China's President Xi Jinping (R) speaks with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 26, 2024. LEHTIKUVA / AFP

International news

Chinese President Xi Jinping will pay state visits to France, Serbia and Hungary from May 5 to 10, foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying announced on Monday. Xi Jinping's upcoming European tour in early May comes after high-level visits by US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.

The visit signals a crucial diplomatic endeavour amid escalating tensions between China and the United States and the European Union.

This visit, his first to the continent since the pandemic began, aligns with the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and France. Historically, such milestones have been occasions for celebration and strengthening ties. However, this year's context is markedly different due to geopolitical strains primarily induced by USA’s trade wars with China and meddling in Taiwan - China affairs, which reached a new low by approval of $8 billion foreign aid package by the US Congress for Indo-Pacific allies, including to Taiwan, to counter China.

Europe has traditionally followed the United States in it’s foreign policy, especially regarding other emerging powers which are challenging the hegemony of the US. China’s neutrality regarding the Russia - Ukraine conflict, in which the EU has also deeply involved itself in support of Ukraine has not helped reduce tensions.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been swinging between demanding an independent European foreign policy and going on supporting US interests both with China and in Ukraine, recently even suggesting sending NATO troops to fight Russians in Ukraine.

Just last year in April 2023, in an interview on his plane back from a three-day state visit to China Macron told journalists that: ”Europe must reduce its dependency on the United States and avoid getting dragged into a confrontation between China and the U.S. over Taiwan. The great risk Europe faces is that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy.” Macron has called for ”Strategic autonomy” for Europe to help it rise into a global superpower in an emerging multipolar world, instead of being a satrapy union blindly following the United States.

For the upcoming May visit the atmosphere in Paris is anticipated to be more subdued than in previous commemorations, with a focus on critical economic and geopolitical discussions rather than festivity. French officials emphasise the need for reciprocity in relations, especially concerning ecological transitions and economic policies. This visit is not just a bilateral affair but a focal point in broader EU-China relations, with both sides navigating a complex web of trade, human rights concerns, and strategic autonomy.

Europe's relationship with China is currently characterised by economic interdependence shadowed by political and strategic divergences. The EU is one of China's largest trading partners, crucial for multiple sectors including technology and agriculture. However, the partnership has been tested by issues such as use of human rights as a political pressure instrument, and China's assertive foreign policies, particularly regarding Taiwan and the South China Sea. The European Union's recent actions, like blacklisting Chinese companies connected to Russia, underscore a shifting paradigm where the EU seeks to balance engagement with China and aligning with U.S.-led initiatives against Chinese policies. A recent bill signed by Biden into law forcing TikTok to be either sold to a US entity or banned is the last in a series of aggressive moves against Chinese companies. A few years ago, USA succeeded in shepherding European countries to ban Huawei, on similar accusations that the data may go to Chinese government through backdoors. Ironically, just a few years ago Edward Snowden revealed that the US and it’s English-speaking allies: Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, dubbed the Five Eyes are spying on the global community through tech giants such as Google and Meta.

Xi’s upcoming visit is also a litmus test for the EU's stance on strategic autonomy, a concept championed by French President Emmanuel Macron, who advocates for Europe reducing its dependency on the U.S. and carving out its own path in global affairs. This doctrine aims to position Europe as a distinct power center, capable of navigating the U.S.-China rivalry independently, which has been met with both endorsement and skepticism within and outside Europe.

Xi's itinerary includes a visit to Hungary and Serbia, two European countries which stand out for their independent thinking and opposition to the dominant political narrative of the Union and submissive attitude towards following the US into every global crisis. Hungary and Serbia have opposed pursuing a military solution in the Ukraine conflict and Hungary often opposed or delayed Union’s huge transfer of taxpayers money to fuel the war in Ukraine.

Xi is not visiting Finland this time, but Finland’s approach to China exemplifies a broader European dilemma: engaging economically while navigating the geopolitical currents shaped by larger powers like the U.S. and Russia. Finnish leaders, including the newly elected president Alexander Stubb, have advocated for a balanced approach, engaging China with a clear-eyed understanding of the larger strategic landscape.

In Finland, the dialogue with China has historically been pragmatic, focusing on mutual benefits in sectors such as clean technology and education. Yet, the global context—shaped by issues like security in the Taiwan Strait and cybersecurity—demands a more guarded stance. Finland's strategic location and recent NATO membership highlight its sensitive position in the broader European security architecture, influencing how it manages its Asian partnerships.

As Xi visits Europe, the stakes are high, and the outcomes of his engagements could influence EU-China relations for years to come. The discussions in Paris and Budapest will delve into trade, climate action, and regional security, but underlying these talks is a quest for a balanced approach to dealing with a rising China amid global shifts. The European response, particularly from France, will be telling of the continent's readiness to assert its strategic autonomy while fostering necessary international collaborations in an increasingly multipolar world.