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A New Age for Sino-French Relations
As the French president makes his first official visit to China, work begins on a more unified Eurasia
By Yu Lintao | NO. 3 JANUARY 18, 2018

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan pose for a group photo with visiting French President Emmanuel Macron and first lady Brigitte Macron at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on January 8 (XINHUA)

On January 10, French President Emmanuel Macron wrapped up his first state visit to China, which began three days earlier in Xi'an, an ancient capital and a city rich in history and culture, in northwest China's Shaanxi Province.

Choosing Xi'an as the first stop of his trip was not merely a show of the French people's appreciation for Chinese culture, even though many French leaders have visited the city in the past, including former President Jacques Chirac. Perhaps more remarkably, the city was once the eastern terminus of the ancient Silk Road.

In a speech delivered to an audience of academics, students and businesspeople during his stay in the city, the French president said Europe should take part in the Belt and Road Initiative and thus share in the benefits of a global trade network with China, evocative of the ancient routes of commerce which once connected Xi'an to Europe and beyond. Proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, the Belt and Road Initiative aims to connect China by land and sea to the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa.

In a certain sense, the opening scene of Macron's trip to China set the tone for the later acts of his state visit, which made clear France's willingness to play the leading role in promoting Sino-European cooperation. According to Feng Zhongping, Vice President of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), given the city's iconic significance, Macron's starting of his China trip in Xi'an sent a powerful signal of his administration's intention to strengthen cooperation with China under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Facing east

Macron's China policy has been gaining momentum since he took office and during his campaign the presidential hopeful promised to further the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and France. On many occasions since becoming president too, Macron has expressed willingness to enhance coordination with China on international affairs. In their meeting at the G20 Summit in Hamburg last July, President Xi held talks with Macron, during which the two statesmen expressed their commitment to strengthening cooperation on both bilateral and multilateral issues.

During the latter half of 2017, frequent high-level visits were held between the two nations. The French foreign minister, finance minister and advisor to the president all visited China in quick succession while China sent Vice Premier Ma Kai as a special envoy of President Xi to France to attend the international climate summit hosted in Paris, reflecting the dynamic and free-flowing interaction which has come to characterize Sino-French bilateral ties.

According to Zhang Lihua, a professor of French studies at Tsinghua University, the amity between China and France arises from the common interest and far-reaching consensus of the two countries on many issues and in many fields in light of the current international situation.

"For instance, China and France are both adherents of multi-polarization and multilateral cooperation in global governance. They also advocate safeguarding a multilateral international system with the UN at its core, strengthening the role of the G20 in global economic governance and maintaining a free and open global trading and investment system as well," Zhang Lihua said in an interview with Beijing Review.

Against the backdrop of prevailing populism and anti-globalization in many regions of the world, China and France's further embracing of each other is a both necessary and sensible move, said Zhang Lihua.

She added that China and France both ardently support the goals of recent world climate conferences in the field of environmental protection. As one of the most decisive parties concerning the global climate issue, China's cooperation is particularly important for the implementation of the Paris Agreement.

Despite Macron's efforts to prevent U.S. President Donald Trump from withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, he was ultimately unable to change Trump's mind. In contrast, China has been forthcoming in sticking to commitments regarding the issue and joining forces with other parties to address the challenge of climate change. Last December, with mutual support from each other, China and France sought to promote the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change during the Paris international climate summit.

As a young and ambitious leader, Macron believes he has the power to reshape the role played by France in world affairs, and wants to transform the country's image during his tenure. He has not only proposed reforms which aim to rejuvenate the European Union (EU) and enhance France's leadership in Europe, but is also widely expected to revive France's status as a major global power.

Zhang Ji, a researcher with Fudan University, believes that in light of Britain's impending departure from the EU, Trump's inward-looking policies and Germany's current domestic political dilemma, Macron hopes for France to not only retake the mantle of leader in European affairs, but also play a critical role in developing broader Sino-European relations. While maintaining the amicable partnership with China characteristic of previous French administrations, it seems that Macron also wants to go a step further.

Feng of the CICIR believes that in the present global context, no matter whether Macron is attempting to push forward domestic reform or improve France's status in the international arena, enhancing Sino-French cooperation is of great strategic importance for achieving the goals of his administration.

As for China, Feng claimed that given France's predominant position in the EU, cooperation between China and France can inject new vigor into the China-EU partnership as well. Their cooperation will also contribute to the advancement of the Belt and Road Initiative, Feng added.

Strategic cooperation

Unlike Britain and Germany, France was in fact not one of the European countries to have shown an interest in the Belt and Road Initiative when it was first proposed in 2013. The Macron administration, however, has brought with it a new approach to the French leadership.

During his first telephone conversation with President Xi after winning the presidential election in May last year, Macron expressed his willingness to cooperate with China under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative. One week later, former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, as a representative of the French president, attended the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation hosted in Beijing. Last November, the inaugural Paris Forum on the Belt and Road was convened in the French capital, becoming the first major platform for dialogue on the initiative in Europe.

In his Xi'an speech, the French president said of the Belt and Road Initiative that "it represents a real opportunity to create bridges, through exchange, between countries and civilizations, just as the ancient silk routes once did," adding that he thinks "it's very important that Europe and China strengthen their collaboration on the initiative. France is ready to play a leading role in this."

