Why Xi’s European tour was a quiet but effective victory over the US

    WORLD  18 May 2024 - 09:00

    South China Morning Post has published an opinion piece claiming that the Chinese president’s trip to Europe did not result in any headline-grabbing developments, but that did not prevent it from achieving everything it needed to. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    President Xi Jinping’s recently concluded European trip was a quiet but meaningful success. This was not the result of any headline-grabbing policy victories; none were expected and none were achieved.

    Instead, this success derived from his ability to stiff-arm European complaints about China’s economic and geopolitical conduct while reinforcing anti-US sentiment, thereby hindering Washington’s ability to draw the European Union into a more unified and tougher stance against China.

    The specific objectives of Xi’s five-day trip to France, Serbia and Hungary were to deflect European allegations about the potentially deleterious impact of China’s excess industrial capacity on EU producers and hold a firm line against accusations that China is surreptitiously supporting Russia’s war effort through exports of dual-use technologies and machine tools.

    Perhaps most important from Xi’s perspective was the opportunity to highlight the shared distress China and some in Europe feel over the perils of a United States-led world order.

    As the US-China rivalry intensifies, Europe has become an increasingly important fulcrum. An EU that aligns more tightly with the US’ confrontational approach complicates life significantly for Beijing. Attempting to split the EU from the US – or at least forestall any meaningful migration closer to the US camp – has therefore become a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy.

    Towards that end, Xi took every opportunity to remind his friends in Europe of the heavy-handedness, hypocrisy and occasional collateral damage that has accompanied US hegemony. It was therefore no coincidence that Xi visited Serbia to mark the 25th anniversary of the deadly Nato bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war. The US apologised for what it characterised as an unfortunate mistake, but the incident left deep scars that remain to this day.

    In a letter published just before his arrival, Xi wrote: “Twenty-five years ago today, Nato flagrantly bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, killing three Chinese journalists. This we should never forget. The Chinese-Serbian friendship, forged with the blood of our compatriots, will stay in the shared memory of the Chinese and Serbian peoples.”

    Xi’s task was not as easy as simply binding China and Europe in mutual antipathy towards American power. Tensions with the bloc over trade and Ukraine also needed to be addressed. Xi’s forceful responses demonstrated that he felt no compulsion to court favour with his European interlocutors on these issues.

    Instead of acknowledging EU concerns and offering at least superficial remedial gestures, Xi flatly denied their validity. According to Xi, “the so-called problem of China’s overcapacity does not exist”. As for the war in Ukraine, which Xi referred to as a conflict, China is merely an impartial outside observer whose only desire is peace.

    The EU retains its right to take economic action against China for either a surge in dumped products resulting from China’s excess capacity or violations of sanctions against Russia. In fact, the EU has already initiated a trade investigation into China’s electric vehicle exports. However, Xi appears to be entirely unfazed. As evidenced by the seemingly tit-for-tat investigation into European brandy exports to China, Xi is confident in China’s ability to deter or retaliate.

    Xi’s confidence derives at least partially from EU structural realities that make it difficult for the EU to develop and implement cohesive policies on multifaceted issues where viewpoints across the bloc diverge. Beijing has proven itself adept at exploiting the substantial differences among EU members on how to manage the China relationship and where to position itself in the US-China rivalry.

    French President Emmanuel Macron’s affinity for strategic autonomy – a more independent foreign policy that eschews falling in line behind the US as a vassal – plays like music to Xi’s ears. Although they approach the issue from different perspectives, Macron and Xi have a shared desire to move towards a more multipolar world in which the US’ ability to call the shots is diminished.

    At the same time, Macron has been willing to assert France’s trade and economic interests and call China out on practices deemed unfair. He has advocated a tougher line on the EV investigation and pressed Xi on China’s investigation into France’s cherished cognac industry. Macron’s German counterpart, Olaf Scholz, appears more aligned with the “don’t rock the boat, we need China” approach favoured by German business interests.

    At one end of the spectrum, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s tough pronouncements on China’s trade practices sound like they could have come from the US trade representative. At the other extreme end is Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who expresses kinship with China’s authoritarian form of government, a viewpoint which deeply rankles with many EU capitals.

    The net result of this kaleidoscope of viewpoints is that the EU’s China policy can vacillate between measured confrontation and pragmatic accommodation but is unlikely to definitively veer towards the more hard-edged policies pursued by Washington.

    All of this suits China’s interests perfectly well. It does not need the EU to be on China’s side; it simply needs to avoid the EU wholeheartedly joining the US’ side.

    By asserting China’s neutrality on Ukraine, throwing Macron a bone in the form of a concession on the brandy investigation and reminding Europeans of the discomfort with US hegemony that exists to varying degrees across the continent, Xi accomplished exactly what he needed to. China looks strong and assured, little was given and, by fanning anti-US flames, much was gained. When it comes to China policy, the EU will continue to be a boat with many rowers pulling in different directions.

    Caliber.Az

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