In early May of 2024, Chinese President Xi Jinping undertook a significant diplomatic visit to Europe, the first since the global pandemic began. His five-day itinerary included visits to France, Serbia, and Hungary. Each stop on the tour was imbued with meaning and strategic significance, reflecting Beijing’s current foreign policy goals and the way China engages in global diplomacy in the context of rising geopolitical tensions. 

The timing of President Xi’s visit coincided with a period of significant geopolitical upheaval. Rather than a conventional diplomatic mission, his tour signified a clear declaration by China to restructure the nature of its relationship with key European nations. This occurred at a time when the European Union was reevaluating its economic links and strategic orientation in balance against emerging concerns about China’s global ambitions and regional engagements, most notably those concerning Russia. 

The principal objectives of Xi’s European tour were thus twofold: to fortify China’s diplomatic presence and influence in a Europe whose transatlantic ties are under tremendous strain and with the idea of European strategic autonomy increasingly discussed. The visit was also clearly meant to de-escalate the trade frictions between China and the EU. The recent investigations by the European Union into Chinese business practices, particularly in the electric vehicle sector, have served to exacerbate the existing tensions.  

The timing of the visit and the selection of destinations were also part of the strategy. France is a significant European Union member state and, as such, plays a pivotal role in EU-China relations. In contrast, Serbia and Hungary are relatively peripheral EU actors, central nodes in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and have historically taken more favorable stances toward China outside the EU framework. 

Strategic Implications of Xi’s European Tour 

A core tenet of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy is the promotion of a multipolar world, which seeks to reduce the hegemonic influence of the United States globally. By engaging directly with European nations, Xi aims to forge relationships that could potentially loosen Europe’s historical ties with the U.S. and encourage a more balanced global power dynamic. His visit underscores China’s desire to position itself as an alternative global leader that can offer different economic and political benefits compared to those offered by the U.S. 

During discussions, particularly in France, Xi Jinping leveraged the European discourse on strategic autonomy, a concept that has gained momentum as Europe seeks greater independence in its foreign policy and security matters. By aligning China’s objectives with Europe’s aspirations for strategic autonomy, Xi aimed to drive a wedge between transatlantic allies, capitalizing on current tensions related to trade, technology, and security policies. 

The visit to Serbia coincided with the 25th anniversary of NATO’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. This event was strategically used by Xi to highlight historical grievances against NATO, thereby resonating with current anti-NATO sentiments in Serbia and broader regional distrust towards Western military alliances. The commemoration served as a reminder of the perils of U.S. military actions and was used by Xi to strengthen anti-Western sentiment and solidify China’s role as a partner that supports sovereignty against perceived Western aggression. 

Economic diplomacy was a significant aspect of Xi’s tour, particularly through the lens of China’s massive BRI. In Hungary and Serbia, Xi emphasized deepening economic ties, with infrastructure projects like the Belgrade-Budapest railway serving as a flagship example. These projects not only enhance China’s economic influence but also serve as physical manifestations of its commitment to the economic development of these nations, which contrasts with the perceived economic dominance of the EU and U.S. 

Facing mounting trade tensions with the EU, particularly investigations into Chinese electric vehicles and other industries, Xi used his visit to advocate for open economic exchanges and warn against the protectionist measures that could disrupt global supply chains. His discussions aimed to persuade European leaders to consider the broader benefits of economic cooperation with China, positioning it as a critical player in global economic stability. 

Economic and Trade Dynamics 

President Xi Jinping’s European tour was not merely a diplomatic show; it was also an economic overture designed to address the continuing trade tensions and to assert China as a critical economic partner for European nations. The visit occurred amidst mounting scrutiny of Chinese economic practices by the European Union. The recent EU probes into Chinese electric vehicles and other industries are a clear indicator of mounting suspicions regarding China’s competitive practices, which are perceived through the lens of state-sponsored subsidies. Xi’s discussions therefore sought to mitigate these tensions, as Beijing called for the practice of fair trade against protectionist maneuvers, which China perceives the EU to be taking. It is of paramount importance to note that the discussions, in a broader context, are centered on the potential for trade barriers to impede China’s access to one of its most significant markets. 

During Xi’s visit to France, economic debates continued to be a prominent topic of discussion. These debates primarily focused on the potential for rebalancing the relationship between the two nations, with a particular emphasis on the trade sector. The discussion thus represented a call for a situation of reciprocal trade and mutual economic benefits. France and China sought to identify strategies for France to export more to China, with the objective of achieving a more balanced trade relationship. The discussions were concluded with the signing of several agreements designed to enhance collaboration in areas of mutual interest, including aerospace, energy, and agriculture.  

Xi’s visits to Serbia and Hungary were strategically important, given that China and its Belt and Road Initiative are among the most significant partners in Europe. For example, countries such as Serbia and Hungary play a role in the success of the Belgrade-Budapest railway project. These infrastructural investments have implications that extend beyond the economic realm, encompassing political and strategic considerations. Xi has been quick to point out that, in the cases of both Serbia and Hungary, such projects are seen as instrumental in terms of boosting the local economy and increasing connectivity with the rest of the region. This, in turn, serves to further solidify the influence of China across Central and Eastern Europe. 

