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Xi Jinping ends his trip to Europe and strives to further develop China-EU relations

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Chinese leader Xi Jinping received a fine gift of cognac at the Elysée Palace in Paris and was cheered by Serbians waving Chinese flags in Belgrade, although most of them were government workers on a bus.

As he left Hungary on Friday at the end of a six-day European tour, the clouds hanging over the country’s relations with the West looked less dark, at least from China’s perspective.

Mr. Xi Tell French President Emmanuel Macron said the relationship between the two countries will be “vibrant and thriving like spring.” At his next stop, He said “The tree of friendship between China and Serbia will surely flourish.” In Hungary, Mr. Xi told Prime Minister Viktor Orban said their country was ready to “embark on a golden voyage.”

China’s state-run news media was full of praise for Xi Jinping and went to great lengths to describe his European meeting as a victory.

There have been no breakthroughs on trade, the war in Ukraine or other issues that have soured relations between the two countries — just a long list of new joint projects that China says it will help finance. Hungary received 18, and Serbia had dozens more. French companies signed agreements on energy, finance and transport projects.

But Xi’s red-carpet reception in the three countries has cast a tinge of optimism on relations between China and Europe, which have been deteriorating since his last visit five years ago.

China’s strict restrictions on travel during the Covid-19 pandemic have hampered high-level visits. Just as the coronavirus crisis began to recede, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, further deepening Europe’s alienation from China.

This week, Xi Jinping followed up his first stop in Paris with a trip to Serbia and Hungary, countries that, according to opinion polls, remain staunchly supportive of China on the continent, even as China’s reputation has plummeted, according to opinion polls.

In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic declared that his country had nothing but “reverence and love” for the Chinese president, while police detained followers of the banned Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong to ensure they did not disrupt The government’s carefully planned welcome event for President Xi Jinping. habit.

In Hungary, Mr Orban assured Xi Jinping, leader of the world’s largest communist country, that he would “feel at home” there. BudapestAlthough the city is filled with monuments to the anti-communist struggle. Police banned a planned protest in central Budapest and cleared busy areas of crowds to allow Xi Jinping to visit an office building without interruption on Friday.

The goal of Xi Jinping’s trip to Europe is to “demonstrate and strengthen China’s ability to maintain friendly relations with Europe under the influence of NATO and Ukraine.” Sun YunDirector of the China Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. She added that France, Serbia and Hungary were the “most China-friendly countries” in Europe.

Although Hungary is only the size of Indiana and has a population of less than 10 million, it will play a huge role when it holds the EU’s rotating presidency this year. The role is largely bureaucratic, but it will allow Hungary to try to set the agenda for meetings of the EU Council, the EU’s dominant power centre.

“Hungary is China’s Trojan horse in the EU,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China expert at the Paris-based research group Asia Center. He added that Xi Jinping’s trip to France did not achieve much, but he “helped China’s position” by solidifying its relations with Serbia and Hungary.

In an interview with Magyar Nemzet, a Hungarian news outlet controlled by Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, Xi Jinping expressed the hope that Hungary could “Take the lead” in “maintaining the correct direction of EU-China relations.”

Noah BarkinA visiting senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States who studies EU-China relations said China was wrong to hope that Orban could use Hungary’s only six-month rotating presidency to drastically change European policy. “The idea that Hungary can do China’s bidding during its presidency is fanciful,” he said.

But Mr Orban has long resisted the trend set by European powers. He was the only EU leader to travel to Beijing in October to celebrate the Belt and Road infrastructure program, Xi Jinping’s pet foreign policy initiative. He was also the only leader to block a planned EU statement in 2021 criticizing China’s crackdown on Hong Kong.

Levente Sitkei, a pro-government Hungarian commentator, said China and Hungary were “natural allies” because they were committed to pursuing their national interests regardless of what others said Mazhar Nemzet.

“China will form alliances that it finds useful and will not care what others think in any forum,” Sitke said. “Hungary behaves exactly the same way.”

Even before Xi Jinping’s trip, China had made some progress in restoring its influence in Europe.German Chancellor Olaf Scholz flew in Beijing last month and softened his warnings about trade tensions by emphasizing his country’s commitment to doing business with China.

Some in Beijing appear confident that China will succeed in persuading European governments to abandon their alliance with Washington.

“Even though European politicians often make a big show of shaking their fists at China, they also know in their hearts that Europe cannot do without its contribution to economic cooperation with China.” Wang WenResearcher at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China told Chinese news site Observer.com, this week. “More and more Europeans are starting to realize that after losing Russia, they can’t lose China now.”

Yet many Europeans remain deeply wary of Xi Jinping’s partnership with Putin – a relationship that will again be in the spotlight when Putin visits China in the coming weeks.Rash recently Arrested in the UK and Germany people Accusations of spying for China have also raised concerns.

This is true even on trade, which Xi Jinping emphasizes Tensions over cooperation are rising as Chinese-made electric vehicles and other products proliferate.

“Xi Jinping’s visit will not reassure those who want to see signs that China is taking Europe’s concerns seriously,” Barkin said.

Xi Jinping’s last day in Hungary was surprisingly uneventful for a leader who usually has a busy schedule. his nickname Chairman of all things.Xinhua News Agency, Mr. Orban accompanied Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan on their tour of Budapest According to China News Service.

“The two leaders sat by the window and stared at the rolling clouds outside the window,” Xinhua News Agency reported. “They easily talked about their growth experiences and thoughts on state governance, and reached a lot of consensus.”

Barnabas Heincz contributed reporting from Budapest, and David Pearson From Hong Kong.

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