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Xi heads to Europe to defend Russia ties

Beijing – Xi Jinping heads to Europe on Sunday to defend China’s “no limits” alliance with Russia, first to key Ukraine backer France, then to Serbia and Hungary, which have close ties to the Kremlin.

The world’s second-biggest economy is seeking to deepen political and economic ties in Europe to counterbalance difficult relations with rival Washington.

But analysts say that if France and other Ukraine allies in Europe believe that Xi can be coaxed into abandoning his friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, they will be disappointed.

Despite French President Emmanuel Macron’s red carpet welcome for Xi when he arrives on Sunday, their talks will be far from straightforward.

In Paris on Monday, Xi and Macron will hold talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who has urged Beijing to play a greater role in ending the Ukraine war.

“If the European side expects China to impose sanctions on Russia, or to join the United States and Europe in imposing economic sanctions on Russia, I think it’s clearly unlikely to happen,” said Ding Chun, director of the Centre for European Studies at Shanghai’s Fudan University.

Xi is seeking to push back on recent European Union probes into China’s industry, but France has made clear that “first and foremost” on the agenda will be Russia’s war in Ukraine.

China claims to be a neutral party in Ukraine but has never condemned Russia’s invasion, while the United States has said Moscow would struggle to sustain its war without Beijing’s support.

Beijing is “the international player with the greatest leverage to change Moscow’s mind”, a French diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

“Paris will put China’s support to Russia at the core of the discussion,” said Abigael Vasselier, at the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

“This will certainly not be conducive to a feel-good moment, despite the optics.”

– How far will Xi go? –

Xi’s visit to Europe will be the first since the end of China’s Covid isolation.

It also comes a year after Macron conducted a state visit to China in April 2023, during which he said he was counting on Xi to “bring Russia to its senses” over Ukraine. 

At the time, Macron exasperated European allies by saying the bloc should not be dragged into a conflict between China and its main rival the United States over Taiwan — while earning praise in Beijing over the comments.

In February this year, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited France and told Macron that Beijing appreciated its “independent foreign policy”.

“We will see how far Xi Jinping will go to please Emmanuel Macron,” said Valerie Niquet, from the Foundation for Strategic Research.

After he ends his European trip, Xi will return to China, with Putin expected to visit later in May. 

“China will not budge on Ukraine,” Niquet said.

– ‘Price to pay’ –

While Macron and von der Leyen will seek to focus on Ukraine, Xi will want to fight a series of probes launched by the bloc into alleged unfair trade practices by China.

The investigations run the gamut across China’s industrial output, from solar panels and electric vehicle subsidies, to procurement in its medical devices sector.

Beijing has slammed the moves as “protectionism”.

“The Chinese side is very keen to bring this to the table, but France is behind the European Commission plans,” Philippe Le Corre, from the Asia Society Policy Institute’s Center for China Analysis, told AFP.

“It is time for European leaders to explain to China that the price to pay for its growing support to Russia’s war effort will increase,” the Mercator Institute’s Vasselier said.

– ‘Eastern opening’ –

From France, Xi will head to Serbia, and then Hungary on May 8-10.

The visit to the Serbian capital Belgrade will coincide with the anniversary of the 1999 US bombing of the Chinese embassy there — allowing for Xi to send a pointed anti-Western message.

China has invested heavily to expand its economic footprint in central and eastern Europe, including vast battery and electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing plants in Hungary, and copper and gold operations in Serbia.

“The plan to commemorate the… NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy… also paves the way for Putin’s visit to China: NATO is a threat to international security,” said Wang Yiwei, director of the Center for European Union Studies at Renmin University of China.

In Budapest, he will meet Prime Minister Viktor Orban, an avowed nationalist who opposes the official EU position on Russia.

Orban has been championing an “Eastern opening” foreign policy since his return to power in 2010, seeking closer economic ties to China, Russia and other Asian countries.

Despite its small size, the Central European country of 9.6 million people has attracted a flood of major Chinese projects in recent years.

Orban spoke last month spoke about his vision for a “sovereignist world”, where the “global economy is organised non-ideologically along the lines of mutual benefit.”

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