Wang-Yi: China's top diplomat on tour in Europe
In this briefing, Staff Writer Chloé Mossberg looks at Wang Yi's recent tour of Europe, its developments and the objectives driving it. This briefing was edited by Carola Ducco (Co-Editor).
Mid-February marked the start of a European tour by Wang Yi. He is the Director of the Office of the Central Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party, informally named “China’s top diplomat” by global media. This was his first visit abroad since being appointed to the position last October. He was promoted from Former Minister (replaced by Qin Gang) to a seat at the table of the 24-member Politburo during the 20th Party Congress. Wang described his trip, which passed through France, Italy, Hungary, Germany, and Russia, as designed to “promote new developments in bilateral relations, enhance strategic mutual trust between China and Europe, and exchange views on major international issues.”
His tour began in France, where he met with both French President Macron and the Foreign Minister, Catherine Colonna. Ukraine, a recurrent theme in all the visits, was part of their discussion. Both sides agreed they want “peace in line with internatonal law” , and Foreign Minister Colonna went further, asking that China put pressure on its Russian ally to comply with the “basic principles of the Charter of the United Nations”. Conversation also touched on other, less politicized, topics of bilateral cooperation such as climate change, biodiversity, and maritime protection work.
Wang Yi then went on to visit Rome, where he met with Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani, and President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella. The Italian leg of his journey was marked by the upcoming renewal of Italy and China’s memorandum of Understanding on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This was originally signed in a 2019 state visit to Italy, in which both Wang and Xi Jinping were present, and marked a success for Chinese diplomacy. Today, Italy remains the first and only G7 country to have joined the BRI. Although the memorandum should be automatically extended in 2024, the Italian government has said it wants to review it before this happens. One of Wang’s objectives during his visit was to convince Italy to go forward with renewing the agreement.
Later in the trip, Wang visited Hungary, where he met with President Orbán. Another signatory of a BRI Memorandum (and the first EU country to sign it), Hungary extended a “warm welcome” to the Chinese diplomat. Hungary is one of the EU countries closest to China, with Mr. Orbán set on attracting Chinese investment and institutions. This includes a BRI-funded railway to Serbia, Huawei’s largest supply centre outside of China, a $7.5 billion Contemporary Amperex Technology factory and a Hungarian campus of the prestigious Fudan University, the first Chinese university in the EU.
Wang Yi was also present at the Munich Conference, during which he delivered a keynote speech titled “Making the World a Safer Place”. In it, he again called for peace in Ukraine, arguing the conflict should be resolved through negotiations and politics, not warfare. He also repeated China’s position on the issue, highlighting China’s respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as for countries’ legitimate security interests. At the conference, Wang had an informal meeting with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. This is their first meeting since recent Sino-American diplomatic fallout over a Chinese balloon flying over American territory – the Chinese called it a weather balloon, whilst the Americans accused it of spying and shot it down under Chinese protests. During their conversation, Blinken told Wang the US did not seek conflict with China but warned against supplying arms to Russia. Wang also met with German Foreign Affairs Minister Annalena Baebock, and their conversation seems to have mirrored those Wang and Macron held in France. Lastly, he met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. He thanked Ukraine’s assistance to China in evacuating the 6000 Chinese nationals in the first few days of the conflict, as well as reiterating China’s position regarding ending the conflict and avoiding further escalation.
The final stop of Wang Yi’s trip was Moscow, where he met with President Vladimir Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. During their meeting, Lavrov praised Sino-Russian ties, which have “continued to develop dynamically,” and the readiness both countries have shown “to speak in defence of each other’s interests.” Wang responded by highlighting China’s focus on deepening ties with Russia. He also added a comment about supporting multipolarity in international relations – a jab at the perceived US dominance in global affairs.
