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China’s Xi Visits Europe, Seeking Strategic Opportunity

On his first visit to Europe in five years, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, appears intent on seizing opportunities to loosen the continent’s bonds with the United States and forge a world freed of American dominance.

The Chinese leader has chosen three countries to visit — France, Serbia and Hungary — that each, to a greater or lesser degree, look askance at America’s postwar ordering of the world, see China as a necessary counterweight and are eager to bolster economic ties.

At a time of tensions with much of Europe — over China’s “no limits” embrace of Russia despite the war in Ukraine, its surveillance state and its apparent espionage activities that led to the recent arrest in Germany of four people — Mr. Xi, who is arriving in France on Sunday, wants to demonstrate China’s growing influence on the continent and pursue a pragmatic rapprochement.

For Europe, the visit will test its delicate balancing act between China and the United States, and will no doubt be seen in Washington as a none-too-subtle effort by Mr. Xi to divide Western allies.

He has timed his arrival at his second stop, Serbia, to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the deadly NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo war. That mistaken strike on May 7, 1999, for which the White House apologized, killed three Chinese journalists and ignited furious protests around the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

“For Xi, being in Belgrade is a very economical way to ask if the United States is really serious about international law,” said Janka Oertel, the director of the Asia program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, “and to say, how about NATO overreach as a problem for other countries?”

The Chinese government has continued to commemorate the Belgrade bombing, using it as an occasion to denounce what it sees as Western hypocrisy and bullying.

“The United States always views itself as the leader — or hegemon — of the world, so China is a competitor or adversary that is challenging its hegemony,” said Tu Xinquan, the dean of a trade institute at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. “The European Union does not have a hegemonic mind-set.”

The official doctrine of the 27-member European Union defines China as “a partner for cooperation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival.” If that seems a mouthful, and a perhaps contradictory one, it is because the continent is torn between how to balance economic opportunity in China with national security risk, cybersecurity risk and economic risk to various industries.

In March, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told reporters that Europe’s formula was unworkable. “It’s like driving to a crossing and finding the red, yellow and green lights all on at the same time. How can one drive on?”

Now, Mr. Xi would like to ease the lights toward green.

To that end, Mr. Xi’s first and most important stop will be in France, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, has often made the Gaullist point that Europe “must never be a vassal of the United States,” as he did last month at a speech at the Sorbonne. The French leader insists that the survival of the European Union depends on “strategic autonomy.” and developing the military resilience to become a “Europe power.” He rejects the notion of “equidistance” between China and the United States — France is one of America’s oldest allies — but wants to keep his options open.

All of this is music to Mr. Xi’s ears.

“Macron is trying to bring a third way in the current global chaos,” said Philippe Le Corre, a prominent French expert on relations with China. “He is trying to walk a fine line between the two main superpowers.”

Just over a year ago, Mr. Macron was lavishly entertained during a visit to China that ended with a Sino-French declaration of a “global strategic partnership.” The French leader echoed the Chinese lexicon of a “multipolar” world, freed of “blocs” and the “Cold War mentality.”

Now, in anticipation of Mr. Xi’s visit, China has praised France as a great power and expressed hopes that their ties “will always be at the forefront of China’s relations with Western countries,” in the words of Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, in People’s Daily.

Mr. Macron, who recently warned that “our Europe is mortal” and will be saved only if it can become “sovereign,” will host a state dinner in Paris for Mr. Xi on Monday before, in a personal touch, ushering him to a favorite childhood haunt in the Pyrenees.

The chemistry between the two men appears to lie essentially in a shared view that the postwar order is moribund and must be replaced by a new architecture that takes account of shifting power. That Mr. Xi is almost certainly the most repressive and authoritarian leader in recent Chinese history, and that China’s military threats to Taiwan have intensified, has not come between the two leaders.

In the past six months, Mr. Macron has visited both India and Brazil in a push to place France at a fulcrum between the BRICS group of developing countries, which includes China, and Western powers. At a time of growing tension between the “Global South” and Western powers, he sees France as a bridge.

From France, Mr. Xi will move on to the warm embrace of Serbia, where China is the second largest trading partner, and Hungary, where its prime minister, Viktor Orban, has backed massive Chinese investment and used his country’s position as a European Union member to dilute criticism of China. Both countries bridle at American power.

Beyond these two friends of China, there are, however, serious European differences with Beijing, whose economy was roughly the same size, measured in dollars, as the European Union’s when Mr. Xi last visited in 2019. China’s economy is now some 15 percent bigger.

Last fall, the European Union opened an investigation into whether electric vehicles made in China benefited from unfair subsidies, with a decision expected by this summer. That has caused tensions with Beijing and with Germany, whose presence in the Chinese auto market dwarfs that of other European countries. China accounts for at least half of Volkswagen’s annual profits.

German manufacturers, with plants in China, fear that any imposition of European tariffs could affect its own exports from China, as well as cause tit-for-tat retaliation.

The European Union Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, will join the talks in Paris with Mr. Xi. Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, whose relations with Mr. Macron have been strained, dined with the French president in Paris this week. All this is clearly part of an attempt to forge a united European front.

That, however, is always elusive.

Anger toward Russia in Europe runs highest in frontline states with Russia, like Poland and the Baltic States. They are perhaps the most fiercely attached to the alliance with the United States that Mr. Macron wants to offset by building a sovereign Europe. They are also the most wary of China, which has never condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Mr. Macron, like Mr. Scholz during a visit to China last month, believes that Chinese leverage in bringing an end to the war in Ukraine is critical. Only Beijing, in the French analysis, can bring real pressure to bear on President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who will be sworn in for a fifth term during Mr. Xi’s European visit.

The issue, as it was last year during Mr. Macron’s visit to Beijing, is that China has shown little or no inclination to do so. Indeed, Mr. Xi is scheduled to host Mr. Putin in China later this month.

“It’s hard to imagine another discussion on Ukraine,” François Godement, a special adviser and resident senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne in Paris, said of the talks between Mr. Macron and Mr. Xi. “Those dice have been rolled.”

Still, there is little doubt that Mr. Macron will try again to enlist Mr. Xi’s support ahead of a Ukraine peace conference in Switzerland in mid-June.

At a deeper level, Mr. Macron appears certain to try to use Mr. Xi’s visit to advance an agenda that guarantees Europe’s relevance in the coming decades. He is wary of a United States that may re-elect former President Donald J. Trump in November, with unpredictable consequences.

Mr. Wang, the Chinese foreign minister, has said, “As long as China and Europe join hands, bloc confrontation will not occur, the world will not fall apart, and a new Cold War will not take place.”

For all the fundamental differences in governance between China’s one-party state and Western liberal democracy, the leaders of the three European countries Mr. Xi has chosen to visit appear to embrace that Chinese statement.

Reporting was contributed by Olivia Wang in Hong Kong, Keith Bradsher in Beijing, Christopher S. Schuetze and Melissa Eddy in Berlin, and Ségolène Le Stradic in Paris

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