9th July 2024 – (Beijing) Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban made an unexpected visit to Beijing on Monday, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss bilateral relations, EU-China ties, and the ongoing Ukraine crisis. This high-level encounter, coming just two months after Xi’s state visit to Hungary, underscores the growing strategic importance of Hungary in shaping EU-China relations and efforts to resolve the Ukraine conflict.

Orban’s Beijing trip is the latest stop in what he has dubbed a “peace mission,” following visits to Moscow and Kyiv last week. As Hungary assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union, Orban’s shuttle diplomacy reflects a nuanced approach to international relations that stands in contrast to the more hawkish stance adopted by some EU member states.

The timing of this visit is particularly significant. With tensions simmering between China and the EU over issues such as electric vehicle tariffs, Orban’s pragmatic stance towards Beijing offers a potential avenue for dialogue and de-escalation. His willingness to engage directly with both Russia and China, despite criticism from some EU quarters, highlights Hungary’s unique position as a bridge between East and West.

President Xi and Prime Minister Orban’s meeting reaffirmed the strength of China-Hungary ties, which were elevated to an “all-weather comprehensive strategic partnership” during Xi’s visit to Hungary in May. This designation, shared by only a handful of countries including Belarus, Pakistan, and Venezuela, signifies the depth and breadth of bilateral cooperation.

The relationship between China and Hungary has flourished in recent years, with substantial investments in sectors such as electric vehicle battery production and infrastructure projects like the Budapest-Belgrade railway. Hungary’s openness to Chinese investment and technology, particularly in areas where some EU members have expressed reservations, has positioned it as a key partner for China within the bloc.

A significant portion of the Xi-Orban talks focused on the Ukraine crisis, with both leaders expressing a shared desire for a peaceful resolution. President Xi praised Orban’s efforts to promote a political settlement and outlined China’s stance on the conflict.

Xi emphasised three key principles: no expansion of the battlefield, no escalation of fighting, and no fanning of flames by any party. He called on the international community to create conditions conducive to direct dialogue between Russia and Ukraine, stressing that only when major powers project “positive energy” can a ceasefire be achieved.

This approach aligns with China’s broader diplomatic efforts on Ukraine, including its six-point peace plan issued jointly with Brazil in May. While China maintains its neutrality in the conflict, its growing engagement with key stakeholders demonstrates Beijing’s desire to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis.

As Hungary assumes the EU’s rotating presidency, Orban’s visit to Beijing takes on added significance for broader EU-China relations. President Xi congratulated Hungary on its new role and emphasised the absence of fundamental conflicts of interest between China and the EU.

Xi called for steady and sound development of China-EU relations, highlighting their strategic significance and global influence. He urged both sides to jointly respond to global challenges and promote two-way opening up. With 2025 marking the 50th anniversary of China-EU diplomatic ties, Xi expressed hope that Hungary would play a positive role in fostering constructive interactions between Brussels and Beijing.

Orban, for his part, reaffirmed Hungary’s commitment to strengthening cooperation with China and opposition to “forming exclusionary cliques and bloc confrontation.” This stance, while not universally shared within the EU, represents an important voice advocating for pragmatic engagement with China.

Orban’s approach to China and his shuttle diplomacy on Ukraine have not been without controversy within the EU. Some European leaders have criticised his Moscow visit, warning against appeasing Russia and emphasizing that Orban does not speak for the entire bloc.

However, experts suggest that Orban’s actions could amplify pragmatic voices within the EU, particularly on issues such as trade and investment. As the EU grapples with challenges like the proposed tariffs on Chinese electric vehicles, Hungary’s more open stance towards economic cooperation with China offers an alternative perspective.

The coming months will be crucial in determining how much influence Hungary can exert on EU policy during its presidency. While there may be efforts to “disinfect” or limit the impact of Hungary’s diplomacy, Orban’s proactive approach has undoubtedly injected new dynamics into EU-China relations and discussions on Ukraine.

Hungary’s diplomatic manoeuvres under Orban highlight the complex balancing act faced by EU member states in navigating relations with global powers like China and Russia. While some European capitals prioritise a values-based foreign policy, Hungary’s approach emphasizes pragmatic cooperation and economic interests.

This divergence in perspectives within the EU presents both challenges and opportunities. On one hand, it complicates efforts to forge a unified EU stance on issues like China policy or the Ukraine crisis. On the other, it provides avenues for dialogue and engagement that might otherwise be closed off.

The effectiveness of Orban’s diplomatic efforts remains to be seen. However, his willingness to engage directly with leaders in Beijing and Moscow, coupled with Hungary’s strategic position within the EU, ensures that Budapest will play a significant role in shaping European policy in the coming months.