Editorials

Xi and Putin want a new world order. Hungary and Serbia are ready to support them

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands as they attend a signing ceremony following a meeting in expanded format at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 16 May 2024.
© EPA-EFE/SERGEY BOBYLEV / SPUTNIK / KREMLIN POOL   |   Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands as they attend a signing ceremony following a meeting in expanded format at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 16 May 2024.

Holzstock Festival

Xi Jinping visited Europe to project the image of a strong China and announce investments in Serbia and Hungary, both pro-Russian countries. Later, Xi welcomed Putin to Beijing and promised him the help of China, which shares with Russia the vision of a "multipolar" world. But the visit seems, at least for now, to have had fewer concrete results than Xi's visit to Europe.

China pretends to be open towards Europe, but focuses on the ties with Russia

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are more or less like minded. Both like symbols, have (re)built authoritarian systems around the idea of ​​a providential leader, and are revisionists planning the new multipolar world order, as Xi preached in his first European tour in 5 years.

The planning of Xi's visit to Europe shows that symbols were also considered, and symbolic moments were chosen. The Chinese leader arrived in Paris upon the celebration of 60 years of Sino-French relations, in Belgrade on the day that marked 25 years since, amid the NATO air campaign during the Kosovo war, the Chinese embassy was accidentally bombed, and in Budapest, on the day commemorating 20 years of intense Chinese-Hungarian economic cooperation.

It was a visit with huge stakes for the host states, and also for China itself, but ultimately for Russia, and this because, conceptually, XI's tour of Europe was compatible with Russia's vision of the new world order. It was not by chance that Putin has recently stated that Russia is at the forefront of creating a just world order  .

But beyond any of these symbols, Xi's presence in Europe was about deals worth billions, the potential trade war between China and the European Union, and last but not least the war in Ukraine. On this last point, the Europeans would have liked Xi Jinping to use his influence on Putin to put an end to the war.

"We are counting on China to use its full influence with Russia to stop Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine," said Ursula von der Leyen, who attended a tripartite meeting at the Élysée palace. She made this statement based on China's recent role in de-escalating Russia's nuclear threats. But Beijing wants something else. At least on Ukraine, Xi Jinping's double game is making Western chancelleries nervous. On the one hand, China proposes a more than vague 12-point peace agreement, in which the withdrawal of the Russians from the Ukrainian territories is not even mentioned, and on the other hand, it helps the Russian war machine with micro-electronics, machine-tools and optic devices and – not insignificantly – buys hydrocarbons from his friend Putin, who sells at a preferential price.

The British Defense Minister has recently accused China of already moving to the next stage of supporting Russia. Grant Schapps told a conference in London that Beijing was providing or preparing to provide Russia   with lethal aid for use by Moscow in its war against Ukraine.

And this shortly after, in Paris, Xi Jinping had promised not to deliver weapons to Russia and to strictly control exports of dual-use equipment to Russia. The truth is that the war in Ukraine is fitting China like a glove. The longer the fighting goes on, the more the allies, the Americans in particular, are concentrated in this area, allowing Beijing to expand into the Taiwan Strait. As proof, just days after the inauguration of the pro-Western president in Taipei, China surrounded Taiwan in a so-called punitive mission for "separatist acts". It’s a way for China to also send a serious warning against what Beijing calls external interference and provocations, alluding to the US political and military support to the island.

Xi, cold with Westerners but ready to help Putin's European allies

Going back to the European tour, President Emmanuel Macron rolled out the red carpet, welcomed Xi Jinping to the Elysee like he would royalty, walked him through symbolic places, and offered him meaningful gifts. And what did he get in return? A big NOTHING. Macron was expecting from China a tougher position towards the war in Ukraine. He tried to establish a tougher framework for the commercial sector, with the EU carrying out an investigation into Chinese vehicles on the European market. In fact, the "electrical war", let's call it, also concerns photovoltaic panels and, as of late, also wind technologies. The EU accuses China of unfair competition, while China accuses the EU of protectionism.

Xi deftly sidestepped the European issues by either denying their existence or offering rhetorical concessions.

28 agreements were signed in Belgrade. Moreover, Serbia, which started cooperation with this world economic power as early as 2016, ended up relying too much on Chinese investments that already exceed the Russian ones. And Serbia is not the only country in the former Yugoslavia where Chinese money is poured especially into infrastructure. But the agreements signed in Serbia do not mean only money, they mean influence that China is thus buying. The documents cover a wide range: from ministerial exchanges to agreements with state media, charting a course for a greater Chinese role in the Balkan country. President Alexander Vucic is engaged in a rather dangerous tightrope dance, both with the Russians, the Europeans, and the Americans, but especially with the Chinese.

