Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Europe in May 2024 was a major diplomatic exercise aimed at strengthening China’s relations with key European countries amid rising global tensions and economic scrutiny.


Three partners – three directions of Chinese foreign policy in Europe


Xi Jinping’s first visit to Europe in five years underscores a strategic shift: China is seeking to manage its complex relationship with the United States by engaging Europe as an independent and influential partner. The trip underscores China’s intention to position Europe not just as a subsidiary ally of the United States, but as a key partner in its own right. Particularly significant is interaction with France, which indicates China’s interest in developing relations with a European power that can serve as a counterweight or alternative to the United States in solving global problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For example, already on May 6, in a joint statement, the heads of China and France spoke out against the Israeli offensive on Rafah, which would lead to a humanitarian catastrophe of a new scale, as well as against any forced displacement of Palestinian civilians [1].


This visit shows the priorities of Chinese foreign policy in the European direction: maintaining dialogue with key players in the person of France, developing relations with the main partners in the EU in the person of Hungary and strengthening ties with the most open partner in Europe in the person of Serbia. In the future, we can expect that Chinese-European relations at the political level will also develop in this direction:


  1. France as an alternative to the United States in Europe – France is viewed by China as a major European power with influence and the ability to discuss the most important Eurasian geopolitical issues independently of the United States. This is consistent with China’s broader strategy of engaging with significant global players who can operate autonomously from American geopolitical strategies. This is clearly demonstrated by the description of the format of cooperation between China and the EU in the form of France-China-EU at the end of the trilateral meeting of Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Emmanuel Macron and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen [2];


  1. Hungary as a mediator between East and West in the EU. Hungary’s role is considered key due to its somewhat unique position in the EU, which is often seen as more open to engagement with eastern partners, including China. This makes Hungary a vital mediator who can bridge Eastern and Western perspectives within the EU, facilitating a broader dialogue that includes Chinese interests.;


  1. Serbia as a shining example of the possibilities for developing relations between China and Europe. Serbia is an example of the potential for deepening relations between China and European countries outside the EU. China sees its ties with Serbia not only as a bilateral relationship, but also as a model for expanding its influence and cooperation with other European countries, using economic investments and infrastructure projects such as the Belgrade-Budapest railway as a demonstration of its commitment to the region.


In the future, it is expected that Sino-European relations will continue to develop in this direction, and China will actively engage with key European countries to form a multipolar global environment in which its interests can be represented and promoted. This strategic diversification demonstrates China’s nuanced approach to international relations, seeking strong partnerships in Europe to counter dominant American influence and to secure its geopolitical interests in the broader Eurasian region.


Why France and not Germany?


The reception of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in China and the level of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to France highlight China’s perception of France and Germany. Germany is seen more as a conduit for pro-American interests, while France is seen more as a player who actively promotes the autonomy of the European Union. China supports the strategic autonomy of the European Union. This was stated by the official representative of the 1st session of the 14th National People’s Congress of China (NPC) Wang Chao in 2023 [3]. Strategic autonomy refers to the ability of the European Union to act independently in various areas, such as defence, economic policy and technology, without being overly dependent on external forces [4]. This concept aims to enhance the EU’s ability to make sovereign decisions that are consistent with its interests and values, thereby enhancing its role as a global player. The US and China play important roles in promoting strategic autonomy. Moreover, Xi emphasized during a meeting with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron that relations between China and the EU are not aimed at any third party, they should not depend on or be dictated by any third party [2] , clearly hinting at the United States and its role in relations between China and the EU.


Strategic autonomy is driven in part by the desire to complement rather than replace the transatlantic alliance, ensuring that the EU can act independently when US interests diverge from European interests. The EU seeks to reduce excessive dependence on American technologies and economic systems, ensuring that European policies can be implemented without external restrictions [4]. Notable in this context is French President Emmanuel Macron’s statement about the upcoming US elections that Europe must be more decisive on the world stage as it faces an uncertain future in its relations with the US [5]. Macron, speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, called for an easing of tensions between China and the United States. At the same time, Scholz’s statements show less of a desire to bring the European Union onto the world stage as an independent player [6]. This is where the difference in the approaches of both sides can be seen, which also affects China’s perception of the leader in this organization.


