On tour in Europe, Xi Jinping heads to friendly territory in the East

Warsaw.-When China’s leader Xi Jinping last visited Europe’s former communist east in 2016, the president of the Czech Republic welcomed him on a three-day, flag-bedecked state visit and offered his country as a “ unsinkable aircraft carrier.” for Chinese investment.

That ship has since sunk, ruined by China’s support for Russia in the war in Ukraine and bitter disappointment over projects that never came to fruition.

Many of the high hopes held across central and eastern Europe for a Chinese money bonanza have also been dashed.

So when Xi returned to the region this week, after a visit to France, he headed to Serbia, arriving Tuesday night before moving later that week to Hungary, two countries whose long-serving authoritarian leaders still offer a refuge for China in increasingly turbulent political and economic waters.

“Czechs, Poles and almost everyone else are really angry at China because of the war,” said Tamas Matura, a foreign affairs academic at Budapest’s Corvinus University.

“But in Hungary that is not a problem, at least not for the government” of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Matura said.

China’s Kremlin-friendly stance on the war in Ukraine is also not a problem for President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia, who, like Orban, has maintained warm relations with Russia and China while securing billions of dollars in Chinese investments.

In an interview this week with Chinese state television, Vucic previewed the flattery that will dominate Xi’s visit:

“There are thousands of things we can and should learn from our Chinese friends,” the Serbian president said.

“Taiwan is China, period,” he added.

Milos Zeman, the Czech president who welcomed Xi in 2016, was replaced last year by a former senior NATO general, Petr Pavel.

Pavel has angered the Chinese government by speaking to the president of Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its territory, and saying in an interview that China is “not a friendly country.”

Meanwhile, Chinese money has flowed into Hungary and Serbia, cementing close ties underpinned by a shared distrust of the United States.

China’s main infrastructure project in the region, a high-speed railway between Belgrade, Serbia, and Budapest, has been slowed by regulatory and other issues.

Of the roughly 320 kilometers of planned roads, only about 96 are operational after five years of work, a slow pace for a project that Beijing considers a key part of the Belt and Road infrastructure program, the favorite foreign policy initiative. of Xi.

But promised Chinese investment in other projects has accelerated, totaling almost $20 billion in Serbia, according to its construction, transport and infrastructure minister, and almost the same amount in Hungary, including loans, the terms of which are secret.

Ivana Karaskova, a Czech researcher at the Association for International Affairs, an independent research group based in Prague, said Hungary and Serbia look to China “not only for economic gains but also to demonstrate to their domestic electorate that they follow a policy independent”.

That shows the European Union and the United States that “they are not the only game in town,” Karaskova said.

China, he added, “understands this dynamic” and Xi will use it to try to reverse the continuing bitterness of opinion about China in Europe, both among ordinary citizens and in institutions such as the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union.

A survey last year in Central and Eastern European countries by Globsec, a research group in Slovakia, found that “negative perceptions of Beijing have skyrocketed,” particularly in the Baltic states and the Czech Republic.

Even in Hungary, only 26% of respondents had a positive opinion of Xi, compared to 39% who had a negative opinion.

But Hungary under Orban, no matter what the public thinks, has become a “safe political space” for Beijing, Matura said, and can be counted on to try to soften the European Union’s policy toward China and protect it from the consequences of the war in Ukraine.

The fusion of economic and geopolitical interests is particularly pronounced in Serbia, which aspires to join the European Union but has refused to join the bloc by imposing sanctions on Russia and thwarting EU efforts to negotiate a deal on Kosovo.

Kosovo, a former Serbian territory, declared itself an independent state after a NATO bombing campaign, a status that Serbia, supported by Russia and China, has refused to accept.

Xi’s arrival in Serbia on Tuesday coincided with the 25th anniversary of a mistaken attack by NATO warplanes on the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the 1999 bombing campaign.

That incident, which many in China believe was no accident, created a “strong emotional bond between Serbs and Chinese,” said Aleksandar Mitic of the Institute of International Politics and Economics in Belgrade.

As part of a series of government-sanctioned events in Belgrade ahead of Xi’s visit, Serbian communists on Monday unfurled banners reading “Welcome President” and “Kosovo is Serbia – Taiwan is China” in front of the Chinese Cultural Center in Belgrade. , built on the site of the bombed embassy.

They demanded that the street outside the center be renamed “Street of Chinese Victims of NATO Aggression.”

Hungary has also been angered by what it sees as bullying by Washington and Brussels, despite its membership in NATO and the European Union, from which it has received billions of euros in aid.

However, Orban’s main interest in China is money and he hopes to turn Hungary, with the help of Chinese investors, into a manufacturing hub for electric vehicles, batteries and other new technologies.

In the past two years alone, China has committed to investing more than $10 billion in Hungary, most of it in companies related to electric vehicles, at a time when the European Union, concerned about China’s growing dominance in the sector, is investigating whether Chinese electric vehicle manufacturers receive unfair subsidies and should be penalized with high tariffs.

BYD, the Chinese electric vehicle giant, announced in December that it would build an assembly plant in Hungary, its first production facility in Europe.

Plans for an even larger second Chinese electric car factory in the country with investment from Great Wall Motor are expected to be announced during Xi’s visit on Wednesday and Thursday.

Those assembly lines will take years to build but, in the long term, they will help protect Chinese electric vehicle makers from any future efforts by the European Union to prevent China from dominating the market through tariffs.

Tariffs imposed on imported Chinese electric cars would not apply to those assembled in Hungary, which can ship goods duty-free throughout the EU, although they could affect parts imported from China to Hungarian plants.

Unlike most of Europe, where governments change regularly (a democratic turnover that can alter Chinese investment plans based on close ties to a particular leader), Orban and Vucic have been in power for more than a decade. decade and show no signs of going anywhere.

“The Chinese feel comfortable in Hungary,” Matura said.

“The public may not like China very much, but the government does.”

The start of construction last year on a massive $7.8 billion Chinese battery factory in eastern Hungary sparked protests from local residents but applause from Orban’s government.

Vucic’s government has also ignored public anger over a huge Chinese-owned mining company in southern Serbia that environmental activists and residents say is poisoning the water supply.

By visiting Hungary and Serbia, Xi, analysts say, wants to demonstrate that while China may have lost its role as an influential player in Central and Eastern Europe, it has not yet disappeared.

And, they say, it indicates that he has not given up on a Chinese diplomatic initiative known as 16+1, a grouping of China and former communist European countries built around Xi’s emblematic Belt and Road program.

Angered by the war in Ukraine, three Baltic states formally left the group, which dates back to 2012 and has been a cornerstone of Chinese diplomacy in Europe under Xi.

Others, such as the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania, are technically still members but have largely withdrawn.

“The big current debate among experts in the region is whether 16+1 is dead or just a zombie,” said Matura.Clarín.

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2024-05-10 04:16:01

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