President Xi touches down in Paris for five-day Europe tour


A modified Air China flight touched down in a rainy Paris yesterday (Sunday), carrying China’s leader Xi Jinping on his first visit to Europe since 2019.

And yep, a bit’s changed since 2019, which was pre-covid, pre-Russian invasion, and even pre-Intrigue.

To boot, Europe has since shelved its landmark investment pact with China, Italy has left China’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, spying scandals have emerged, and sentiment has soured. These days, Europe and China are now hitting each other right where it hurts, and in the one zone that’s long united them: trade.

That’s all a heck of a backdrop for Xi’s visit, but his unusual itinerary this week (France, Serbia, Hungary) offers insights into his thinking.

First, the three destinations share one thing in common – each national leader has variously claimed that the current world order needs fixing. And that’s music for Xi, who’s increasingly presenting China as part of the solution.

But second, each stop offers insights, too.

Xi’s time in France comes just days after President Macron again reiterated his vision for Europe to pursue a ‘third way’, independent of the US and China. And it comes just months after China opened an investigation into French cognac exports, in retaliation for the EU’s probe (pushed by France) into Chinese EVs.

Xi then flies tomorrow (Tuesday) to Serbia, where he’ll mark 25 years since the accidental US bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade. The US apologised at the time though it remains a sore spot, and one that China is only too happy to highlight in solidarity with Serbian grievances around NATO and the West.

Xi then wraps his tour in Hungary, which just signed an unusual security pact with China, while hosting a major Huawei presence, expecting a new Chinese EV plant, and taking China-friendly positions on issues like human rights.

At each stop on this itinerary you don’t have to look too hard to see divisions – whether within the West, within Europe, or within the European business sector.

And from the perspective of a China seeking to break what it sees as Western containment, division is the name of the game.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

It’s worth looking quickly at each of those points of division.

First, on divisions within the West, Xi wants to maintain functional ties with Europe until the US elections, when he thinks the US might take a more isolationist turn and leave Europe to re-think its US ties even further.

Second, on divisions within Europe, Xi’s visit to Hungary and Serbia – where Chinese investment is significant – sends a message to fence-sitters elsewhere that if you play nice, you’ll reap the rewards.

And third, Xi’s visit highlights divisions within Europe’s business sector: you’ve got German carmakers opposing – and French automakers supporting – the EU’s probe into Chinese competition. Why? The Germans are more China-dependent, so they fear retaliation in China’s market. And while these two national industries duke it out, French brandy-distillers pay the price.

So then, if Xi’s objective is so clear, why play along? Macron still believes he can leverage his low-key bromance with Xi, and France’s national clout, to push Xi on Ukraine and rebalance relations on trade. But will it work?

The reality is Russian aggression suits Xi by distracting and diluting Western power. And Xi’s strategy to revive China’s economy relies on selling more EVs to the West, not less. So on both of Macron’s priorities, it’s hard to see Xi playing ball, though he’ll still say enough to nourish dovish voices in Europe.

And the upshot of all that? More tit-for-tat trade restrictions to come.

Also worth noting:

  • European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will also join Macron’s talks with Xi today.
  • Xi will also take a joint trip to Macron’s childhood vacation spot in the Pyrenees. It’s an answer to Xi’s rare invitation last year, when Macron visited the former residence of Xi’s father, a governor of Guangdong.
  • The EU is the world’s second-largest EV market after China. Hungary’s foreign minister just described the EU’s investigation into China’s EV subsidies as “really dangerous and harmful“.
  • France exports around 97% of its cognac each year. That export business employs around 70,000 French workers.
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