China’s Xi shouldn’t expect an easy ride in Europe this time

Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, arrived in France on Sunday. PHOTO: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/PRESS POOL
Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his wife, Peng Liyuan, arrived in France on Sunday. PHOTO: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/PRESS POOL


The Chinese leader’s visit is set to test Europe’s willingness to confront Beijing over its support of Russia and trade practices that have hurt European industries.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first visit to Europe in nearly five years is shaping up as a test of the continent’s willingness to confront Beijing over its support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as Chinese trade policies that have eviscerated critical European industries.

European leaders tend to tread lightly with Beijing, not wanting to jeopardize ties with a major trade partner. But French President Emmanuel Macron, who is set to meet with Xi on Monday on the first leg of the six-day trip, has cast the Ukraine war and China’s trade practices as an existential threat to Europe.

China has served as an economic lifeline to Russia since the start of the war, providing Moscow with critical support as it seeks to rebuild its military capacity. Beijing hasn’t supplied arms to Moscow, but U.S. officials say it has provided satellite imagery to Russian forces and sold the country microchips, jet-fighter parts, machine tools and other dual-use equipment to bolster its armed forces. Beijing is also a prodigious buyer of Russian fossil fuels.

Chinese manufacturers, meanwhile, are flooding Europe with electric vehicles, solar panels and other goods stemming from a massive manufacturing glut and lagging consumption at home. The Chinese economy has been slow to emerge from the pandemic, with falling property prices, high youth unemployment and deflation stirring fears that the country will seek to export its way out of the slump.

Any attempt to stand up to Beijing, however, will require unity among European leaders, and China has a long record of playing divide-and-conquer with capitals across the continent.

Macron is trying to show a united front by inviting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to join him in Paris at the start of his meetings with Xi. Von der Leyen has been a thorn in Beijing’s side, accusing China of seeking global hegemony and warning that Europe’s relations with Beijing would be shaped by its actions regarding Ukraine.

In February, the European Union agreed to impose trade restrictions on three technology and electronics companies from mainland China for the first time since the war started, because of what Brussels says is their sale of militarily usable goods. More may follow, EU officials say.

The EU has also used a new antisubsidy law to launch an investigation into electric-vehicle imports from China. Last month, it deployed the same instrument to conduct dawn raids on offices of Chinese security-equipment company Nuctech. There are also growing concerns about alleged Chinese spying, cyber espionage and other forms of interference. Last month, British and German authorities made arrests over alleged Chinese espionage.

“I think that Europe has a degree of leverage with China. The Chinese economy is weak," said Noah Barkin, a senior adviser with research firm Rhodium’s China practice. “The Chinese need access to European investment, European technology but that leverage only works if Europe is united and sending the same message."

French President Emmanuel Macron met with China’s Xi Jinping in Beijing last year. PHOTO: NG HAN GUAN/PRESS POOL
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French President Emmanuel Macron met with China’s Xi Jinping in Beijing last year. PHOTO: NG HAN GUAN/PRESS POOL

European divisions have been visible as the EV investigation has proceeded. German auto firms and suppliers remain deeply entrenched in the Chinese market. Any EU tariffs on EV imports from China would risk Beijing’s retaliation against the German auto industry. French automakers, which produce lower-priced vehicles more vulnerable to Chinese imports, are cheering on the EU probe.

China responded in January to the EV probe by opening an antidumping investigation into brandy imported from the EU. That measure is widely seen as targeting France and cognac, its national brandy.

European divisions were on full display when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz went to China last month. He offered no public support to the European Commission’s antisubsidy investigations and remained silent on China’s tariffs on brandy. Scholz refrained from directly rebuking Beijing publicly about its continued support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Macron asked Scholz over a recent dinner to join this week’s talks with Xi. The German chancellor declined, citing his plans to travel to the Baltics on Monday.

Abigaël Vasselier, former deputy head of division for China at the EU foreign-service unit, said she expects Macron to take a more confrontational approach to Xi, in part because Beijing sees Paris as the driving force behind the commission’s antisubsidy drive.

French officials said Macron plans to express his concerns to Xi over Chinese companies that might support Russia’s war effort. He also hopes to enlist the Chinese leader in resolving the war, the officials said.

Macron sees a paradigm shift unfolding in global trade rules as China and the U.S. channel billions of dollars in subsidies toward homegrown industries. In late April, Macron delivered a two-hour speech warning that the European project of economic cooperation “can die" if the continent doesn’t wake up to the new state of affairs.

“With many others starting to change the rules of the game and over-subsidizing, from China to the United States of America," Macron said, Europe can’t continue imposing strict environmental and economic norms, and underinvesting in its industries. “That just doesn’t make sense."

Still, Xi will have plenty of opportunities to sow division during his trip. In Belgrade, Serbia, he will mark the 25th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing of the Chinese Embassy there. The 1999 bombing, which killed three people, set off protests in China and badly damaged Sino-U.S. ties. The U.S. apologized for it, saying it was an accident caused by outdated maps.

Beijing has long used the incident as Exhibit A in its case against U.S.-led security partnerships. China has criticized NATO and opposed its expansion, a point Xi made with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a 2022 joint statement shortly before the start of the Ukraine war.

Xi will then travel to Hungary to meet with Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the bête noire of EU politics. Orban has pushed back on EU efforts to aid Ukraine and was the first EU leader to sign a contract as part of China’s massive Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. The scope of the relationship has ballooned in recent years, with currently more than $16 billion worth of investment projects in the country, the Hungarian government said recently. Hungary hosts Huawei Technologies’ largest supply center outside China, despite U.S. pressure to ban the tech company.

Orban has also embraced the Chinese auto industry. China-based Contemporary Amperex Technology is already building a $7.8 billion EV battery plant in Hungary. BYD, China’s top-selling EV maker, is building a manufacturing plant in the southern Hungarian city of Szeged. China watchers say another plant may be on the table for Xi’s visit.

“Orban is putting his bets on China; it has been very clear that the government wants to turn the country into a logistical hub," said Tamas Matura, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and associate professor at Corvinus University in Budapest.

Macron also has a history of playing into Xi’s hands. Last year, during a visit to China, the French president riled allies by saying Europe should step back from tensions between China and Taiwan. The remarks were in line with Macron’s longstanding call for Europe to develop “strategic autonomy" from military superpowers, a doctrine that suits Xi’s goal of driving a wedge between Washington and Europe.

“This is something that China can try to use to its advantage," said Marc Julienne, the lead China analyst at the French Institute of International Relations.

This year, Xi is traveling to Paris for the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and China, an occasion the leaders will mark with a state dinner and a visit to the Pyrénées mountains.

“I think Xi Jinping expects a warm reception from these countries and will only go there if he thinks he can come out with some good announcements and it looks like these countries understand China’s concerns," said Olivia Cheung, a research fellow at the SOAS China Institute in London.

Thomas Grove, Bertrand Benoit and Stacy Meichtry contributed to this article.

Write to Noemie Bisserbe at, Laurence Norman at and Austin Ramzy at

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