Xi Jinping is pulling out all the stops for French President Emmanuel Macron as China’s leader tries to create some distance between Europe and the US in their approaches toward Beijing.
During the three-day visit, which kicks off Wednesday, Macron will have extensive face time with Xi. After formal meetings in Beijing on Thursday, which will also include European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Macron and Xi will head to the southern city of Guangzhou.
The excursion to meet a world leader at a second location outside the capital is rare for Xi, who normally reserves such honors for close friends like Russian President Vladimir Putin: In 2018, they took a high-speed train to Tianjin east of Beijing and watched a hockey match together.
French officials say they have sensed a special warmth from Chinese counterparts ahead of the trip and they say preparations have been smoother and friendlier than previous visits by Macron.
With former German Chancellor Angela Merkel no longer in power, Xi now sees Macron as someone who can push the European Union toward a more moderate position on China than the US. In addition to having an influential voice among North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, France is also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council — and Macron in particular has sought to engage with Putin to find a diplomatic solution to end the war in Ukraine.
“He’s certainly, from the Chinese perspective, the most important politician in Europe,” said Joerg Wuttke, head of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China. “He’s definitely the point man.”
With US-China relations in a tailspin, Beijing is looking to prevent Europe from joining in, particularly on measures like export controls of key technologies that would hurt growth in the world’s second-biggest economy. The EU, including Germany and France, are seeking to balance a desire to engage with China on trade and investment while still asserting what they deem core European values, including respect for human rights and territorial sovereignty in places like Ukraine.
Macron spoke with US President Joe Biden on Tuesday about the China visit, and “they also reiterated their steadfast support for Ukraine in the face of Russia’s ongoing aggression,” according to a White House statement.
Macron, who took power in 2017, worked with Merkel previously to negotiate the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, an accord between China and the EU that was poised to take economic ties to new heights. Yet it was shelved in 2021 after the two sides clashed over sanctions imposed due to alleged human-rights abuses, and now appears all but dead.
“Now that Merkel has gone, we only have Macron who knows all the background,” said Henry Wang Huiyao, founder of the Center for China and Globalization. “He’s in a better position to promote EU-China relations and France-China relations.”
China’s treatment of Macron stands in contrast to that of von der Leyen, who will also visit China from Wednesday to Friday. While China’s Foreign Ministry said Macron was coming “at the invitation” of Xi on a “state visit,” it added that von der Leyen was merely “visiting” as “agreed between China and the EU.”
In a speech last week, she called on EU members to scale back the risks in dealing with an increasingly assertive China, rather than decouple completely, in response to a new era of state security and control. That generated a terse reply from China’s ambassador to the EU, who told state broadcaster CCTV that von der Leyen’s speech writer “does not really understand China or deliberately distorted China’s positions.”
Macron, meanwhile, has warned Europe against picking sides between the US and China, touting the benefits of a middle path during a November speech while attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation CEO summit in Bangkok “We need a single global order,” he said to extended applause.
The French president will be accompanied by a delegation of executives from large and small French companies, including from electricity utility Electricite de France SA, train-maker Alstom SA and waste and water management company Veolia Environnement SA, as well as Airbus SE. The European plane-maker is working to secure a multi billion-dollar sale of wide-body jets to China in a deal that could come together as soon as this week, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News.
While France was the third largest trading partner with China in the European Union last year after Germany and the Netherlands, two-way trade between the countries fell 4.4% last year to $81 billion and key investors have seen rising competition. Supermarket chain operator Carrefour SA in 2019 sold 80% of its local operations to Chinese rival Suning.com Co., while Stellantis NV, the producer of Peugeot and Citroën cars, is considering stopping manufacturing autos in China after shuttering its only Jeep factory in the nation.
It’s unclear, however, whether securing business deals for French firms would help Macron, who has faced violent protests at home after pushing through a reform of the country’s pension system by bypassing the traditional legislative process.
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Macron could also face challenges if he shows any support for Xi’s blueprint for peace in Ukraine, which has been dismissed by the US. Macron has already been subject to criticism in European capitals for his unsuccessful efforts to secure any concessions from Moscow despite multiple calls to Putin before and after his invasion.
Still, China’s cease-fire proposal — combined with some economic carrots — could open divisions within NATO, according to Chu-Ping Lo, associate professor at National Taiwan University.
“Europe may feel that the US, which benefits the most, is seeking to continue to benefit from the Russia-Ukraine war,” he said. “This could be a turning point in the split of NATO.”
–With assistance from Fran Wang and Samy Adghirni.