China’s Xi Jinping begins first Europe tour in five years in France

Chinese president wants to repair ties with a sceptical Western Europe but faces questions over his stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is on his first trip to Europe in five years, which is likely to be dominated by Russia’s war in Ukraine as well as economic strains between Beijing and Brussels.

The first stop will be France, with Xi due to hold talks in Paris on May 6 with French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, before travelling south to the Pyrenees.

After that, he will travel to Serbia and Hungary, two countries that have maintained close ties with Russia despite its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

According to Matt Geracim, the assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub, the Chinese president is travelling to Europe with three goals: “repairing relations in Europe damaged by China’s support for Russia’s war on Ukraine, blunting the EU’s economic security agenda vis-a-vis China, and showcasing Beijing’s strong ties with its stalwart partners Serbia and Hungary.”

Here is all you need to know about Xi’s European tour, which continues until Friday.

The big picture

Beijing and Paris are marking 60 years since diplomatic relations were established, with France the first Western country to formally recognise the People’s Republic of China on January 27, 1964.

But the trip also comes amid a deteriorating global security climate, with the war in Ukraine now into its third year and at least 34,683 Palestinians killed in Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza.

France has said those two conflicts, particularly Ukraine where Beijing has professed neutrality but not condemned Moscow for its full-scale invasion, will feature prominently in the talks.

“Exchanges will focus on international crises, first and foremost the war in Ukraine and the situation in the Middle East,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement ahead of the visit last week.

Macron has recently emerged as one of the most hawkish of the EU leaders on the continent’s security, and he will be urging Xi to put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine. In an interview with the Economist newspaper published last week, the French president argued the war was existential for Europe.

“If Russia wins in Ukraine there will be no security in Europe,” he said. “Who can pretend that Russia will stop there?” What security would there be, he asked, for neighbouring countries: Moldova, Romania, Poland, Lithuania and others?

To underline the unity of the European position, von der Leyen will also join Monday’s discussions, which are due to get under way just after 11am (09:00 GMT).

As well as the Ukraine war, Europe is also concerned about Chinese business practices and has initiated an investigation into China’s subsidies for electric vehicle manufacturers, amid concerns such payments are undermining competition and harming European companies.

A drone picture from Chasiv Yar, It shows destroyed apartment buildings and bomb craters.
The more than two-year-long war in Ukraine will be high on the agenda when Macron meets Xi [Ukraine Patrol Police via AP]

Macron told the Economist that he would also convey to Xi why Europe needs to safeguard its own manufacturers and industries.

Ahead of Xi’s departure last week, Lin Jian, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Beijing was ready to “work with France and the EU to take this meeting as an opportunity to make the China-EU relations more strategic, stable, constructive and mutually beneficial, promote steady and sustained progress in China-EU relations, and contribute to the prosperity of both China and Europe and a peaceful world.”

Following Monday’s summit, Marcon and his wife, Brigitte, will host Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan, to a state banquet.

On Tuesday, Macron will take the Chinese leader to the Pyrenees mountains, where he made regular trips to see his grandmother as a child. The two couples are also expected to take a cable car up to the summit of the 2,877-metre (9,439 ft) Pic du Midi, a dark sky reserve.

After wrapping his trip in France, Xi will head to Serbia where he will arrive in Belgrade on the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Chinese Embassy for talks with President Aleksandar Vucic. Three people were killed when Washington said it accidentally struck the compound during the NATO air campaign against Serb forces occupying Kosovo, in an event that triggered outrage and protests in China.

China has since emerged as the biggest single source of investment in Serbia, which is not a member of the EU, and prior to the trip Lin, the MOFA spokesperson, referred to the two countries’ ties as “ironclad”.

“The bombing remains a significant topic for Chinese officials, who use it to support narratives that question the values of liberal democracies,” Stefan Vladisavljev, programme director at Foundation BFPE for a Responsible Society wrote in an online analysis. “For Serbia, the visit presents an opportunity to strengthen its position as China’s main partner in the Western Balkans.”

Chinese flags on the central reservation of a Belgrade road. There are white and red lines from passing cars
Xi Jinping will arrive in Belgrade some 25 years since US bombs struck the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade [Marko Djurica/Reuters]

Xi will then travel on May 8 to Budapest, the final stop on his European tour.

There he will meet Hungarian President Viktor Orban, the most Russia-friendly leader in the EU.