Professor Zhang Lihua believes that Macron attaches great importance to France's third-party cooperation with China, especially in the African market. The Belt and Road Initiative will bring more opportunities for such cooperation between the two.

Besides his remarks in Xi'an imploring European countries to join the Belt and Road Initiative, Macron also stressed during his meeting with Xi in Beijing that the plan is of global significance and reiterated France's wish to play an active role. Macron added that he hopes his visit to China can help to promote exchange and dialogue between the two countries in every field. Xi also called for the two countries to integrate their development strategies and seize new opportunities created by the Belt and Road Initiative. The two leaders agreed to enhance cooperation on climate, counter-terrorism and other issues as their respective nations assume more global responsibilities.

In addition to the strategic consensus reached between the two countries during Macron's China visit, the trip also witnessed the signing of billions of dollars' worth of economic cooperation deals in energy, telecoms, aerospace and other industries.

During his stay in Beijing, Macron also attended the China-France Forum on Artificial Intelligence (AI), jointly organized by the French Embassy, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, France China Foundation and Business France on January 9. In the course of the event, Macron remarked on China's advantages for AI, due to its huge market. He said it is of great importance that France works together with China in the field of AI, and that he looks forward to future bilateral cooperation in science and technology, research and enterprise. Later that day, Macron was present at the establishment of collaboration projects between Chinese and French universities to promote the development of AI.

While these recent developments represent the steady growth of Sino-French relations, some problems still remain. During Macron's trip, he mentioned more than once the trade imbalance between the two countries, and his concern over the occurrence of friction in this regard.

Professor Zhang Lihua is of the opinion that it is unfair to blame China for the current trade imbalance as France's austere regulations on hi-tech exports are a critical factor affecting the country's exports to the Chinese market.

According to the professor, to maintain a sound bilateral relationship, the two countries must also correctly handle sensitive issues such as the opinion of some French politicians' on China's human rights development, Tibet and maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

"There is general optimism that Sino-French relations can keep up this momentum. However, the risk of potential friction cannot be totally ruled out. Thus the two sides, in particular the two governments, should adhere firmly to the principles of 'seeking harmony in diversity, seeking common ground while reserving differences' to strengthen dialogue and consultations in order to further enhance mutual understanding," Zhang Lihua said.

An employee works at a Chinese-funded powdered milk factory in Carhaix-Plouguer, France, on November 14, 2017 (XINHUA)

Sino-French Synergy

Cooperating with China under the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative and on dealing with global climate change were the two major goals of French President Emmanuel Macron's first state visit to China. In an interview with ahead of the trip, Macron shared his views on the two topics. Edited excerpts of his views follow:

Promoting the Belt and Road Initiative

The Belt and Road Initiative, launched by President Xi Jinping, is very important. I'm convinced that it can play a major role in structuring the Eurasian region and that it represents a real opportunity to create bridges, through exchange, between countries and civilizations, just as the ancient silk routes once did.

It's also important to work for better connectivity between Europe and Asia, something we passionately yearn for. I think it is very important that Europe and China strengthen their collaboration on the initiative. France is ready to play a leading role in this.

We must identify concrete projects to implement together in Europe, in Asia and in third-party countries. We must strive for a good relationship with multilateral authorities in order to assure the coherence of our objectives.

We must aim for the best environmental outcome, with, for example—this is an idea I propose—the objective of creating ecological silk roads in the coming century. We must do it within the framework of a balanced partnership, in which the rules of finance correspond to our standards and to what we're seeking together.

We also have to be on the lookout for opportunities to cooperate with the states, businesses and civil society of various partner countries. I'm convinced that if we succeed in advancing in such a way, we will be able to contribute to defining the equilibrium of contemporary multilateralism.

Dealing with climate change

China's role in the fight against climate change is essential. Without its determination we wouldn't have reached the Paris Agreement, and without its steadfastness, the deal would likely not have withstood President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw U.S. involvement. I've said what I think about his decision: I must respect it but I deeply regret it. France and China have together offered a very firm response: the Paris Agreement isn't renegotiable; we will continue its implementation as planned, along with everyone else who refuses to turn away from this vital and pressing issue for humanity.

Now, we have to move faster. This was the goal of the One Planet Summit that France organized last December in order to bring together relevant actors and to mobilize financing. Twelve new, and very concrete, commitments were agreed upon, and they will be implemented quickly, because we can no longer wait to take action. China has once again risen to this challenge. It announced its decision to create a unified national carbon market, which represents a determined step forward for the pricing of carbon throughout the world. The measures taken by China to achieve its "ecological advancement" goal are impressive. We are accompanying this transition, which is in line with the expectations of the Chinese people, through the French Development Agency, and 25 of the 30 projects that have been financed in China since the beginning of its activities 15 years ago contribute directly to the fight against climate change, with spending that has reached 1 billion euros ($1.2 billion).

At the international level, after the U.S. decision, I believe that the fight against climate change relies in great part on the abilities of Franco-Chinese co-leadership. We are going to strengthen our dialogue in anticipation of the COP 24 in 2018 and the United Nation's Convention on Biological Diversity which China will host in 2020. I also hope that we can work together on the Global Pact for the Environment, which France has brought to the United Nations in order to bring international law in line with the challenges of our time. In short, we put the environment and climate at the heart of our partnership.


Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

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