To Victor Orban, the agreements worth more than 16 billion euros are a breath of fresh air, given that the European Union has blocked funding from the Resilience Plan worth more than 10 billion euros due to slippages on the rule of law. Agreements were signed in Budapest on:

- a railway for freight transport, which will bypass Budapest

- a fast railway between Budapest and the international airport

- a high-capacity crossing point on the border with Serbia

- the designing an oil pipeline between Hungary and Serbia

- cooperation in the field of nuclear energy production

The United States has already expressed concern over Xi Jinping's visits to Europe and the meetings he had in Serbia and Hungary. The US believes Beijing is seeking to create an anti-Western axis with Hungary, Serbia and Russia. A hypothesis that, by the way, Prime Minister Orban confirmed in the statements he made at the end of Xi Jinping's visit to Hungary.

"We used to live in a one-center world order, now we live in a multi-centered world, and one of the pillars of this new world order is the Republic of China," Viktor Orban said.

To draw the line, Xi Jinping's visit to Europe reached its only goal, that of projecting the image of an influential economic force.

It should be noted that Hungary is the EU state closest to Russia, and Serbia is one of its true outposts in the Western Balkans.

Putin in Beijing: declarations of friendship and promises, but few immediate results

But one cannot separate Xi Jinping’s European tour from Vladimir Putin's visit to China, the first outside the country since the beginning of his latest term - the fifth - obtained through a fake democratic election. Speaking of symbols, Xi Jinping also chose a meeting with Putin for his first visit abroad after being re-elected president in March 2023.

A busy two days for Putin and Xi Jinping, the two-headed dragon who talks about the emerging multipolar world in response to what they see as US hegemony. Putin was received with military honors by his friend Xi Jinping, a sign that the Kremlin leader is valued by the communist regime.  The timing of this visit makes us see more clearly what actually lies behind the cordial embraces in Beijing. The international community is preparing to use the profits generated by frozen Russian assets to support Ukraine in its war against Russia. The decision will make available to Ukraine up to 3 billion euros this year alone, money that will be used mainly to finance the country's military efforts. The sanctions imposed by the West on Russia, immediately after the invasion of Ukraine, are beginning to show their fangs. The reserves secured by Putin until 2022, when he attacked Ukraine, have almost reached the bottom of the bag. Those 3 days of war that Putin was betting on are approaching 3 years and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to fuel the war machine. So, the hopes are with the three companions in evil: North Korea, Iran and China. In Pyongyang, weapon factories are working hard to supply Russia, but it is not enough. Iran, the supplier of Shahed kamikaze drones, may be in trouble for a while due to the disappearance of President Raisi, nicknamed the Butcher of Tehran. There remains China.

Putin went to Beijing with three demands:

an agreement on the Power of Siberia 2 gas pipeline

access to the Chinese financial markets (to use the yuan in its commercial transactions)

additional support for the war in Ukraine

Power of Siberia 2 has been under consideration for some time, but now it has become an emergency for Moscow as the Russians are forced to replace Europe with China for gas sales. The new gas pipeline, with a length of 2,600 km and a capacity of 50 billion cubic meters of gas per year, would pass through Mongolia and double the existing one, Power-of-Siberia, which runs 3,000 km through Siberia and into Heilongjiang Province in northeastern China. While Putin was in Beijing, a contract was signed to build Power of Siberia 2, but the terms are rather vague.

Regarding access to the Chinese financial markets, Putin left Beijing with just promises. And that's because Chinese investors are quite reluctant because of the war in Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia. Fearing secondary US sanctions, Chinese banks have become much more cautious in their dealings with Russian banks.

Therefore, Putin cannot boast about immediate economic results. As for additional support for the war in Ukraine, something is not clear here either. Moreover, Joe Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, contradicted the British defense minister and said that while there had been concerns that Beijing would deliver weapons, there was no information that it had happened yet. Xi Jinping might have given him a friendly pat on the shoulder and half-heartedly said YES.

The help offered by a China still wary of relations with the West is probably not enough since the Kremlin announced shortly after the dictator's return home that Putin would visit North Korea.

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Ioana Dumitrescu

Ioana Dumitrescu




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