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Macron visit to China marks a new chapter in Sino-French relations, raises questions over EU Unity

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

Macron on a State Visit to China. AFP©

On the 5th of April, French President Emmanuel Macron travelled to Beijing for a state visit to China, leading a delegation of business executives, artists, and filmmakers. During his stay in the country, the president held several meetings with his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, in the hope of strengthening France-China political, cultural, and economic ties. The visit of the French leader is the first state visit to China since the "two sessions", and it took place at a time when many in Europe are calling to de-risk ties with the country, referring especially to a reduction in economic dependence.

The meeting that could shift France-China relations

President Macron was warmly welcomed in China by President Xi. The two heads of state held bilateral meetings that included, apart from formal meetings in Beijing, an informal visit to Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, which is not only China’s manufacturing capital but also a vital node in the development of the Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area and Chinese high-quality development (MOFA, 2023). The two leaders discussed a variety of topics, from the current crisis in Ukraine and the possible role of China as a peacemaker to business relations and even the analysis of lunar samples (Bradsher and Pierson, 2023). Xi’s warm welcome for the French President might be interpreted as an attempt on behalf of China to reset the current relations with the EU, which have been tense since 2019, considering steadily worsening Sino-American relations due to the chip-trade wars and their opposing positions regarding the Taiwan matter. To set EU-China relations on a different track from the current one, the charm offensive from France under the leadership of Macron, who has always advocated for a stronger autonomy of the Union and is currently seen as a main figure in influencing EU policies, could prove both appealing and instrumental for Xi.

For the Chinese President, a Europe that pursues greater autonomy, especially from the US, could be an easier partner with whom to find common ground (Lau, 2023). President Macron, on his part, seized the opportunity during the meetings to stress the importance for the EU to pursue strategic autonomy, suggesting Europe should not get caught up in crises that aren’t its own, referring to Taiwan, as well as distancing himself from the US decoupling strategy, seeking for Europe a non-confrontational de-risking strategy. To avoid escalating tensions with China, the French president restrained himself from devoting too much time to pressing issues such as the Ukrainian conflict or the Taiwan issue. The state visit resulted in a 51-point joint declaration released on the 7th of April, in which France and China stated their willingness to work together, to resume political dialogue and promote mutual political trust, agreeing to improve military communication in matters linked to the Asia Pacific as well as continue to foster EU-China relations (Élysée, 2023).

The two countries also confirmed the need for a peaceful solution in Ukraine, as well as their opposition to the use of nuclear weapons and the need to assure the safety of nuclear plants in the country.

A new chapter for Sino-French economic relations

A vital aspect of Macron's visit to China is its business-related effect. Together with him, a delegation of more than 50 French business executives travelled to Beijing. Among them were representatives from various French multinational companies (MNCs), including the CEOs of Airbus, Alstom, and EDF. According to the joint declaration, China and France will deepen their cooperation in several strategic sectors, including 5G, nuclear energy, agri-food, and the health sector (Élysée, 2023). The willingness to deepen their cooperation is supported by the numerous agreements French companies signed during the meeting. Airbus announced it will not only double its production in the country by opening a second assembly line in Tianjin, but also deliver 160 passenger jets purchased through an agreement with the China Aviation Supplies Holding Company (Foster, 2023). Furthermore, the company signed a memorandum of understanding with the China National Aviation Fuel Group (CNAF) to intensify cooperation in the standardisation, production, and use of sustainable aviation fuels. Meanwhile, EDF has signed different agreements with Chinese partners in the energy sector (Foster, 2023). The company renewed its contract with China General Nuclear Power Group to continue the partnership in the design, construction, and operation of nuclear power plants, as well as different contracts with China Energy Investment Corporation and China’s State Power Investment Corporation. The aim of this may be seen as to strengthen cooperation for the development of onshore and offshore wind power (Foster, 2023).

The success of the business deals is an ulterior confirmation of the little interest France has in following the U.S.-style decoupling strategy and the very active interest European companies, especially MNCs, have in the Chinese market, especially following the lifting of the zero-covid policy. One of the reasons that might have contributed to Macron’s decision to step up France-China business cooperation, including in strategic sectors, could be linked to the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, which reduces the country’s dependence on China but also affects its relations with its Atlantic partners (Blenkinshop, 2023). Macron’s move might be seen as divisive, especially at a time when the EU is stressing the need for its members to assert their independence from the Chinese market, but it provides insider information on the future of European companies in the country. The joint declaration states that "the two countries are working to provide a good environment for business cooperation, improve business access to each other's markets, improve the business environment, and ensure respect for the intellectual property rights of each other" (Élysée, 2023). This statement could imply a smoother path for France-China business relations and a willingness on China’s behalf to ameliorate the conditions in which European companies compete in its market.

The further development of EU-China economic relations will be of great interest, this is especially true for the next high-level economic and trade dialogue to be held in 2023. Considering the previously elaborated signed agreements that will touch strategic sectors in 2023, the development of business relations between France and China should be carefully scrutinised.

