Xi is probing for cracks in the EU and Nato

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Who is Xi Jinping’s travel agent? If you are making your first trip to Europe in nearly five years, an itinerary that reads France, Serbia, Hungary seems a little eccentric.

But the three stops chosen by China’s leader make perfect sense viewed from Beijing. For strategic and economic reasons, China badly wants to disrupt the unity of both Nato and the EU. Each of the three countries that Xi is visiting is seen as a potential lever to prise open the cracks in the west.

On a recent visit to Beijing, I found Chinese foreign policy experts fascinated by French talk of the need for Europe to achieve “strategic autonomy” from the US. In a speech in Paris last month, Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, said that Europe must never be a “vassal of the United States” — which is language also favoured by China.

The Xi government was also delighted when Macron, on a flight back from Beijing last year, intimated that Europe had no interest in defending Taiwan from a potential Chinese invasion. Although there was some effort to explain away those remarks, the Chinese have noted, with gratitude, that France later blocked efforts to open a Nato liaison office in Tokyo. Keeping Nato countries out of Asia — and preventing America from linking up its allies in Asia and Europe — is a key goal of Chinese foreign policy.

But the Chinese are at risk of over-interpreting the radicalism of Macron’s ideas when it comes to Nato. The French president may once have described the alliance as experiencing “brain death”. But, in recent times, he has taken a much more hawkish line on Russia — which places real limits on France’s willingness and ability to distance itself from Nato or the US.

Xi’s trip to Europe also has a strong economic component. And on these issues, France is a much more difficult partner. Macron might not challenge China over Taiwan — but the future of the French car industry is a different matter.

China’s electric vehicles have a huge cost advantage over their European and American competitors. Exporting those EVs is crucial to Xi’s plans to revitalise China’s economy. Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, sounded accommodating to Beijing’s ambitions on a recent trip to China — reflecting German car manufacturers’ fear of a trade war.

But, with France’s strong backing, the European Commission has launched a competition inquiry into Chinese EVs. Ursula von der Leyen, the commission president — already unpopular in Beijing because of her plans to “de-risk” the EU’s relationship with China — will join Macron for a meeting with Xi. The chances of the commission backing down seem small.

The Serbian leg of Xi’s European visit will give the Chinese leader a chance to ram home a geopolitical message. Xi’s visit will coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, during the Kosovo war. That will enable China to underline the argument — also favoured by Russia — that Nato is an aggressive and dangerous organisation. (Nato has always insisted that the bombing of the Chinese embassy was an accident that took place in the context of a war to protect Kosovans from Serbian aggression.)

Xi’s anti-Nato message may go over well back home, where the bombing of the Belgrade embassy is still understandably bitterly resented. Russia and much of the global south will also like the anti-western messaging. But telling Europeans that they are vassals of America and that Nato is a dangerous organisation is a message that most Europeans will find insulting at best — and threatening at worst. The 30 European countries that have joined the alliance know that, with Russia waging a war of aggression on their borders, Nato is needed more than ever.

Xi’s third stop is Hungary — which is a Nato member. Nonetheless, the country’s leader, Viktor Orbán, has positioned himself as the most pro-Russian voice inside the western alliance — and is performing a similar service for China. Hungary has blocked several EU resolutions critical of China.

Having forced the Central European University, a liberal, western institution, out of Hungary, Orbán has invited China’s Fudan University to set up in Budapest. On a recent visit to Beijing, Hungary’s foreign minister poured scorn on the idea that China has an “overcapacity” in EVs.

There is a direct pay-off for Hungary in taking this position because at least one Chinese producer of EVs is planning to use the country as a production base. If the compromise solution on EVs is for Chinese firms to do more of their manufacturing in Europe, then Hungary is well placed to profit.

But Xi’s decision to visit Serbia and Hungary will make it difficult to convince most other Europeans that he comes in friendship. Serbia sits outside both the EU and Nato; while Hungary has undermined both organisations from within. Both countries are friendly to Russia. The fact that Xi will return home to receive Vladimir Putin in Beijing, shortly afterwards, will deepen European apprehension about China’s real intentions.

Xi’s own understanding of how mainstream Europe sees Russia is unlikely to be furthered by spending time with outliers — like Orbán and Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić. The Chinese leader’s travel agent should have come up with a more challenging itinerary.

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