Hungary, whose policies have raised concern among other EU members, has become more closely aligned with Beijing and Moscow and recently signed a security cooperation agreement with China that allows Chinese police officers to work in areas where there are large populations of ethnic Chinese or which are popular with Chinese tourists, according to Zoltan Feher is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.

Reports on such Chinese police stations have raised alarm in other parts of Europe, particularly among exiles and dissidents.

Hungary is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which it joined in 2015, and the two men are likely to discuss the ongoing construction of the high-speed rail between Budapest and Belgrade.

Ukraine war

Macron has spoken increasingly about the need to develop Europe’s own security architecture rather than rely on NATO and the US.

He has even suggested that France would be willing to send its troops to Ukraine, if Russia broke through the front lines and Kyiv asked for assistance.

China has long maintained it is neutral in the war, but Beijing and Moscow have deepened their ties since the full-scale invasion began, and Putin is expected to visit China this month.

Macron will be hoping to persuade Xi of the need for China to get more closely involved in efforts to secure peace as Switzerland organises a peace conference next month to discuss a 10-point plan put forward by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the end of 2022.

The Swiss say they have already invited more than 160 delegations, but it is not clear whether Beijing, which has also put forward a proposal for peace talks and deployed its own envoy in the region, will attend.

Russia has repeatedly dismissed the process, and insists a precursor for negotiations is that Kyiv give up the 20 percent of its territory that Russia currently occupies.

“We must continue to engage China, which is objectively the international player with the greatest leverage to change Moscow’s mind,” the French newspaper Le Monde quoted an unnamed diplomatic source as saying.

Human rights

Chinese state media have been reporting breathlessly on Xi’s arrival in Paris; the streets decorated with Chinese and French flags and groups of Chinese nationals welcoming their president.

But campaigners for Tibet and Xinjiang, where the United Nations says China may have committed crimes against humanity in holding some 1 million ethnic Uighur Muslims in re-education camps, were also out on the streets of the capital.

The EU imposed targeted sanctions on certain Chinese officials and companies over Xinjiang in March 2021, prompting anger in Beijing.

Human Rights Watch says while the French president did not raise the issue publicly on his visit to China last year, he should do so while Xi is in Paris and call for the release of those arbitrarily detained or imprisoned including Ilham Tohti, an Uighur economist who was awarded the Sakharov Prize, Europe’s most prominent human rights award in 2019.

The human rights organisation said Macron should also raise the issue of Tibet, where some 1 million Tibetan children are being placed in boarding schools and separated from their language and culture, and Hong Kong, once the most free territory in China but now subject to two draconian security laws.

“President Macron should make it clear to Xi Jinping that Beijing’s crimes against humanity come with consequences for China’s relations with France,” Maya Wang, the acting China director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “France’s silence and inaction on human rights would only embolden the Chinese government’s sense of impunity for its abuses, further fuelling repression at home and abroad.”

On April 30, Macron was pictured at the Elysee Palace with Penpa Tsering, the president of the Tibetan government-in-exile, on the sidelines of a ceremony to honour former Senator Andre Gattolin, a longtime supporter Tibet, who was awarded the Legion d’Honneur.

Tibet protesters rally in Paris as Xi Jinping arrives. They have placards reading 'Free Tibet' and are carrying Tibetan flags. There's a statue behind them.
Tibetans demonstrate in Paris on Sunday as Xi Jinping arrived for a state visit to France [Thomas Padilla/AP Photo]

Penpa Tsering presented the French president with a signed photo of his 2016 meeting with the Dalai Lama and “urged him not to forget Tibet”, according to a report the Central Tibetan Administration.

“We understand that the agenda between the two presidents will be dense given the many international crises such as in Ukraine and in the Middle East, but this must not be done at the expense of exchanges on human rights, which are in a deplorable state throughout the country as well as in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, where a latent conflict has been going on for over 60 years and poses a threat to regional and international security,” Vincent Metten, the EU policy director for the International Campaign for Tibet said in a statement.

In Freedom House’s 2024 report on Freedom in the World, Tibet’s overall score was zero out of 100; the lowest in at least eight years.

Maryse Artiguelong, the vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), said: “The conflict in Ukraine highlights the threat posed to international order and security by authoritarian regimes such as Russia and the People’s Republic of China. Their aggressive foreign policies and repressive domestic policies are inextricably linked: Anyone who does not oppose China’s human rights violations risks one day facing its aggressive foreign policy.”

Source: Al Jazeera