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Xi Jinping praises Hungary’s ‘independent’ foreign policy ahead of Orbán meeting

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China’s President Xi Jinping has praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government for pursuing an “independent” foreign policy and “defying” great power politics on a European trip analysts say is aimed at exploiting divisions in the EU and Nato.

Xi, who is due to travel to Hungary from Serbia on Wednesday evening as part of his five-day European tour, called for Budapest to “lead” central and eastern European nations’ relations with China in a letter published by Hungarian media group Magyar Nemzet.

“We have gone through hardships together and defied power politics together amid volatile international relations,” Xi said in an English version of the article. “We have found our respective path for sovereign states to independently conduct friendly exchanges with other countries.”

The comments appeared to be a reference to how Orbán, Europe’s longest-serving prime minister, has defied pressure from Brussels, the US and Nato, maintaining friendly relations with Moscow and deepening business ties with China.

Xi told French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday that the world needed to avoid a “new cold war”, part of a campaign by Beijing to convince European governments to distance themselves from US foreign policy which it sees as aimed at containing China’s rise.

China regards Hungary as one of its closest partners in Europe and has lavished investment promises on the country. One potential project under discussion is an electric vehicle plant for China’s Great Wall Motor, Chinese officials have said, following investments by EV maker BYD and battery maker CATL.

However, Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó, said reports Xi might announce plans for the factory during his visit were premature, adding: “Talking about specific companies during negotiations, before any agreement is made, is contrary to Hungary’s national interests”.

Szijjártó said he expected at least 16 deals to be signed with China while Xi was in Hungary, covering infrastructure and the construction, energy, and industrial sectors. The two countries would start a co-operation programme “encompassing the entire portfolio of nuclear energy”, he said.

According to Chinese estimates, accumulated foreign direct investment by Chinese enterprises in Hungary could reach €30bn by the end of this year.

“Our two countries need to lead regional co-operation,” Xi said in his letter, adding Hungary could help China deepen ties with central and eastern European countries to ensure “steady” relations between Beijing and the EU.

Xi’s comments are unlikely to ease European worries about Beijing’s priorities.

During his meetings with Macron, Xi gave no ground on European complaints that oversupply and weak demand in China could threaten EU industry through the dumping of cheap products on the bloc’s markets.

The EU is also concerned about Xi’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s growing trade with Russia, which the bloc alleges has helped Moscow withstand western sanctions since it launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Xi’s visits to Hungary and Serbia — among Europe’s most Russia-friendly countries — would do little to dispel those concerns, analysts said.

Orbán in October became the first EU leader to meet Putin since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The meeting took place in Beijing on the sidelines of the Belt and Road forum, Xi’s signature infrastructure investment initiative, where Orbán was the only European leader in attendance.

Xi, who arrived in Serbia on Tuesday, lashed out at Nato over the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, which killed three people, saying that Chinese and Serbians should “never forget” the incident.

Welcoming Xi to Belgrade on Wednesday, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić told the crowd he was happy to extend “the warmest welcome anywhere in the world” to the Chinese leader.

“When they ask us about China, we don’t have complicated answers,” Vučić told Xi. “As a small country, we have a lot of problems, and then we call our big friends, Mr President.”

“This is a bilateral and sincere friendship,” Xi replied. “There is a strong a sense of friendship between our countries.”

Vučić hailed a free trade agreement with China that takes effect in July and which he said would “bring security” to Serbian farmers.

Construction and transport minister Goran Vesić told journalists Serbia would buy Chinese high-speed trains for Belgrade-Budapest railway, which would be nearly complete by the end of 2024 and that China would also participate in the construction of the first Belgrade underground.

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