Xi’s objective throughout his tour was to cultivate deeper strategic economic partnerships with each country he visited. In Serbia and Hungary, the discussion centered on long-term investments in technology and infrastructure, which are viewed as avenues through which China could solidify its economic position. These discussions also likely encompassed the topic of a significant number of Chinese companies expanding their operations in the European market, particularly in the telecommunications and automotive manufacturing sectors. These companies are seeking to expand their global footprint. 

France: A Balancing Act 

President Xi Jinping’s visit to France epitomized the nuanced and multi-layered relationship that has been developed over decades between China and one of the leading powers in the European Union. Macron’s policy toward China is illustrative of a broader European problem: how to relate to a world superpower on the most fundamental economic issues, while on the other hand securing its geopolitical interests by remaining loyal to traditional allies, like the United States. Macron’s perspective, which advocates for European strategic autonomy, espouses the interests of France and Europe as an independent actor capable of managing superpowers in a balanced manner. Macron utilized this strategy during Xi’s visit, emphasizing that Europe should no longer be regarded as a “vassal of the United States.” This stance aligns with China’s current approach to a multipolar world. 

The economic discussions between Xi and Macron were of great consequence, particularly in light of the existing tensions over trade practices. France has been one of the most vocal countries in requesting a reduction in the trade deficit with China and for investigations at the European Union level into Chinese subsidies and other competitive practices that it deems unfair. Nevertheless, both leaders underscored the value of bilateral trade and economic collaboration during Xi’s visit by exploring avenues to enhance access to the Chinese market for the French, particularly for luxury goods, agriculture, and the technology sector. While economic matters were undoubtedly the primary focus of the meeting, with such significant stakes at play, the extensive discussions also encompassed sensitive geopolitical topics, including China’s stance towards Russia and the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine. France, along with the majority of the European Union, is concerned about China’s stance on Russia, particularly in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. It is likely that Macron will seek to ascertain China’s position on global security matters and to urge Beijing to assume a more constructive role in this regard. Other regional security issues that were discussed included the situation in the South China Sea and the tensions with Taiwan. 

The future of the French automotive industry, with particular emphasis on electric vehicles, was also likely to have been discussed. France is interested in protecting its nascent electric vehicle industry from the competitive pressure of a state-subsidized Chinese electric vehicle producer. The discussion between Macron and Xi would address the need for a balanced approach that fosters adequate competitiveness while not undermining those domestic industries that are critical to France’s economic future. 

The promotion of cultural and educational relations was also evident in the discourse of both leaders, who recognized it as a fundamental cornerstone for mutual understanding and cooperation. It is likely that discussions centered on programs designed to facilitate student exchanges, collaborative research, and cultural events between the two nations were held with the objective of fostering connections between individuals from the two countries. 

Serbia and Hungary: Strengthening China’s Foothold in Eastern Europe 

President Xi Jinping’s visits to Serbia and Hungary were integral to China’s strategy to cement its presence in Eastern Europe. These stops showcased how China is leveraging economic investments and strategic partnerships to create alliances within the European Union and its neighboring regions, often in ways that challenge the cohesion of Western alliances. 

In both Serbia and Hungary, China has heavily invested in significant infrastructure projects under the BRI. These projects, such as the Belgrade-Budapest railway, not only enhance local economies but also serve as a testament to China’s commitment to the region. Such investments are strategically important for China as they increase its influence in these countries and by extension in Europe, potentially creating divisions within the EU and between EU and non-EU states regarding policy towards China. 

China’s approach in Serbia and Hungary illustrates its broader geopolitical strategy of “divide and conquer” within the EU. By strengthening bilateral relations and offering economic incentives to these nations, China positions itself as a viable alternative to Western economic models and political alliances. Hungary, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has frequently blocked EU resolutions critical of China, highlighting how Chinese influence can affect EU policy decisions from within.  

The timing and symbolism in these visits were highly significant. In Serbia, the commemoration of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy was a moment for China to align with Serbian and broader regional resentment towards NATO. This not only strengthens bilateral ties but also supports China’s narrative against Western military interventions. In Hungary, Xi’s visit underscored the growing political trust and cooperation, further isolating Hungary within the EU regarding its stance on China. 

Beyond infrastructure, China is deepening its strategic partnerships through technology and military cooperation. In Hungary, discussions likely covered cooperation in new technologies, such as 5G, where Chinese companies like Huawei are pivotal. In Serbia, military cooperation and technology transfers signify a deepening of strategic ties, which could serve as a model for China’s engagement with other Eastern European countries. 

The EU’s response to China’s increasing influence in Eastern Europe is mixed. While some member states view Chinese investments as beneficial for economic growth, others are concerned about the political implications of deepening ties with a global power that often opposes EU values and policies. This division is precisely what China aims to exploit, as it seeks to weaken unified EU stances on issues like trade, technology security, and human rights.

