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Xi’s European tour: where is Chinese leader going and what are visit’s aims?

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China’s president, Xi Jinping, has begun a three-country tour of Europe – his first state visit to the continent in five years – at a time when China-EU ties are under strain from trade disputes and Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Where is Xi visiting and who will he meet?

The Chinese leader’s visit begins on Monday in Paris, where he is meeting the French president, Emmanuel Macron, for a day of talks that will include a trilateral meeting with the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and a state banquet at the Élysée Palace in the evening.

On Tuesday, Macron will accompany Xi to the Tourmalet pass 2,000 metres up in the Hautes-Pyrénées mountains, an area where the French president spent childhood holidays visiting his grandmother, for a day of less formal discussions. The two last met in April 2023 during a three-day state visit to China by Macron.

On Wednesday, Xi will travel to Belgrade for talks with Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, and on Thursday he will go to Budapest where he will meet Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Both countries are pro-Russia and big recipients of Chinese investment.

What is the purpose of his visit?

Officially, Xi’s visit to Paris is to mark 60 years since diplomatic relations were established between France and China: France was the first western country to formally recognise the People’s Republic of China, on 27 January 1964.

His visit to Belgrade coincides with the 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Serbia, when three people died after a US strike accidentally hit the compound during Nato’s air campaign against Serb forces occupying Kosovo.

Analysts have said that in his meetings with Macron and von der Leyen, away from the ceremonies, Xi will mainly be aiming to lobby against the EU’s anti-subsidy investigations, particularly on electric vehicles, and on stabilising diplomatic relationships.

In Serbia, where China is the biggest single source of inward investment, he will hope to play up Beijing’s anti-US, anti-Nato agenda – one reason why China has maintained its support for Russia since its invasion of Ukraine.

In Hungary, Xi will underline the close economic and diplomatic ties between the two countries, including in security cooperation, and discuss progress on China’s belt and road initiative, which includes a high-speed Budapest-Belgrade rail link.

Hungary, a vocal supporter of China that has blocked some EU motions criticising Beijing on human rights, has Huawei’s largest base outside China and will soon host the carmaker BYD’s first European factory.

What big issues will be on the table?

Overshadowing the visit are EU concerns over China’s support for Russia two years into war against Ukraine, and Beijing’s concerns over the bloc’s economic security agenda, including the threat of heavy tariffs on Chinese imports.

Macron and von der Leyen will call on China to stop exports to Russia of “dual-use” and other technologies aiding Moscow war effort. Beijing claims to be neutral in the conflict but China-Russia trade has helped offset western sanctions on Moscow.

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Beijing, for its part, aims to head off the threat of European tariffs on Chinese EVs after an EU investigation into state support for the industry in China. Studies put China’s subsidies at between three and nine times those of other major economies.

Human rights groups have said the issues of Tibet and Xinjiang, where the UN has said China may have committed crimes against humanity by placing up to a million ethnic Uyghur Muslims in re-education camps, must be raised.

What is the outcome likely to be?

Most analysts doubt that the EU and its messages on the looming trade dispute and Chinese support for Russia over Ukraine will make much headway with Xi, whose visit seems designed to exploit the bloc’s internal differences.

China’s economy is facing some difficulties and the US is increasingly reticent about opening up to Chinese companies, meaning the EU could have some leverage, but its 27 members are not fully aligned on China policy, undermining their influence.

Macron wants a more aggressive EU stance on subsidies and has warned that the bloc risks falling behind without one, but other leaders, such as Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, stress the importance of the Chinese market for their own exporters.

Overall, said Janka Oertel, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, Xi’s Paris visit is “unlikely to have a significant impact on Chinese behaviour”. And Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based analyst, said the Belgrade and Budapest stops were part of China’s efforts to deepen divisions within the west.

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