One of the overall goals of Wang Yi was defining China’s position on the international field, specifically through the Ukrainian conflict and in relation to the US. China portrays itself as the responsible superpower, counterbalancing the US, which the Chinese government regard as a self-interested puppeteer behind Ukraine's fight Wang Yi alluded in his warning that “some people do not want peace talks to succeed or fighting to stop” and “don’t care about the life and death of Ukrainians or the harm done to have larger strategic calculations in mind”. In the same week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry set out statements urging NATO to “abandon the outdated Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation, stop creating imaginary enemies and destabilizing Europe and the Asia-Pacific, and do something good for peace and stability in Europe and beyond”. The spokesperson added that the US should start negotiations “instead of fanning the flames [of the conflict] or profiting from it”. State-sponsored media also used similar language. The Global Times described Wang Yi’s trip as proof of China’s “active endeavors” in helping the “relevant parties engage in more dialogue and increase mutual trust... as China is the only major power in the world that can play a mediating role”. The Foreign Ministry back in China set out statements urging NATO to “abandon the outdated Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation, stop creating imaginary enemies and destabilizing Europe and the Asia-Pacific, and do something good for peace and stability in Europe and beyond”. The Foreign Ministry spokesperson added to these comments thatthat the US should start negotiations “instead of fanning the flames [of the conflict] or profiting from it”. State-sponsored media also used similar language. In contrast, the Global Times described Wang Yi’s trip as proof of China’s “active endeavours” in helping the “relevant parties engage in more dialogue and increase mutual trust, […] as China is the only major power in the world that can play a mediating role”.
However, the authenticity of China’s claims of neutrality have come under scrutiny. China has been called out for its uncritical stances regarding Russia, both by Western and non-Western actors. Last month, Aljazeera commented on the “warmth of Russia’s and China’s relationship,” focusing on Wang and Putin’s “firm handshake” and Wang “looking relaxed as he walked with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov”. A recent UN resolution has also suggested China’s approach to Russia is frowned upon by most countries. The resolution deplores “in the strongest terms” the Russian aggression against Ukraine, and only demands that Russia, not ‘both parties’, cease its use of force against Ukraine and withdraw its troops. Although China abstained, 141 countries approved it, over three quarters of those present for the voting.
The second goal of Wang’s tour was the betterment of EU-China relations, which some have categorised as part of China’s “charm offensive”. China is especially interested in restarting negotiations on a bilateral investment treaty with the EU, which could lay the foundations for a future free trade agreement. China has signalled renewed interest since overturning their Zero-Covid policy: Vice Premier Liu recently declared “foreign investments are welcome in China” at Davos, and on the 23rd of February Chinese Ambassador to the EU Fu Cong expressed a desire to restart negotiations . This renewed interest also why part of Wang’s goal during his trip was to “lay the groundwork” of Macron and Meloni’s upcoming trips to China. However, some choices made during the tour seemed to work against China’s intention to bring the EU closer. Most striking was the last-minute decision to visit Hungary instead of Brussels. Not only is Hungary’s developing ties with China a concern to some EU allies, but the Chinese Foreign Ministry has recently commented that they “support Hungary in adopting domestic and foreign policies based on the fundamental interests of its own people”. This language is similar to that used by Orbán while defending his government’s policies, which in the EU have created increasing concerns regarding Hungary’s rule of law and closeness to Russia. Due to these policies, Hungary has faced legal accusations at the European Court of Justice, and its EU funding has been frozen.
During his trip, Wang Yi also strongly encouraged a more ‘autonomous’ Europe, hinting that they should distance themselves from the US. He called both Paris and Berlin “independent” world powers and suggested that Europe give a “sober thought” to pursuing strategic autonomy. During his meeting with Macron, Wang Yi added that France should join China in upholding multilateralism (a jab at perceived US hegemony), and to “oppose bloc confrontation and avoid the world being broken apart”. Similarly, Wang’s trip to Italy was described by Western commentators as an effort to “convince European countries to pursue their own, largely commercial, interests as opposed to those of the US”. According to Western media, these attempts have been largely fruitless, due to China’s “inability (or unwillingness)” to note the paradigm shift the war in Ukraine has caused. Strategic autonomy, a previous catchphrase of Macron’s, which he first presented in 2017 at his Sorbonne speech, has lost much of its appeal in the EU – especially considering Beijing is offering “little in return”.
Certainly, China is playing a delicate diplomatic game, balancing a multitude of factors: its partnership with Russia; its desire to position itself as a peacemaker; and its increased interests in European economic partnership and European autonomy away from the US. Wang Yi’s European trip is the perfect example of this balancing act, and it is mirrored by more recent development such as President Xi’s visit to Moscow and call with President Zelenskyy, as well as Spanish President Sanchez’s invitation to Beijing. Other EU leaders, including Macron and Ursula von der Leyen, are also planning trips to China. At the same time, the coming year will reveal if Italy decides to renew its BRI Memorandum. All these developments will tell how successful China has been in its efforts to rekindle ties with the EU.