Diplomatic decades
By George N. Tzogopoulos  ·  2024-05-11  ·   Source: NO.20 MAY 16, 2024

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Sino-French diplomatic relations. This is not a typical anniversary.

Looking back to 1964, it becomes evident that international conditions did not necessarily favor such a breakthrough at that time. China and the U.S. would only establish diplomatic relations 15 years later, and most Western countries were following their post-World War II arrangements.

The French decision to establish a diplomatic relationship with China reflected a strategic determination. Sino-French contacts had already existed in the period before 1964. On June 19, 1954, Chinese Premier and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai and French Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Pierre Mendès France first discussed establishing diplomatic relations at the Chinese Embassy in Switzerland, and there were interactions and visits by individual French officials to China.

However, it was French leader General Charles de Gaulle who brought a new dimension to his nation's foreign policy after assuming the republic's presidency in 1958. De Gaulle believed that the dynamics of the Cold War should not constrain France and the country should be able to act autonomously in the international sphere. He acted according to three main principles: independence, strength and realism.

In 1964, de Gaulle explained his decision to recognize China by stating: "China is a gigantic thing. It is there. To live as if it did not exist is like being blind—especially since it exists more and more."

As history is the beacon of present and future, China and France have every reason to celebrate this anniversary. The relationship has steadily evolved over the past six decades, both in the Cold War and the post-Cold War epoch. Current French President Emmanuel Macron considers China a critical pole for stability in the international system and seeks to deepen Sino-French dialogue. The April 2023 bilateral declaration, which includes 51 points, outlines the depth of Sino-French relations and existing perspectives for closer collaboration in different fields.

Obviously, the economy matters. China is a massive market that is of high significance for French companies. There is perhaps no better example to highlight this than the expanding presence of aerospace corporation Airbus in the country.

When Macron visited Beijing last year, new contracts were signed, a new final assembly line project was agreed to be realized in Tianjin Municipality, and, reportedly, Airbus widened its lead over its U.S. competitor Boeing in the Chinese market.

As far as trade is concerned, French statistics demonstrate continuous progress. In 2023, the bilateral trade volume between China and France reached $78.936 billion. Specifically, French exports to China increased by 5.5 percent in 2023 and reached $37.3 billion. Traditional cooperation projects such as aerospace, civil nuclear energy and high-speed rail are progressing smoothly, and cooperation in new areas such as digital economy, renewable energy and organic agriculture and food is expected in the future. French wine and cosmetics are favored by Chinese consumers. As far as imports go, China was the second most important supplier of France in 2023, preceded by Germany and followed by Belgium.

By the end of 2023, France's cumulative direct investment in China was $21.64 billion. At present, French investment in China mainly focuses on electric vehicles, cosmetics, agro-food, hydrogen energy and aerospace. China's direct investment stock in France is $4.84 billion, mainly in manufacturing, information technology, transportation, banking, hotels and tourism.

Last but not least, dialogue with China is crucial for President Macron in his effort to revitalize his ambition for the so-called strategic autonomy of the EU. Although this dialogue is not just characterized by agreements but also by disagreements, it will be useful for the two sides to continuously communicate with each other and implement points of the April 2023 bilateral declaration. Macron reiterated his concern about the current status of the EU in his speech at the University of Paris, commonly known as the Sorbonne, on April 24, where he mentioned that "our Europe today is mortal. It can die, and it all depends on our choices." In his speech, he also made references to China.

In a special and emotional year for Sino-French relations, China, the only country that has hosted both the Summer and Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, is determined to further collaborate with France for the latter to similarly prepare and organize a beautiful Olympics and Paralympics this summer. Paris can be hopeful for its own success, and Beijing will be its partner in that same spirit.

The author is the EU-China Program director at the Centre International de Formation Européenne 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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