Xi’s Nordic Stopover on His Way to U.S. Reveals a Global Trade Shift

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Finland this week
  • Visit comes amid U.S. retrenchment and Chinese pro-EU signals

What to Expect From Trump, Xi Florida Meeting

Before his first meeting with Donald Trump, Chinese President Xi Jinping will stop over in Helsinki. More than just logistics, the Finnish trip reflects a fundamental shift in commercial and diplomatic ties.

Xi is being greeted with open arms in the euro area’s northernmost territory. Finland’s prosperity, like that of much of the Nordics, depends on a smooth functioning of global trade, with few regions being more hostile to the idea of protectionism.

For the Chinese, "the signal is that the U.S. is not the only diplomatic focus for China; Europe is also very significant,” said Feng Zhongping, a vice president at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations who focuses on Chinese-European ties.

As Trump continues to promote "America First" and warns via Twitter of a "difficult" meeting ahead with Xi, the world’s manufacturing engine is carefully positioning itself for the new global order.

Trump Counterpoint

The contrast isn’t limited to trade. In the face of the U.S. president’s skepticism toward man-made global warming, China is now placing itself alongside the European Union in the fight against climate change. The EU’s climate commissioner, Miguel Arias Canete, said ahead of his visit to China last week that "our successful cooperation on issues like emissions trading and clean technologies are bearing fruit."

On the diplomatic front, China also appears to be acting as a counterpoint to Trump’s calls for a breakup of the EU following the U.K.’s decision to leave the bloc.

“China is of the view that European integration is consistent with the trend of history, and a prosperous and stable Europe is conducive to world peace and development," Xi said in an article penned for Monday’s edition of the English-language Helsinki Times. "We believe that Europe has the wisdom and capability to overcome the challenges. In this process, Europe can count on China’s support."

Trade Champions

But it is in the field of trade that China and Europe stand to gain the most.

"China is ready to take on a bigger role in global trade politics. That’s logical," Finnish Trade Minister Kai Mykkanen said. "As the largest trader they have the most to lose if the world edges toward a trade war."

The EU is already China’s main trading partner, while China is the EU’s second behind the U.S. Trade flows currently amount to well over 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) per day, but there’s scope for more. Having reiterated their commitment to free trade at the last G-20 meeting of finance ministers, China and the EU are now moving closer to even greater commercial ties.

As Olli Rehn, a Bank of Finland board member and former European commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, put it: “We may not share all the values, but we share the goal of free trade.”

Nordic Offensive

Xi’s April 4-6 visit to Finland will be the first by a Chinese president since 1995.

For the hosts, it provides an opportunity to broaden their trade horizons and make up for a drop in exports to neighboring Russia following the imposition of EU sanctions over Moscow’s actions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea, according to Jyrki Kallio, senior research fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in Helsinki. China sees it as a way of reaffirming Chinese interests in the region, particularly in the Arctic.

Finland isn’t alone in seeking to boost its ties with China. Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, accompanied by the country’s biggest-ever business delegation, is visiting Beijing on Friday for the first time in a decade.

As the U.S. and even the U.K. appear to turn their backs on free trade, "the relative attractiveness of China as an economic partner grows,” said Mikael Mattlin, senior lecturer at the University of Turku in southern Finland. “We’re likely to see continued efforts to court China -- not just in Nordic countries, but across Europe.”

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