Macron advocates for the EU to develop the capacity to operate independently of external powers, particularly the United States. This vision includes significant French-led initiatives such as the European Initiative and increased defense spending, emphasizing France’s desire to see the EU as a more cohesive and independent global actor [7].


Germany, historically more cautious, has supported EU strategic autonomy, but often with a greater emphasis on maintaining coherence with NATO and ensuring that any moves towards autonomy complement rather than conflict with the transatlantic relationship.[8] Under Chancellor Olaf Scholz and influenced by the pro-European Greens in the coalition, Germany has shown a willingness to engage more deeply with Macron’s initiatives, although differences remain in areas such as defense-industrial cooperation and energy policy.


In general, this analysis shows that China, in resolving global issues together with the European Union, will place emphasis on France rather than on Germany, despite the fact that Germany is also an important partner of the PRC. At the end of Xi’s visit, China and France signed a joint declaration, where the parties indicated that the heads of the two states decided to strengthen the role of Franco-Chinese relations as a driving force in the international management of global issues [9].


Hungarian view of the East or Chinese strategic partner in the European Union


The spirit of Xi’s visit to Hungary is significantly different from that of France. Thus, Xi Jinping noted that relations between China and Hungary are now at the highest level in history, and their comprehensive strategic partnership continues to develop at a high level [10]. Both sides also signed the Joint Statement between the People’s Republic of China and Hungary on Establishing a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership in a New Era [11]. Xi Jinping’s visit to Hungary highlighted several strategic goals of Sino-Hungarian cooperation, highlighting political, economic and technological cooperation.


Hungary has been pursuing a policy of “Openness to the East” since 2010. This policy is aimed at strengthening relations between Hungary and the countries of the East, including Russia, China, Turkey and the states of Central Asia, through the development of economic ties to diversify Hungary’s foreign economic relations [12, p. 467]. Hungary also has the lowest corporate tax in the entire European Union, which is why many Asian companies prefer to launch production in Hungary and then expand exports to other European Union countries [13]. China is also no exception in this case. Hungary is also hosting several Chinese electric vehicle battery factories and hopes to become a global hub for lithium- ion battery production, and is pursuing a railway project – part of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative – to link the country with the port of Piraeus in Greece as entry points for Chinese goods into Central and Eastern Europe [14]. This actually explains China’s strategic decision to support the implementation of transport projects in Serbia and the Budapest-Belgrade high-speed railway.


From a political perspective, Hungary’s support for China’s peace initiative to resolve the Ukrainian conflict underscores a shared commitment to international peace and stability. The position aligns Hungary with China’s broader diplomatic efforts, positioning both countries as proponents of negotiation rather than military confrontation. The visit marked the upgrade of their relationship to an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership”, signaling a strong commitment to mutual support and cooperation on global issues.


Economically, Hungary’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative has led to significant Chinese investment in infrastructure projects such as the Budapest-Belgrade railway. The project is an example of China’s strategy to expand communications and economic integration in Central and Eastern Europe, with Hungary serving as a critical hub. Trade between China and Hungary has grown significantly, increasing from $3 billion to $12 billion over the past two decades [14]. This growth is complemented by significant Chinese investment in the Hungarian economy, especially in sectors such as electric vehicles, railways and information technology [14].


In terms of technology and industrial cooperation, Hungary aims to leverage advanced Chinese technologies, especially in the fields of green energy and artificial intelligence, to modernize its industrial base and improve competitiveness. Cooperation in the nuclear industry reflects mutual trust and strategic importance: Hungary intends to expand its nuclear energy potential to 60–70% by the next decade [14].


In the broader European context, China’s strategic goals in Hungary reflect its desire to strengthen relations with countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Hungary’s strategic location and EU membership provide an opportunity for China to help strengthen relations with the EU and promote the Belt and Road in Europe. The strategic importance of Hungary increases with the country’s assumption of the presidency of the Council of the European Union, where Hungary will coordinate meetings of the relevant ministers of the European Union, including on foreign policy. Hungary can actively promote rapprochement between the EU and China, especially against the backdrop of unpredictable elections in the United States.


Serbia: China’s path to Europe?


Xi Jinping’s visit to Serbia represents an important chapter in China’s strategic ambitions in Europe, especially in the context of its Belt and Road Initiative. During his visit, Xi Jinping sought to deepen the “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Serbia first established in 2016, elevating its status to a community with a shared future [15]. These strengthening ties indicate China’s desire to strengthen its alliances in Europe, with Serbia emerging as a critical partner in the Balkans.


