China’s Xi courts European allies, seeks to exploit Western divisions, analysts say

london — Chinese President Xi Jinping departed Hungary on Friday after a five-day trip to Europe, his first visit to the continent in five years. Xi pledged to work with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in a new “multipolar world order.” Analysts say Beijing is courting its allies in Eastern Europe to exploit Western divisions.

Xi left Budapest after having signed 18 bilateral agreements to increase economic and cultural ties during his two-day stay in Hungary. The two countries announced what the Chinese president termed a “new-era, all-weather, comprehensive strategic partnership.”

“We are ready to take this as a new starting point to push our relations and practical cooperation into a golden voyage,” Xi said Thursday at a news conference.

“The two sides will strengthen the docking of development strategies, deepen cooperation in the fields of economy and trade, investment and finance, push forward the construction of key projects such as the Budapest-Belgrade Railway,” he added.

Current Chinese investment projects in Hungary amount to over $17 billion, according to Budapest, with further investments from Beijing to follow, including in several electric car and battery plants.

The European Union accuses Beijing of unfairly subsidizing the industry and undercutting its own carmakers, which China denies.

Multipolar world

But Xi’s visit was about more than money. China and Hungary sent a geopolitical message to the West.

“We used to live in a one-center world order. Now we live in a multipolar world, and one of the pillars of this new world order is the Republic of China — the country which now defines the course of world and economic politics,” Orban told reporters Thursday.

Hungary sees dual benefits in wooing China, said analyst Andras Hettyey of the University for Public Service in Budapest. “The government believes that this will be beneficial for the Hungarian economy as a whole. But I think we shouldn’t forget that this also comes with political allegiances or political ties — a political bond between Hungarian leading politicians and Chinese leading politicians,” he told VOA.

War on Ukraine

Xi and Orban discussed Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. The West accuses China of aiding Moscow’s war through economic support and the sale of dual-use goods that can be used in weapons. Beijing denies the accusations.

Hungary’s Orban also maintains close political and economic ties with Russia, and echoed his Chinese counterpart’s claim that they are working toward peace.

“Our voice in Europe is a lonely one. Europe today supports war. The only exception is Hungary, urging immediate cease-fire and peace talks. And we support all international efforts towards peace, and thus we support the Chinese peace initiative presented by President Xi Jinping,” Orban said.

Ukraine has said it will not negotiate until invading Russian troops leave its territory.

Western anger

Orban’s traditional allies in the European Union and NATO have voiced concerns about his close ties with Beijing and Moscow and have criticized a perceived backsliding of democracy in Hungary.

That won’t bother Budapest, said Hettyey. “In fact, it might be even a point of which our government will be proud. Because by now there is a very strong alienation between the Hungarian government and its Western partners, to the point where the present Hungarian government does not want to achieve, does not deem important to have a good reputation in the West,” he said.

There were small demonstrations against the Chinese president’s visit, including by pro-Tibetan and Hong Kong pro-democracy campaigners. Teams of people in red baseball caps — whom the Chinese Embassy in Budapest described as “volunteers” — confiscated protesters’ flags.

Serbia visit

Prior to visiting Hungary, Xi visited Serbia, another European ally with close ties to Moscow — and which is, like Hungary, a partner of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and has received billions of dollars in infrastructure and industrial investment.

The visit to Belgrade coincided with the 25th anniversary of NATO’s accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in the city, which killed three people, prompting an apology from the United States.

During his visit, Xi reaffirmed Beijing’s view that Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, is still part of Serbia. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic reiterated his country’s acceptance of the “One China” principle, which considers Taiwan as part of China.

Exploiting divisions

Earlier in the week, Xi visited France, meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. There were few indications that Xi is prepared to offer concessions on Chinese trade practices or on its support for Russia.

The Chinese president did, however, praise his French counterpart’s desire for “strategic autonomy” — the idea that Europe should reduce its security reliance on the United States. China is seeking to exploit divisions in the West, said analyst Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS, University of London.

“The ‘united front’ approach of divide and rule is integral to Chinese foreign policy, particularly under Xi Jinping. And that is, of course, reflected in the choice of all three countries that Xi Jinping would visit.

“So, the more that China can charm Europe and persuade Europeans not to work with the Americans, the better,” Tsang told VOA.

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