French President Emmanuel Macron urged China’s Xi Jinping on Thursday to reason with Russia and help bring an end to the war in Ukraine as the two held the first of a series of high-level meetings in Beijing.
“The Russian aggression in Ukraine has dealt a blow to (international) stability,” Macron told Xi, standing alongside the Chinese president outside the Great Hall of the People ahead of their meeting. “I know I can count on you to bring back Russia to reason and everyone back to the negotiating table.”
Macron also asked Xi to press Russia to comply with international rules on non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he will station tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine’s neighbour Belarus, a move seen as a dangerous escalation in the bloody year-long conflict.
Macron’s visit alongside EU chief Ursula von der Leyen comes after years of souring relations with Beijing over issues ranging from a stalled investment pact to China’s reluctance to condemn Russia over its Ukraine invasion.
But addressing the press after his arrival on Wednesday, Macron 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.
Von der Leyen, on her first trip to China since taking office as European Commission president in 2019, was also due to meet Xi later before all three hold trilateral talks in the evening.
Macron also met with Premier Li Qiang before meeting Xi for an elaborate ceremony outside the Great Hall, where the two leaders witnessed a 21-gun salute and strode side-by-side along a red carpet as a brass band played their national anthems.
In comments reported by state media CCTV, Xi said China and France have the ability and responsibility to transcend “differences” and “restraints” as the world undergoes profound historical changes.
Some analysts had suggested that Macron and von der Leyen may adopt a “good cop, bad cop” role in Beijing with the convivial Frenchman promoting a “reset” in ties and the EU chief laying out the thornier issues and red lines in those relations.
Macron placed both hands on Xi’s during a long handshake after they met outside the Great Hall on Thursday. He then gave the Chinese leader an amicable pat on the back as they walked to greet members of each government.
Von der Leyen, who also met Premier Li on Thursday, had just days before the visit 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 her meeting with 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”.
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 leverage close ties with Russia to bring peace in Ukraine, or at least deter Beijing from directly supporting Moscow’s invasion, which Russia calls a “special military operation”.
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.
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, which Beijing has denied.
Macron, travelling with a 50-strong business delegation including Airbus (AIR.PA), luxury giant LVMH (LVMH.PA) and nuclear energy producer EDF (EDF.PA), is also in China seeking economic wins and is expected to announce deals.
While the French business community has welcomed Macron’s overtures to China, 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.”