President Xi Jinping’s visit to Europe has been a triumphant tour, resulting in major bilateral deals. As Chinese President Xi Jinping concludes his first foreign trip of 2019, he can congratulate himself on at least one thing: masterfully making use of the daylight between Brussels and Washington when it comes to China policy.
While the Trump administration pursues its ongoing trade war, it has failed to convince European countries to banish Huawei’s equipment from their 5G infrastructures, or to resist China’s international infrastructure development strategy known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), designed to build pathways for trade but which also, critics say, expands Chinese influence and entraps countries in Chinese debt.
President Xi’s trip took him to Italy, Monaco, and France, a clever itinerary that allowed him to maximise cooperative opportunities, painting China as a willing economic and global governance partner for the EU, and allaying Chinese citizens’ fears about being blackballed by the West.
The Italian portion of the visit focused on the BRI, Rome’s endorsement being President Xi’s greatest win so far in 2019. Italy, a founding member of the EU, is the first G7 country to formally sign on to China’s grand infrastructure project, breathing new life into the much-maligned initiative. Over the past year, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, among others, cancelled or cut back BRI projects.
The seizure of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota and fears of so-called “debt-trap diplomacy” further eroded faith in the project, with many countries questioning Beijing’s promises of “win-win” cooperation. But Italy is the wealthiest country to join the BRI, and President Xi will be able to signal to his constituents that the project is still held in high international regard despite the aforementioned setbacks.
Though many EU countries, particularly Germany and France, have been highly sceptical of the BRI, the Five Star Movement wing of Italy’s populist coalition government has observed the success of Greece’s Piraeus Port, a majority share of which is held by COSCO, a Chinese state-owned enterprise.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte hopes to make Italy’s own ports, notably those in Trieste and Genoa, similar entry points for Chinese trade with Europe. And while another group in the governing coalition the far-right League, takes a dim view of engagement with China, during President Xi’s visit, Rome signed 29 deals worth $2.8 billion, wagering on Chinese investments to help pull it out of a grinding recession.
Among other things, the deal is a reminder that the EU has not been able to offer its members attractive alternatives to Chinese investment.
President Xi’s visit to Monaco had much do with the country’s endorsement of Huawei, the telecommunications and electronics giant which the U.S. has accused of enabling Chinese state surveillance. On February 27, Monaco Telecom and Huawei signed a memorandum of understanding to develop and deploy “smart city” technology for the principality.
Last week, this victory for President Xi was followed by EU countries rejecting the Trump administration’s calls to ban Huawei from European 5G infrastructure. New Zealand and Australia have followed the United States’ lead, but Europe has fallen far behind China and the United States in 5G: The decision reflects, at least in part, the recognition that it cannot afford to ban Huawei from its networks.
France, the current chair of the G7 and a strong U.S. ally, was supposed to be President Xi’s toughest stop on his Mediterranean swing. In a bid to emphasise European unity, French President Emmanuel Macron invited German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to join his meeting with President Xi on Tuesday.
Macron, who has been supportive of the BRI in the past, has recently coarsened his rhetoric, noting that the initiative should not be “one-way.” He has been invited to the upcoming BRI forum in April but is unlikely to attend.
While in France, however, President Xi cemented a new phase of economic cooperation with Europe, signing an almost $34 billion deal with Airbus for 300 airplanes. China has historically been one of U.S.-based Boeing’s best customers, accounting for almost 20 percent of the company’s sales as of 2017.
But given Boeing’s recent disasters and the contentious U.S.-China relationship, President Xi has deftly shifted the trajectory of China’s aviation sector, simultaneously shoring up economic ties with the EU and dealing a blow to Washington.
The Airbus deal is pragmatic for Macron, demonstrating that he believes China and France, as well as China and the EU, can engage in concurrent cooperation and competition.
President Xi, for his part, seems to be hoping Beijing can collaborate with Paris, Berlin, and Brussels on multilateral initiatives such as the Paris Agreement on climate change and what’s left of the Iran nuclear agreement, as well as the need to protect the international trade and economic order from Trumpian protectionism.
The broader international community will probably remain suspicious of China and its motives. But the point of these visits was for President Xi to demonstrate that he’s willing to work with the EU, and equally willing approach member states one by one with specially tailored bilateral deals.
Speaking last Friday after a meeting of 27 EU countries in Brussels, Macron proclaimed an end to the “time of European naïveté” or “uncoordinated” approaches to Beijing. But as much as Macron and the EU would like to believe that Europe has an actionable bloc-wide China strategy, it still seems like wishful thinking.
Though Brussels’ EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy offers some kind of alternative to the BRI, many EU countries have shunned it in favor of Chinese investments. Thirteen central and eastern European countries have signed on to the BRI, and that does not count Portugal, and now Italy.
The continued importance of the 16+1 grouping, through which China engages with Central and Eastern European countries outside of EU diplomatic mechanisms, further complicates achieving a coordinated EU approach to Beijing.
Though China has said it does not want to split the EU, its intent is secondary. Beijing is offering deals countries want. And while China will undoubtedly still have difficulties with both the EU and the United States, on this trip, at least, President Xi seems to have thoroughly outmanoeuvred those set against him in Washington.