Kong.

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