The trip also highlighted ongoing economic and infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, including significant investments in Serbian infrastructure such as roads, railways, and energy projects. These initiatives are part of a broader strategy to increase Chinese influence in Central and Eastern Europe, taking Serbia as a gateway. By strengthening relations with Serbia, China seeks to expand its geopolitical influence in a region where the influence of the EU and NATO is also strong. Serbia’s strategic location and status as a potential EU member make it an attractive partner for China, allowing Beijing a foothold in Europe that complements its interests in other parts of the world.


The visit highlighted the importance of ties between the peoples of the two countries, as well as initiatives to expand cultural exchanges and educational opportunities between China and Serbia. These efforts are part of China’s soft power strategy to project a positive image and build goodwill in Serbia and beyond.


Xi Jinping’s visit to Serbia also has implications for broader relations between China and the EU. While the EU is wary of China’s growing influence in Central and Eastern Europe, Serbia’s engagement with China through the Belt and Road and other initiatives could serve as an example for other countries in the region. However, it has also raised concerns within the EU of a potential split as countries such as Serbia deepen ties with China outside the EU framework.


List of sources:

  1. Declaration entre la France et la Chine sur la situation au Proche-Orient [Electronic resource] / Access mode: et-la-chine-sur-la-situation-au-proche-orient (13 May 2024)
  2. President Xi Jinping Holds China-France-EU Trilateral Leaders’ Meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen [Electronic resource] / Access mode: 202405/t20240506_11293488.html (May 13, 2024)
  3. China stated that it supports the strategic autonomy of the EU and hopes for cooperation [Electronic resource] / Access mode: (May 13, 2024)
  4. The EU’s unsustainable China strategy [Electronic resource] / Access mode: (May 13, 2024)
  5. Europe must be more assertive ahead of the uncertain US election, Macron says [Electronic resource] / Access mode: -uncertain-us-election-macron.html (13 May 2024)
  6. Olaf Scholz: “Wir brauchen eine geopolitische, erweiterte, reformierte und zukunftsoffene EU” [Electronic resource] / Access mode: brauchen-eine-erweiterte-reformierte-und-zukunftsoffene-eu (13 May 2024)
  7. The lonely leader: The origins of France’s strategy for EU foreign policy [Electronic resource] / Access mode: -foreign-policy/ (May 13, 2024)
  8. European Reactions to AUKUS and Implications for EU Strategic Autonomy [Electronic resource] / Access mode: strategic-autonomy/ (May 13, 2024)
  9. Déclaration conjointe entre la République française et la République populaire de Chine sur l’intelligence artificielle et la gouvernance des enjeux globaux [Electronic resource] / Access mode: macron/2024/05/06 /declaration-conjointe-entre-la-republique-francaise-et-la-republique-populaire-de-chine-sur-lintelligence-artificielle-et-la-gouvernance-des-enjeux-globaux (May 13, 2024)
  10. Xi Jinping Holds Talks with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary [Electronic resource] / Access mode: (May 13, 2024)
  11. Hungary and China sign strategic cooperation agreement during visit by Xi [Electronic resource] / Access mode: (May 13, 2024)
  12. Gusseinov, Eldaniz. “Magyarország és a türk államok közötti együttműködés politikai és gazdasági lehetőségei: a jelenlegi tendenciák vizsgálata = Political and Economic Opptunities for Cooperation Between Hungary and Turkic States: An Analysis of Current Trends.” KÜLÜGYI MŰHELY 5, no. 1–2 (2023): 467–96.
  13. Hungary – Minimum tax and other corporate tax measures introduced [Electronic resource] / Access mode: other-corporate-tax-measures-introduced (May 13, 2024)
  14. Támogatjuk a kínai békekezdeményezest [Electronic resource] / Access mode:ényezest/ (May 13, 2024)
  15. Xi’s visit to Serbia and Hungary; a diplomatic message to Europe [Electronic resource] / Access mode: -europe.html ( May 13, 2024)
  16. President Xi Jinping and President Aleksandar Vučić Jointly Meet the Press [Electronic resource] / Access mode: ( May 13, 2024)


The China Studies Centre