The first foreign overseas visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2019 started with visiting Italy, Monaco, and France on March 21-26, 2019. During the tour, he visited five European cities, such as Rome, Palermo, Monaco, Nice and Paris, attended over 40 events and met with the leadership of those countries, in addition to the meeting with the German Chancellor and the Head of the European Commission [Xinhua, 2019].
The Chinese President’s European tour started in Italy, where he held talks with President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, along with other high-ranking officials. The visit marked the 15th anniversary of the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Italy and the next year’s 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. The front event of the visit was the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU), which made Italy the first G7 member that formally became part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) [BBC, 2019]. Even though the MoU lacks any headline deals, it has a potential value of €20 billion. In addition, the agreements were reached with the China’s Silk Road Fund on international investments to Italian railways and airports to boost Chinese tourism to Italy, and with the China Communications Construction Company to develop and recover the Trieste and Genoa ports. Besides, companies from both sides signed 29 deals worth €2.5billion. In particular, the first shipment of oranges was sent by air from Sicily to China, which was described as a “small revolution of ‘Made in Italy’ products” [Tiezzi, 2019]. Hence, Xi’s visit to Rome could be featured as fruitful that will further intensify bilateral ties and enhance political exchanges.
Meanwhile, Xi’s maiden visit to Monaco elevated the China-Monaco relations to a new level, while environmental issues and telecom services became the main topic of the negotiations. Particularly, the parties agreed to cooperate on environmental protection, especially regarding ocean resources, biodiversity, and climate change [China Daily, 2019]. China and Monaco have close communication on environmental issues between the Prince Albert II of Monaco Foundation and the Chinese Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, which will be further enhanced with the launch of sustainable programs [People’s Daily, 2019]. Another highlight was the arrangement on the assistance of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies in implementing the 5G Smart Nation project that will turn Monaco into the first country fully covered with 5G. The agreement was signed despite the U.S. pressure to bar Huawei in Europe due to a potential threat to security claimed by Washington. Either way, Xi’s engagement with the wealthy European micro-state promoted China’s efforts in information infrastructure construction and upgrading environmental friendly technologies.
For his part, French President Emmanuel Macron showed his commitment to the European unity by inviting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to hold negotiations with President Xi. During the talks, the European leaders have jointly confirmed that they will consider playing an active role in the BRI if China opens its markets. Mr. Juncker stated “European businesses could have the same degree of access to the Chinese market as Chinese businesses have in Europe”, thus calling for better trade reciprocity [Lough and Vey, 2019]. President Xi also confirmed his readiness for win-win cooperation with the EU since the meeting with the EU leaders was important for Xi in terms of negotiating on the issues of safeguarding multilateralism and improving global governance. In addition, the visit, which marked the 55th anniversary of the China-France diplomatic ties, aimed to advance bilateral cooperation in the areas of trade and investment, nuclear energy, and aviation. Particularly, France secured an order from China for 300 Airbus jets, worth $34 billion, which is notable as China purchased the same number of Boeing jets from the United States during President Donald Trump’s 2017 visit to Beijing [Dasgupta, 2019]. Besides, Macron and Xi discussed climate change issues, as Macron seeks support to counter Trump’s skepticism on global warming. The French President also touched upon the modernization of the WTO to better respond to issues “around transparency, overcapacity, state subsidies, and dispute settlement” and, importantly, referred to the situation of Muslims in Xinjiang, stating that China should respect fundamental human rights [Tiezzi, 2019]. Thus, the China-France strategic partnership, which has a global meaning, will enhance further based on the pragmatic approach, described by Macron: “competition and cooperation were natural but Europe and China should strengthen multilateralism through deeper cooperation” [Lough and Vey, 2019].
Meanwhile, on March 21, 2019, the European Commission and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini reviewed the EU-China relations and proposed, as a result, a joint communication with 10 action points that formulate the EU’s relations with China with the goal to raise the EU’s global competitiveness and security. Seeking more balanced and reciprocal conditions governing its economic relations with China, the EU calls for promoting joint interests at the global level [Europa.eu, 2019]. At the same time, it is notable that the largest recipients of Chinese investments in Europe in 2017 were Germany ($1.6 billion), the Netherlands ($1.6 billion), the United Kingdom ($1.5 billion), and France ($1.4 billion). It remains to be seen if the unified approach towards China will help other EU member states be more competitive in attracting Beijing’s Europe-bound investments [Tiezzi, 2019].
In conclusion, President Xi’s trip to Europe has brought China’s pragmatic approach to cooperation to a new height by opening renewed frames of the BRI and reenergizing bilateral ties with the European countries. It has also given a new impetus to the EU-China arrangements on such global issues as climate change and environmental protection, while bypassing China’s problems related to human rights.
BBC (2019). Italy joins China’s New Silk Road project. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-47679760. Accessed on 25.03.2019.
China Daily (2019). Xi’s visits to boost China’s ties with France, Monaco: ambassador. Retrieved from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201903/23/WS5c962c40a3104842260b22a4.html. Accessed on 25.03.2019.
Dasgupta, Saibal (2019). Xi Jinping Lures Europe With Cash, but Will EU Soften on China? Retrieved from https://www.voanews.com/a/xi-jinping-lures-europe-with-cash-but-will-eu-soften-on-china-/4851656.html. Accessed on 25.03.2019.
Europa.eu (2019). Commission reviews relations with China, proposes 10 actions. Retrieved from http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-19-1605_en.htm. Accessed on 25.03.2019.
Lough, Richard and Jean-Baptiste Vey (2019). European leaders press for fairer trade relationship with China. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-china-macron/european-leaders-press-for-fairer-trade-relationship-with-china-idUSKCN1R713N. Accessed on 25.03.2019.
People’s Daily (2019). Xi’s Monaco visit sets trend. Retrieved from http://en.people.cn/n3/2019/0325/c90000-9560077.html. Accessed on 25.03.2019.
Tiezzi, Shannon (2019). Xi Jinping in Europe: A Tale of 2 Countries. Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2019/03/xi-jinping-in-europe-a-tale-of-2-countries/. Accessed on 25.03.2019.
Xinhua (2019). Xi’s fruitful visits boost partnership with Europe. Retrieved from http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/a/201903/27/WS5c9b74a6a3104842260b2ef2.html. Accessed on 25.03.2019.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Dr.Albina Muratbekova is a research fellow of the Eurasian Research Institute at H.A.Yassawi Kazakh Turkish International University. Albina holds a PhD degree in Oriental Studies from Al Farabi Kazakh National University. She was a Fellow of the EUCACIS PhD support programme, Fudan Fellow 2017, a visiting student of the Cambridge Central Asia Forum at the University of Cambridge along with being an exchange student at Lanzhou University. Previously, she had worked at the international departments of Narxoz and AlmaU universities on the implementation of the internationalization strategy of th