Reactions and Responses from European Leaders and the EU 

Prior to the visit, the responses of European leaders exhibited a striking contrast. In France, President Emmanuel Macron adopted a balanced and diplomatic approach, emphasizing the importance of maintaining strategic autonomy for Europe, alongside the values on which human rights are based, and free trade practices. In a measured and diplomatic manner, Macron sought to engage with China economically while avoiding the pitfall of compromising European values and interests, particularly in the domains of security and human rights. 

Eastern European reactions were more straightforwardly positive, with both Serbian and Hungarian leaders expressing clear support for deeper ties with China. It is perhaps most accurate to describe these leaders as having somewhat problematic relationships with EU norms. The presidents of both Serbia and Hungary praised the investments and strategic partnerships of China as key to their countries’ economic development. 

The European Commission and various other EU bodies observed the situation with a complex combination of optimism and concern. The European Commission has been at the forefront of challenging China’s trade practices, advocating for enhanced enforcement mechanisms to ensure that competition is both fair and reciprocal. In her remarks, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, underscored the necessity for China to adhere to a level playing field in international trade norms. She warned that the EU is prepared to utilize its trade defense tools against China to the fullest extent.  

The European Parliament and the remainder of the EU institutions have at last articulated their concerns about China’s human rights situation and its stance in Russia’s case, with a particular focus on Ukraine. This has resulted in several EU officials issuing warnings to be cautious about China, emphasizing the necessity of maintaining a proper balance between economic interests and ethical and security considerations. In Europe, public and media reactions have indicated that there is a fluctuating perception of China’s role. In Western Europe, there has been a noticeable increase in public concern regarding China’s influence over local politics and policies, particularly in the context of technology and infrastructural investments. The media frequently highlights potential risks associated with a more profound Chinese presence, including concerns about surveillance and the loss of technological sovereignty.  

In contrast, in Eastern Europe, primarily in Serbia and Hungary, public and media reactions were more positive, with an optimistic view of Chinese investment. 

It is evident that the stakes and broader geopolitical implications of this visit by Xi extend beyond the capacity of Europeans to formulate a unified front on these matters. At the same time, Europe is attempting to navigate its relations with China, which are complicated by internal divisions and external pressure from the United States, which has long advocated for a more unified and assertive stance against China. The disparate European responses illustrate the challenge of developing a unified EU policy towards China. This is of paramount importance for the future of international trade, security, and diplomatic relations. 


The visit of President Xi Jinping to Europe in 2024 was anticipated to be a pivotal event in the advancement of China-European Union relations. The high-profile visits to France, Serbia, and Hungary by Xi Jinping signaled China’s return to global leadership, accompanied by the reconstitution of its economic and political links with various European countries. The visit has demonstrated China’s strategic intentions, the diverse responses across Europe, and highlighted the complexities of EU-China relations in the future. 

Xi’s visit signaled China’s commitment to extend its influence in Europe through strategic economic investments and diplomatic inroads. China has demonstrated an ability to navigate and exploit the fractures within the EU for the advancement of its national interests, particularly in its engagement with countries that are differently aligned with the EU’s norms. Such an approach is likely to persist, with China attempting to demonstrate its status as an indispensable global power in the context of a prevailing U.S.-led order. 

His tour served to illustrate the ongoing challenge of maintaining unity among European states in the face of Chinese diplomatic overtures. While some member states view China’s economic overtures positively, others remain cautious about the political and strategic implications. On the one hand, China’s actions serve to highlight the concept of European strategic autonomy and to test its limits. On the other hand, China attempts to draw individual countries closer into bilateral relations that may be in contrast to the general EU policies. In fact, such dynamics present a significant challenge for the EU, which is striving to adopt a unified and coherent approach towards China that balances economic interests with broader strategic considerations. In the near future, relations between the EU and China will be of great importance. The EU must navigate the intricate web of issues surrounding trade and investment, human rights, and security. The outcome of the current trade investigations and the EU’s response to China’s stance on Russia and global security issues will be among the most significant determinants of the trajectory of the relationship. The EU’s capacity to maintain unity during discussions with China will determine the future trajectory of its power and interests. 

The strategic maneuvers observed during Xi’s visit will have far-reaching implications for world geopolitics. In a world where the United States and China compete for influence, the role of Europe and its relations with these superpowers will have significant consequences for the establishment of world orders. The relationship between the EU and China has the potential to influence not only transatlantic relations but also the global trade landscape, technological standards, and security frameworks.  

In this regard, President Xi Jinping’s visit to Europe served as a microcosm of the broader challenges and dynamics defining the relationship between the EU and China. The manner in which the two parties navigate this challenging situation will have a significant impact on the broader patterns of economic and security alignment and may also influence the international political order. In this regard, the formulation and implementation by the EU of a strategy that can reconcile engagement with China with the imperative to safeguard and advance EU values and interests is likely to be of great consequence for the future, not only of relations between the EU and China but of the international order in general.