The fragmented voice of the EU

Many hoped Macron's visit to Beijing would be more than a revival of France’s relations with China and serve as a turning point in the Chinese approach to the Ukrainian war, as well as present a united EU front for the future of EU-China relations. For this reason, the visit included a trilateral meeting with the President of the European Union, von der Leyen, who flew to Beijing on Macron’s invitation. Despite these efforts, a joint presence was not enough to pursue the intended goal and the pair failed to obtain a public position change from President Xi (Jingtao and Kawala, 2023). Prior to the visit to Beijing, President von der Leyen gave a hard-hitting speech openly criticising Xi’s friendship with Putin, defining any peace plan that excluded the integrity of the Ukrainian territory as not acceptable, and stressing the concept of de-risking, the core of the current EU approach towards China (von der Leyen, 2023). Von der Leyen maintained a more critical approach during her meeting with President Xi, carrying on her shoulders the duty of representing 27 countries that all have ties with China and are affected by the course the EU decides to take. In her written remarks, released after the state visit, von der Leyen highlighted how important the EU and China are for one another as economic partners. However, she did not hesitate to address the increasingly imbalanced economic relations for the EU, whose companies face impediments in accessing the Chinese market (von der Leyen, 2023).

President von der Leyen also remarked on the importance the EU attaches to China concerning the Ukrainian war, hoping the country will step up its role in promoting a peace that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. While President von der Leyen and President Macron showed unity in their trilateral meeting, especially on their position regarding the involvement of China in peace talks, such unity was not expressed by the rest of the meeting. Macron’s remarks on EU-US relations that might dig a wedge between the two Atlantic allies have not been met with the support of other EU countries, especially the Central and Eastern ones, who now more than ever rely on the Atlantic alliance for security matters (Haddad, 2023). The divisive nature of Macron’s remarks makes it hard to consider his visit to Beijing as an example of the future of EU-China relations; nevertheless, the joint state visit was only the first one to take place this year. With the conclusion of Macron’s visit to China, members of the EU countries have then been looking at Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s minister for foreign affairs, who arrived in Tianjin on the 13th of April. During her visit to China, the Minister, while discussing with her counterpart Qin Gang, warned Beijing to de-escalate the tensions with Taiwan, noting that a war in the region involving Taiwan, through which 50% of world trade flows, would be a disastrous scenario worldwide (Camut, 2023). Baerbock’s position signals clearly disagreement with Macron’s remarks and serves as an example of how the words of the French President were perceived by many in the EU and the divisive effect they carried.

EU-China relations in 2023

The EU's current strategy in its relations with China involves de-risking ties in critical sectors with the goal of establishing European strategic autonomy. China’s position on Ukraine and its reconfirmed friendship with President Putin are contributing factors, but certainly not the only ones. EU-China relations have been deteriorating since 2019, due, for example, to economic coercive measures towards EU states, and are currently impacted by worsening US-China relations due to the chip war and the increasing tension concerning Taiwan and the Pacific.

In 2019 the EU started referring to China as a systemic rival, and the strategic outlook released the same year remains valid to this day. On the 18th of April, during the plenary session of the EU Parliament, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, Josep Borrell, stated that currently, in its relations with China, the EU faces four different challenges linked to different values, economic security, Taiwan, and Ukraine. He also stated that it will be important for the EU to maintain a coordinated approach to China and to continue to pursue strategic autonomy (Borrell, 2023). According to Borrell, strategic autonomy goes hand-in-hand with the EU’s de-risking strategy, which, however, doesn’t necessarily pose a block to the amelioration of EU-China relations (Borrell, 2023). From the speech of President von der Leyen, it can be understood that de-risking for the EU means primarily reducing its dependence on China in sectors that are considered riskier, for example, by rebalancing economic ties or reducing the EU’s dependence on Chinese rare earth materials. Nevertheless, it remains a much smoother approach compared to the American decoupling strategies and leaves the door open for future cooperation.

An analysis from the Cyprus Economic Society highlights how von der Leyn’s speech, though maintaining its tone of de-risking relations with China, also presents a shift in the language used to describe EU relations with the country (Demertzis, 2023). For instance, the analysis points towards the mention of alignment with partners rather than like-minded partners, meaning that the EU won’t try to nurture solely relations with those who share its same values (Demertzis, 2023). It should also be noted that diplomatic relations have been experiencing a revival. Prior to President Macron’s state visit, China received Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. In the aftermath of the visit, Mao Ning, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spoke positively of the revived diplomatic talks between her country and representatives from Europe, stating that 2023 might just be a new spring in EU-China relations (Xinhua, 2023). The next steps concerning the future of EU-China relations might be unveiled in June during the next summit of the European Council. Right now, the priority for the EU and its members is to maintain a coordinated approach amidst the displayed differences.

About the Author

Alessandra Tamponi holds a MA degree in International Relations and East Asian countries obtained at the University ofGroningen. Her interest in China started as a teenager, thanks to an exchange opportunity that led her to Harbin when shewas sixteen years old. Before becoming a member of the editorial team of European Guanxi, Alessandra worked as anintern for the European Institute of Asian Studies in Brussels, and the EuroChamber of Mongolia.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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