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An Enduring Relationship
Despite divergences, there is common support for multilateralism to sustain Sino-French relations
By Xing Hua  ·  2019-01-21  ·   Source: NO. 4 JANUARY 24, 2019

Visitors at an exhibition celebrating the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening up at the eighth arrondissement of Paris, France, on January 8 (XINHUA)
In January, the diplomatic relations between China and France mark their 55th anniversary. The history and experience accumulated in the development of the ties, including their mainstream achievements and the difficulties that have been resolved, create a good foundation for better development of the relationship in the future.

In the 1960s, the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers at the time, impacted international relations. At the same time, it was a good chance for some countries to regain their independence, in keeping with the needs of the times. Both China and France began rejuvenating and reforming their policies.

Under the leadership of Chairman Mao Zedong, China pursued an independent foreign policy, seeking to establish more friendly relationships on the basis of mutual respect and understanding. General Charles de Gaulle, the first President of the Fifth French Republic, also proposed a number of initiatives that shook the U.S.-centered hegemonic order and broke free from the outdated curbs on foreign relations.

Though separated by geographical distance and belonging to different camps during the Cold War, China and France began to get closer using wisdom and courage. France was one of the first Western countries to establish diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China. De Gaulle justified this action by "the weight of evidence and reason," considering that China's demographic weight and geographic extent put it in a position to have a leading global role. The establishment of their official ties increased the influence of the two countries on the international stage.

Huang Zhen (left), the first Chinese Ambassador to France, presents his credentials to President Charles de Gaulle (center), at the Élysée Palace in Paris, on June 6, 1964. Also present is then French Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville (XINHUA)

Advantages and contributions

Sino-French relations boast several firsts. France was the first Western country to establish a comprehensive partnership with China and the first world power to open strategic consultations with China. Along with growing political mutual trust, China and France also enjoy cultural exchanges. In 2004, the Chinese Culture Year was held in France, followed by the French Culture Year in China in 2005.

Many of de Gaulle's successors, such as Valery Giscard d'Estaing, François Mitterrand and Jacques René Chirac, attached great importance to relations with China.

China and France both advocate a multipolar world, support multilateralism and the democratization of international relations. Giscard said, "The common things [between China and France] are fundamental. In many circumstances, the two countries have similar responses, seek similar solutions and arrive at similar conclusions through different approaches."

Both are permanent members of the UN Security Council and their cooperation has contributed to global development. One example can be seen in the post-Cold War era, when the United States ignored the authority of the United Nations and international relations norms and arbitrarily invaded Iraq. France and Germany took the lead in opposing the move and were supported by China.

Chirac's administration maintained the mutual trust which grew out of the establishment of diplomatic relations with China and even enhanced it under the new international situation. He made a positive appraisal of China's development and believed it had infinite prospects. France hoped to maintain its status as a major power through cooperation with China.

Chirac persuaded EU member countries not to take the lead in anti-China proposals at the UN Commission on Human Rights, and advocated acceptance of China's participation in the Group of Seven. In spite of the U.S. blockade on arms sales to China and the intransigence of some EU allies, France advocated lifting the embargo. It hoped to eliminate the discrimination against China and clear all obstacles to China-EU cooperation.

Change and challenge

Since the turn of the century, international relations have undergone unpredictable changes. Against a backdrop of globalization, multi-polarization and cyclical financial crises, the structure of power has changed. Western institutions and values that once dominated the world are being questioned and Europe is on the decline.

In 2010, Herman Van Rompuy, as President of the European Council, proposed reorganizing EU diplomacy. He argued that emerging economies had brought great challenges, and Europe must maintain its own interests and values everywhere in the world. At the same time, EU countries complained that trade and economic ties with emerging economies had led to one-way losses for them and demanded compensation from these countries. The EU even issued a new policy paper on China, hoping to get more economic benefits from China.

In terms of foreign policy, Europe emphasized remaining allies with other Western countries. Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy decided France should rejoin NATO 43 years after it had left the organization under de Gaulle. Under Sarkozy, France began increasingly leaning toward the West and drifting from the tradition of maintaining mutual strategic trust with China. Sarkozy's meeting with the Dalai Lama and Tibetan separatists' disturbing of the torch relay of the Beijing Olympic Games in Paris soured bilateral relations. Although Sarkozy re-examined France's common strategies with China and tried to repair the bilateral relations, his efforts to maintain the good traditions between the two countries were weak.

In recent years, China has made considerable achievements in its reform and development. Its international image and influence, especially its leading role, have become more prominent. Consequently, Europe's anxiety over China's progress has risen to new heights. Like U.S. President Donald Trump, Europe is also increasingly viewing China's rise as a threat and challenge.

Though the current French President Emmanuel Macron has maintained sound communication with China after coming to power in 2017, he is far from being familiar with the common strategic interests of France and China, compared to his predecessors. In addition, as the initiator of European rejuvenation, Macron is focusing on the "protection" of European diplomacy as his priority. It aims to protect Europe, especially France's values ​​and interests, but it also wrongly targets China. While claiming to be a torchbearer of multilateralism, Macron is critical of China's support for multilateralism.

However, despite the ups and downs, the 55-year-old Sino-French relations will continue to endure. Macron's firm attitude on opposing U.S. unilateralism will provide more common language and a favorable foundation for the future development of bilateral ties.

The author is a senior researcher with the China Institute of International Studies

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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