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China In Eurasia Briefing: Previewing Xi's Big Europe Trip

Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 6, 2023.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) and French President Emmanuel Macron shake hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 6, 2023.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.

Previewing Xi's Big Europe Trip

Chinese leader Xi Jinping will visit Hungary, Serbia, and France on a high-profile tour in early May, marking his first trip to Europe since the pandemic.

Here's what to watch.

Finding Perspective: The trip will be rich in symbolism and comes at a crucial time with Russia advancing on the battlefield in Ukraine, escalating trade tensions between Beijing and Brussels, and potential fallout from November's U.S. election.

Against this backdrop, Xi will be looking to repair some of the damage done to the relationship with Europe since his last trip to the continent. In particular, he'll be aiming to unwind some of the European Union's moves toward de-risking, which Beijing sees as an unwelcome alignment between Brussels and Washington.

Another thing on the agenda will be China's participation at the upcoming peace summit in Switzerland about the war in Ukraine set for mid-June. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has been trying to court China to participate, as was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz during his visit to Beijing last week.

EU officials say Beijing has been pushing for Russia to have a seat at the table as well, something Kyiv (and perhaps even Moscow) is not willing to accept at the moment. With that in mind, it's unclear if China will participate or boycott the talks.

One Thing To Watch: The dates of the tour have not been publicly announced, but various European officials have pointed toward May 7 as a starting day, a date that has also been reported by Serbian media as when Xi could visit Belgrade.

The date makes sense as it falls on the 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of China's embassy in Belgrade, which serves as a major event in the countries' relations.

The destroyed embassy has since been transformed into an expansive Chinese cultural center that is set to be the largest in Europe.

When I reported about the center during a trip to Belgrade in 2022, it was already completed and staff could be seen going in and out of the building. However, it's still not officially opened, and it has been speculated that Serbian and Chinese officials were waiting for a visit from Xi to mark the occasion.

Xi also visited the site the last time he went to Serbia in 2016, laying flowers and making a speech at a monument on the compound in honor of the Chinese diplomats who were killed in the 1999 bombing.

Why It Matters: While the visit to Paris is an opportunity to focus on China's wider relationship with Europe, the stops in Hungary and Serbia will allow Beijing to show that its influence in Central and Eastern Europe is still intact.

Over the last few years, the 17+1 (China's diplomatic grouping to engage with the region) has seen members leave, making it the 16+1, while other Central and Eastern European countries have downgraded and deprioritized the bloc.

Showing its stature in an EU member like Hungary also sends an important message. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has courted Chinese investment and closer ties as he's sparred with Brussels. In February, Budapest announced a new security deal with China that could see Chinese police patrols in the country.

Meanwhile, Hungarian and Chinese officials are active in the leadup to the visit, likely looking to announce new initiatives and progress on long delayed projects.

Hungarian Economy Minister Marton Nagy received a Chinese delegation on April 18 where they discussed, among other things, the status of the Chinese-financed $1.9 billion Budapest-Belgrade railway project.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. A Russian Oligarch Looks To China

Vladimir Potanin, one of Russia's richest men, announced plans to launch a new mineral venture in China a week after the United States and Britain levied sanctions on Russia's mineral industry, RFE/RL's Russian Service reports.

What It Means: Potanin, who made much of his initial money in the 1990s through Russia's loan-for-shares program, said on April 22 that Norilsk Nickel, the billion-dollar mining and smelting company, will open a joint venture in China, where it will supply copper.

Potanin told Interfax the company has been having issues with processing international payments and sanctions have seen the company lose up to 20 percent of its prewar revenue.

The announcement of the new business in China came shortly after London and Washington banned the supply of Russian copper, nickel, and aluminum from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the London Metal Exchange, as well as any direct imports of the minerals from Russia.

2. A Diplomatic Fumble In Georgia

For unknown reasons, the Chinese Embassy in Georgia's website used a photo of a Russian landmark in its welcome banner on its homepage, my colleague Luka Pertaia reported for RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

The Details: As part of a banner on its landing page, the Chinese Embassy featured four photos: two from Georgia, one from China, and one of Dormition Cathedral, which is located inside the Kremlin complex in Moscow.

No explanation was given, and the embassy did not respond to Luka when he reached out for comment, but shortly afterward publication of the article all the photos were removed from the website.

The use of the photos is a small but clumsy error on the part of the embassy, especially considering sensitivities with Russia in Georgia after Moscow's 2008 invasion. The Kremlin has also militarily and diplomatically propped up the breakaway authorities in the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Georgians say is an occupation.

3. Chinese Spies In Europe

On the same day that Germany arrested three of its nationals for allegedly working for China's security services, Britain also charged two of its nationals for spying for Beijing.

What You Need To Know: Christopher Cash, a parliamentary researcher, and Christopher Berry were charged with spying on April 22 and both will appear in court later this week in London.

Cash is accused of obtaining, collecting, recording, publishing, or communicating notes, documents or information "calculated to be, might be, or were intended to be, directly or indirectly, useful to an enemy" between January 2022 and February 2023, according to a statement by Britain's Crown Prosecution Service.

Berry is charged with the same offenses of Britain's Official Secrets Act from December 2021 to February 2023.

In a statement, London's Metropolitan Police Service said the foreign state in question for both men was China.

German prosecutors arrested three nationals on April 22 who they said are "strongly suspected of having worked for a Chinese secret service," including one accused of being an agent for China's spy agency, the State Security Ministry.

After the news broke, Reuters also reported on April 23 that German police had arrested an aide to a German lawmaker in the European Parliament from the far-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) on suspicion of spying for China and passing information about opposition legislators to Chinese handlers.

Across The Supercontinent

Not Playing Around: My colleague Meliha Kesmer from RFE/RL's Balkan Service reports that Bosnia-Herzegovina banned the import of 600 Mickey Mouse dolls made in China into the country due to high levels of toxic chemicals found in them. Bosnian officials told Meliha that this was the third Chinese toy delivery banned this year over safety concerns.

Middle Corridor Update: China-Europe rail traffic through Kazakhstan continues to see growth in 2024. The first quarter of the year shows a 13.7 percent rise compared to the same period in 2023.

Fox Hunt And Skynet: Beijing has successfully compelled thousands of alleged fugitives living outside of China to return to the country as part of its transnational repression efforts, the nonprofit research and advocacy group Safeguard Defenders said in a new report.

Putin Incoming: While attention is focused now on Xi's upcoming tour, Russian President Vladimir Putin will reportedly visit China in mid-May, shortly after the Chinese leader ends his trip to Europe.

One Thing To Watch

While the U.S. Congress debates how to handle the app TikTok and its Chinese parent company ByteDance, the EU has said it will ban a new service launched by TikTok in Europe that it believes could be "as addictive as cigarettes" unless the company offers "compelling" fresh evidence that children are safeguarded.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every other Wednesday.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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About The Newsletter

China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this biweekly dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

To subscribe, click here.