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Between “reset“ and “de-risk“, EU leaders pay rare visit to China


French President Emmanuel Macron talks with European Commission president-elect Ursula Von der Leyen as she leaves at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 14, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

European Union executive head Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron are to land in China on Wednesday seeking to “reset” ties with an important economic partner while broaching thorny issues like Ukraine and trade risks.

Macron last visited China in 2019 while it will be von der Leyen’s first trip since becoming European Commission president that year.

Since then, China’s strict pandemic controls forced all diplomatic meetings online as relations with Europe soured: first due to a stalled investment pact in 2021 and then Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

For Macron, facing embarrassing pension protests at home, the trip offers a chance to land some economic wins as he travels with a 50-strong business delegation, including Airbus (AIR.PA), which is negotiating a big plane order, Alstom (ALSO.PA) and nuclear giant EDF (EDF.PA).

However, some analysts said ostentatious deal-signing would appear opportunistic at a time of heightened frictions between the United States and China.

“It’s not the time to announce business deals or big new investments,” said Noah Barkin, an analyst with Rhodium Group. “It would essentially be a vote of confidence in the Chinese economy and send the message that France is not on board with the U.S. approach.”

Von der Leyen has said the EU must cut risks in ties with Beijing, including limiting Chinese access to sensitive technology and reducing reliance for key inputs such as critical minerals, as well as batteries, solar panels and other clean tech products.

Macron invited von der Leyen on the trip as a way to project European unity, after French officials criticised German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for going solo to China late last year.

He has pushed the EU to be more robust in trade relations with China and is broadly supportive of von der Leyen’s stance, Macron advisers said, but the French leader has publicly refrained from using strong anti-China rhetoric, Beijing being prone to bilateral retaliatory measures.

Beyond trade, both have said they want to persuade China to use its influence over Russia to bring peace in Ukraine, or at least prevent Beijing from directly supporting its ally.

“Both (Macron and von der Leyen) have not only business in mind but also Ukraine,” said Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China.

“I’m sure it’s not going to be an easy visit.”

China earlier this year proposed a 12-point peace plan for the Ukraine crisis, which called on both sides to agree to a gradual de-escalation leading to a comprehensive ceasefire.

But the plan was largely dismissed by the West due to China’s refusal to condemn Russia, and the U.S. and NATO then said China was considering sending arms to Russia, claims which Beijing has denied.

Suspicions over China’s motives only deepened after President Xi Jinping flew to Moscow for meetings with Vladimir Putin last month in his first overseas visit since securing a precedent-breaking third term as president.

Macron has said he is also keen to stress to Xi, who he will meet alongside von der Leyen on Thursday, that Europe will not accept China providing arms to Russia.

“Considering China’s proximity with Russia, it’s obvious it is one of the few countries, if not the only one, which could have a game-changing effect on the conflict, in one way or another,” one of Macron’s advisors said ahead of the trip.

In a meeting with Xi in Beijing last week, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he had encouraged the Chinese leader to talk to the Ukrainian leadership and learn first-hand about Kyiv’s peace formula.

Macron and von der Leyen are expected to echo the message that Xi should also talk to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

After brokering a surprise detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia last month, China has been eager to present itself as a global peacemaker and an alternative to the United States, which it says is fanning flames by sending weapons to Ukraine.

The talks with European leaders come amid high tension with the U.S. over issues ranging from Taiwan to bans on semiconductor exports, and China is eager that Europe does not follow what it sees as a U.S-led effort to contain its rise.

Taking aim at von der Leyen’s comments last week on the risks of trade with China, the state-run Chinese nationalist mouthpiece Global Times warned on Monday that Europe would suffer from any attempt to cut economic ties with Beijing.

“The EU is in a difficult struggle as it is under great pressure from the U.S. to adjust its economic relations with China. China and EU decoupling will only serve U.S. interests, but make both China and Europe suffer,” it said.

But aside from some hard talk on Ukraine and trade tensions, the trip will also serve up some lighter opportunities to demonstrate what Macron’s advisor said was an attempt to “reset” diplomatic and economic relations with China.

On Friday, Xi will accompany Macron on a trip to the sprawling southern port of Guangzhou, where the first French ship reached Chinese shores in the 17th century and where France opened its first consulate.

After meeting students there, Macron will attend a private dinner and tea ceremony with the Chinese leader who also has sentimental attachment to the city as his late father, Xi Zhongxun, used to work there as provincial first secretary.

“We believe that this (trip) has very large symbolic significance and suggests that (France) is ready to relaunch cooperation with China,” Henry Huiyao Wang, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-based think tank.

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