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International press assess Xi’s European visit

| 2024-05-13 5 min read

International press assess Xi’s European visit

Reading Time: 5 minutes

As Chinese President Xi completed his trip to Europe, he held a conference with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, with whom he had spent three of the five days. Although Xi failed to give concrete details, Hungarian officials said 18 agreements had been signed between their country and China, but it was left to the international media and analysts to interpret Xi’s European tour. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban hold a press conference in Budapest on 10 May 2024 /Source: Facebook

After Chinese President Xi Jinping left Europe after his 5-10 May tour of France, Serbia and Hungary, UK business daily The Financial Times wrote that “by upgrading China’s relationship with Hungary, Xi Jinping this week made (Hungary) a model he hopes will be followed by others in Europe and beyond”, according to Chinese officials.

As Xi hailed China and Hungary’s “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership for the new era”, the officials told the FT that this had been a carefully chosen definition. Hungary-China relations had previously been described as a “comprehensive strategic partnership”. 

The upgrade means Hungary has joined China’s “circle of friends”, that is the countries that most actively support its efforts to counter US power in return for investment, trade and diplomatic backing. Xi praised Orban, who has repeatedly called for a peace deal with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, for Hungary’s “independent” foreign policy and for “defying” great power politics.

Now Chinese companies have invested EUR 16bn in Hungary, the FT added, quoting Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto. Xi’s personal concept of “a global community of shared future” was expounded by China’s de facto cabinet last year, and backs opposition to US global “hegemony” and the return of a “Cold War mentality”. 

Analysts told the FT that Hungary’s “all-weather” status means it now ranks third for China, behind only Russia – its key ally-  and Pakistan, which also has “all weather” status. Kenya is next, followed by Germany. Then France, Spain, Argentina and Brazil all enjoy “Comprehensive Strategic Partnerships” with China, followed by the UK, according to China and Asia researcher orcasia.org. 

Hungary’s main bargaining chip is its EU membership, so can serve as a manufacturing base for Chinese companies looking to avoid European import tariffs.  Moreover, Orban’s loyalty to China, his anti-US and anti-EU rhetoric, and lack of criticism of Russia are also valued in Beijing, Chinese officials told the FT.

In Belgrade, Xi promotes vision of a resurgent China

Al Jazeera quoted analysts saying Xi visited Europe to push his vision for “a world where the US is less dominant, and controlling damage to China’s ties with the EU as trade tensions grow amid a threat of European tariffs and a probe into Chinese subsidies for electric vehicles that officials say are hurting local industries”.

AJ noted that Xi’s tour “came at a symbolic time for China’s relations for all three nations that he visited. “This year marks the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and France, and the 75th of those with Hungary. The trip also coincided with the 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during Serbia’s war on Kosovo.”

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic organised a crowd of tens of thousands of people chanting “China, China”. In contrast to Xi’s stop in France, his visits to Serbia and Hungary were marked by pledges to deepen political ties and expand investments in eastern and central Europe. Vucic signed up to Xi’s vision of a “global community of shared future” and announced that a bilateral free trade agreement signed last year will come into effect on 1 July. Other pledges were setting up new air links and China importing Serbian agricultural products.

According to Hungarian officials, Xi pledged more investments in transport and energy, including the construction of a high-speed railway connecting the capital city centre to its airport and cooperation in the nuclear sector. Xi also promised to progress the USD 2.1bn project to connect Budapest with Belgrade, mainly financed by a loan from China, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Orban on multi-polar world order with China a main column

International press agency the Associated Press noted that Orban praised the “continuous, uninterrupted friendship” between the two countries since his tenure began in 2010, and said Hungary will continue to host further Chinese investments. 

“Looking back at the world economy and commerce of 20 years ago, it doesn’t resemble at all what we’re living in today. Then, we lived in a single polar world, and now we live in a multi-polar world order, and one of the main columns of this new world order is China.

“Hungary will continue to provide fair conditions for Chinese companies investing in our country,” Orban said, adding that “the most modern Western and the most modern Eastern technologies to meet and build cooperation in Hungary”.

Hungary in December announced that one of the world’s largest electric vehicle makers, BYD, will open in Szeged, south Hungary, which could disrupt Europe’s auto industry.

Orban advisor – Hungary ‘promoter of peace and national sovereignty’

Writing in Euronews, which was reportedly bought by close associates of Viktor Orban in 2022, the Hungarian Prime Minister’s namesake and political advisor Balazs Orban asked “One might find it curious why Budapest has emerged as the only EU capital President Xi is visiting other than Paris. The simple answer is that Hungary has transformed into a pivotal state for all concerned — a promoter of peace and national sovereignty, a leader of new industries, a crucial player in bridging East and West, and a gateway to the EU. The Chinese president’s choice reflects this fact.

“Hungary stands out by actively cultivating ties with a wide array of countries and market players across various sectors, from trade to infrastructure, as well as cultural and scientific exchange. Hungary has been focused on bolstering domestic companies such as MOL, Richter, OTP Bank, and 4iG to help them emerge as dominant regional players. 

“Our efforts to expand energy connections, repurchase the Budapest Airport, renovate the Budapest-Belgrade railway and establish a port in Trieste capable of handling 2.5mn tonnes of goods a year further our commitment to enhanced connectivity across all fronts. 

“On the industrial front, Hungary seeks to strengthen its military, information technology, energy, and banking sectors while also emphasising the development of industries such as food, pharmaceuticals, and automotive — all pivotal for global connectivity,” Balazs Orban added.

Xi back Hungary to play bigger EU role

At the press conference that closed his visit, Xi said in a statement that Hungary and China were embarking on a “golden voyage toward greater goals. The relationship is now at its best in history. I just concluded friendly and productive talks with Prime Minister Orbán. We had an in-depth exchange of views and reached extensive consensus on the development of China-Hungary relations in the new era and on issues of mutual interest. 

“China supports Hungary in playing a bigger role in the EU and promoting greater progress in China-EU relations. We both agree that China and Hungary share similar views and positions on international and regional situations. 

“We will strengthen dialogue and exchanges between our governments, legislatures and political parties, share governance experience, and firmly support each other’s core interests. China highly appreciates Hungary’s firm commitment to the one-China principle.  We both agree that the Belt and Road Initiative and Hungary’s Eastern Opening strategy are highly compatible. 

“We will connect our development strategies more closely, deepen economic, trade, investment, and financial cooperation, and advance the Budapest-Belgrade railway and other key projects. We will expand cooperation in emerging industries and foster new quality productive forces to empower and facilitate economic and social development of the two countries,” Xi said.