When Olaf Scholz spends a day with foreign friends (or those who are to become friends), he likes to have fish sandwiches. When Emmanuel Macron receives things will be different. When he received the highest number of visitors from China on Tuesday, he served lamb and cheese from the region as well as the finest spirits, in keeping with his smoothness. “Cognac diplomacy” is how the AP news agency called the meeting between the French and Chinese presidents in the Pyrenees at an altitude of 2,100 meters. The share prices of the brandy manufacturers also shot up. Anyway. Apart from a half-baked promise from Xi Jinping that he would work for peace, there wasn’t much to go around at the mini-summit.

Anyone who thinks that Scholz has already put the currywurst in the microwave and kept the child cold will be disappointed. Because the emperor, pardon party leader Xi, ignored Berlin on his first trip to Europe since the outbreak of the corona pandemic, just like the other Europeans critical of China. Instead, he traveled directly to Serbia and then went to Hungary on Wednesday. The 25th anniversary of the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the 75th anniversary of relations between Beijing and Budapest are symbolic, but essentially just pretexts.

What’s really going on with this very autocracy-heavy itinerary?

There is a difference, perhaps not visible, but very noticeable, between politeness and warmth. It is true that the powerful men and women in Rome, London and Berlin would welcome the second or perhaps even most powerful man in the world with singing fanfares. But the hosts’ smiles would be tense and the mood would be tense. In Budapest and Belgrade, on the other hand, they are really happy when the head of the Communist Party (CP) pitches. Xi just knows who is just holding out a wet hand to him – and who is spreading his arms for him.

If the guest and host have a friend in common, there is generally a chance of a match. And in contrast to the rest of Europe, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban are not afraid of openly flirting with Russia. Both vehemently and repeatedly criticized the billions in aid for Ukraine, and Orban even blocked the vital payments for months. They not only collected points in Moscow, but also in Beijing. Meaning: My friend’s friend is my friend. In any case, ideologically speaking, Budapest and Belgrade have long been closer to Beijing than to Brussels.

For Moscow, friendship with Beijing is now a must, for Beijing it is a nice-to-have. Are Hungary and Serbia gradually losing themselves in the same toxic alliance with the Far East?

Xi comes to divide. The 70-year-old sees an opportunity to further shake the already frayed relationship between the two autocracies and Brussels and, in the best case, to force his China into the gap that is opening up. Every deal with breakaway Eastern Wessis weakens NATO and strengthens the “Global South” – of which China sees itself as the leading power.

In addition, Germany and France see themselves not only as political and economic leaders, but also as moral authorities on the continent. Last summer, Berlin openly described Beijing as a “system rival” for the first time. Disconnection instead of fraternization is the new direction – in line with the USA. The recently heated espionage debate didn’t help at all.

Just like the ultra-right-wing rulers in Budapest and Belgrade, the KP is also getting on the nerves of this penetrating Brussels export of values. Crumbling democracies like Hungary and increasingly Serbia are therefore becoming more and more attractive from a Chinese perspective. They have far fewer ethical scruples and are naturally more tame towards other autocracies. For Orban and Vucic, a clean vest is not part of the dress code at the negotiating table.

A disunited Europe is a weak Europe. And there is already a threat of a new trade war between Beijing and Brussels. For months, China has been flooding the European market with cheap, state-subsidized products, especially electric cars. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has already threatened the “full use of trade defense instruments”. To protect itself from European isolationism and tariffs, it is “very important now for Beijing to relocate at least part of its production facilities from China to Europe in order to remain and produce within the borders of the European Union,” the news portal quotes ” Euronews” the Asia expert Tamas Matura. It’s practical that the EU has been stalling Serbia’s accession for twelve years and would probably prefer to expel Hungary.

In contrast to other Eastern European countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, Hungary and Serbia continue to drive unchecked and without speed limits on the “New Silk Road” – the gigantic economic and infrastructure project with which China is buying global influence. In Serbia, Beijing has already pumped around $20 billion, primarily into mines, factories and roads. Hungary was the first EU member to open to the Silk Road in 2015. In the future, modern Chinese trains will run between Belgrade and Budapest – on rails paid for by China. The fact that buyers who are tired of democracy but willing to invest are dependent on Beijing’s drip in the medium to long term does not seem to bother those in power much. Why? In contrast to the EU, China grants loans without a value combination package.

In return, Beijing demands loyalty. Or more simply: obedience. “Taiwan is China,” said Vucic at the start of Xi’s visit. After all, Beijing kindly refuses to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Once that was resolved, the delegations signed 28 agreements and a “joint declaration on deepening and strengthening the comprehensive strategic partnership.”

Xi would certainly like Orban to do a similar kneeling. But so far it has been successful on two tracks. That’s probably why Xi has to spend more time with him at the Budapest goulash cannon. At least more than at the Paris buffet.

Quellen: “Politico”; “New York Times”; “Voice of America”; “Atlantic Council”; “The Diplomat”