French President Emmanuel Macron and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen began a series of meetings with Chinese leaders in Beijing on Thursday, talks that could set a new course for the bloc’s relations with China after years of strained ties.
Newly appointed Premier Li Qiang greeted Macron at the Great Hall of the People, a cavernous building west of Tiananmen Square often used for ceremonial events, ahead of summits with President Xi Jinping later in the day.
Li then met von der Leyen who, ahead of her first trip to China since taking office as European Commission president in 2019, said Europe must “de-risk” diplomatically and economically with a hardening China.
“Both Europe and China have benefited immensely from this relationship, however, EU-China relations have become more complex in the recent years and it is important that we discuss together all the aspects of our relations today,” von der Leyen said before meeting Li.
Li said the partnership with the EU and France stood at “a new starting point” and both parties should adhere to “mutual respect and win-win cooperation”.
Europe’s relations with China have in recent years soured over a range of issues including accusations of Chinese rights abuses in the Xinjiang region, a stalled investment pact, criticism of China’s transparency on COVID-19, and China’s reluctance to condemn Russia over its Ukraine invasion.
Macron, speaking after his arrival late Wednesday, said Europe must resist reducing trade and diplomatic ties with China and reject what some have cast as an “inescapable spiral” of tension between China and the West.
For its part, China is eager to ensure Europe does not follow what it sees as U.S.-led efforts to contain its rise, and there are at least hopes of healing divisions with France.
“Macron’s visit is expected to produce concrete results in furthering economic and trade cooperation between China and France, as well as to increase political mutual trust,” state media outlet Global Times wrote in an editorial.
“It is worth noting that various forces in Europe and the U.S. are paying close attention to Macron’s visit and exerting influence in different directions,” the Global Times wrote. “In other words, not everyone wants to see Macron’s visit to China go smoothly and successfully.”
Both Macron and von der Leyen have said they want to persuade China to use its influence over Russia to bring peace in Ukraine, or at least deter Beijing from directly supporting Moscow in the conflict.
Russia calls its invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation”.
Macron raised the war and the issue of French companies’ access to Chinese markets in his talks with Xi, according to a summary issued by the Elysee palace.
Some analysts have suggested the duo may adopt a “good cop, bad cop” role with the convivial Macron promoting a “reset” in China-EU ties and von der Leyen pressing home the thornier issues and red lines in those relations.
While the French business community has welcomed Macron’s overtures to China but not everyone at home thinks that is a good signal to send.
“Three-quarters of the delegation are business leaders: the goal is first and foremost to sign contracts,” Raphael Glucksmann, a left-wing member of the European parliament, wrote on Twitter before Macron’s visit.
“At a time the debate in Europe focuses on our suicidal dependency on China and Chinese interference, the message is inopportune.”