China’s Xi Cultivates ‘Ironclad Friendship’ in Eastern Europe

The anti-Western mindset of Serbia’s and Hungary’s leaders fuels ample opportunities for Chinese investment.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic shake hands in Belgrade, Serbia.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic shake hands in Belgrade, Serbia.

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MAY 8, 2024, 7:00 PM

Welcome back to World Brief, where we’re looking at Chinese President Xi Jinping in Serbia and HungaryIsrael reopening a vital aid crossing into Gaza, and general elections in North Macedonia.

Beijing Woos Eastern Europe

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in Hungary on Wednesday for the third and final stop of his European tour. He began his trip on Monday in France and took a pit stop in Serbia before heading to Budapest, where he will remain until Friday.

This is the first time that the Chinese leader has visited Eastern Europe since a trip to the Czech Republic in 2016, and it demonstrates Xi’s resolve to create the 16+1 group, a Chinese diplomatic initiative with former communist European countries that are investing in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Both Serbia and Hungary are BRI members.

“There are thousands of things that we can and should learn from our Chinese friends,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said, calling bilateral ties an “ironclad friendship.” Beijing is Belgrade’s largest foreign investor. Serbia’s Infrastructure and Energy Ministry reported this year that Chinese funding reached nearly $20 billion, and on Wednesday, the two nations announced a new free trade agreement. The deal, which will begin in July, aims to cancel tariffs on almost 95 percent of Serbia’s exports to China within the next five to 10 years.

Hungary also touts strong economic ties with China. Budapest received $11.5 billion in Chinese funds in 2023 alone, much of it related to electric vehicles. Whereas the European Union has warned against China dominating the critical sector, Hungary has leaned into Chinese support. Last December, Chinese carmaker BYD announced that it would build an assembly plant in Hungary, marking its first EV production facility in Europe. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban hopes to announce more investment opportunities with Great Wall Motor, another Chinese-owned EV company, during Xi’s visit this week.

Neither Serbia nor Hungary plan to mention human rights abuses in China, nor Beijing’s support for Russia. The two European nations are both led by authoritarian-leaning politicians whose views largely align with China’s anti-Western mindset. Hungary must maintain its “policy of openness” at a time when “our most natural sales market [Western Europe] is sick,” in Orban’s words. Hungary and Serbia have repeatedly been critical of Western support for Ukraine in its war against Russia; Belgrade has balked at imposing sanctions on Moscow; and Budapest has vetoed EU sanctions against China on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Taiwan issues.

Territorial claims also align Beijing with some of Eastern Europe. Just as China does not recognize Taiwan’s sovereignty, Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s independence. In turn, China supports Serbia’s claims over the former territory, and Vucic has said that “Taiwan is China—full stop.”

Excerpts: Foreign Policy, 8th May.

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