Xi Jinping’s European tour highlights divisions over China’s ambitions

Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded a high-profile tour of Europe, raising concerns over Beijing’s support for Russia in the Ukraine war and its growing economic influence.

Chinese President Xi Jinping concluded a high-profile tour of Europe on Friday, stoking concerns among some nations over Beijing’s support for Russia in the Ukraine war and its growing economic influence across the continent.

Xi’s three-nation visit to France, Serbia, and Hungary marked his first trip to the region since 2019. However, analysts suggest the countries were no random choices, but rather reflected China’s efforts to cultivate “special bilateral relationships” and divide Europe into camps of nations either friendly or hostile to Beijing’s interests.

Bertram Lang, a research associate at Goethe University in Frankfurt specializing in China’s foreign policy, observed that the Chinese leadership has gradually divided Europe into two groups: those friendly and unfriendly to China. He noted that the purpose of this trip was to emphasize relationships with the former.

The tour came amid growing suspicions that China may be seeking to capitalize on divisions within Europe to expand its economic and political clout. Of particular concern are Chinese support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the potential for European markets to be flooded by cheap Chinese electric vehicles as Beijing aims to make inroads into the critical automotive sector.

In France, Xi agreed to a deal resuming imports of European mussel species, providing a rare economic win. However, he faced pointed questions from French President Emmanuel Macron over his stance on the Ukraine conflict during tense talks.

Serbia and Hungary, meanwhile, have nurtured friendlier relations with Beijing compared to many of their European neighbours. Both countries have welcomed billions in Chinese investment for infrastructure projects as part of Xi’s Belt and Road global development initiative.

For critics, Xi’s choreographed itinerary highlighted how China aims to steadily accumulate influence by offering economic incentives to willing nations, even as concerns persist over Beijing’s human rights record and strategic intentions.

With the war in Ukraine exacerbating tensions between China and the West, Xi’s latest European mission represented an effort to strengthen Beijing’s hand by both shoring up existing alliances and sowing potential new divisions on the continent.