Macron launches China charm offensive, but will Xi be seduced?

ludovic Marin / POOL / AFP | French President Emmanuel Macron is welcomed at Beijing's Capital Airport on January 8, 2018.
Text by: Romain BRUNET
6 min

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in China Monday on a state visit aimed at boosting bilateral trade relations and clinching major commercial contracts. But will he succeed in getting better market access to the world’s second largest economy?


Macron launched his visit in Xian, an ancient city deep in central China, historically known as the eastern starting point of the Silk Route. The French president’s choice was a nod to his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping’s ambitious “One Belt One Road” initiative aimed at connecting Asia and Europe.

The $1 trillion (€0.8 trillion) infrastructure project, billed as “the New Silk Road” has sparked interest and anxiety in the international community with some countries viewing it as a symbol of Chinese expansionism.

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With the US taking a backseat on the international agenda, Macron is increasingly seizing the initiative on the world stage. In an interview with published Monday, Macron called for strengthening ties between Europe and Asia. “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 countries,” he explained.

Macron’s agenda during this visit includes combating climate change, the North Korean crisis and combating terrorism – particularly in Africa, where Paris hopes to obtain Beijing’s support for the G5 Sahel military force.

But beyond these geostrategic issues, bilateral trade relations are set to dominate the visit amid concerns over China’s trade surpluses. France has a €30 billion trade deficit with China. Macron’s delegation includes around 60 business executives, including the heads of Airbus, Areva and luxury French brands such as LVMH.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Macron will visit the Forbidden City, meet top Chinese officials and oversee the signing of business deals. To coincide with the French presidential visit, the Chinese edition of Macron’s book, “Revolution”, hit the stands Monday. In addition to the 16-chapter memoir, which was published in France in November 2016, the Chinese version includes Macron’s May 2017 inaugural speech.

But will the French charm offensive translate into concrete strategic deals? FRANCE 24 turned to Jean-Louis Rocca, a China expert at the Paris-based SciencesPo Centre de Recherches Internationales (CERI).

FRANCE 24: Have there been great expectations in the lead up to Macron’s visit to China?

Jean-Louis Rocca: Not really, because for China, the countries that matter are the US, Russia, Japan and, in the current context, North Korea. France is seen as a historical partner, but today, it is far more associated with lifestyle – perfumes, fashion, romance... It is not perceived as a particularly important political partner. Even in Europe, Germany is taken more seriously.

Chinese diplomacy is about expanding its influence in the world and, therefore, developing its relationship and partnerships with France is part of that policy. But this is not an isolated case. This needs to be put in perspective with Latin American countries, Africa and what China has been doing since 2013 with its new "Silk Road".

F24: Macron’s China visit has come fairly early in his five-year presidential term. Does this represent a different approach from that of his predecessors?

JLR: Slightly, yes, because he seems more interested in developing relations with China than [former French presidents] François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. It’s closer to the vision of Jacques Chirac, who was behind the [2004] signing of the global strategic partnership, which includes cooperation in areas such as economics, culture and diplomacy. But it’s still very traditional to have the economy and business development dominate the agenda. Hooking up with the Chinese engine today is fundamental. This is the only country where strong domestic growth is able to boost global growth. China is an indispensable partner today.

Then there is a paradoxical situation: China is envied, fascinates everyone and at the same time scares them. The fact that Beijing continues to keep Chinese society focused around a nationalist project, or that the individual freedoms are limited, means China gets a bad press. But if Emmanuel Macron wants to go further than his predecessors, there will be political consequences in France and the rest of the world. To set up a really successful partnership, there is still a complicated knot to untie.

F24: Macron, however, would like to move forward on the North Korean issue and to convince Xi Jinping to make France and China the co-leaders in the fight against global warming...

JLR: I do not see what Emmanuel Macron can do about the North Korean issue. The Chinese are very familiar with the problem and they do not need help to know where they stand. The situation is simple: China does not want reunification between North and South Korea, but does not want relations to deteriorate. But today, China is being disregarded. Pyongyang takes advantage of Beijing’s help but gives nothing in return. The dossier is blocked.

When it comes to the fight against global warming, China is already the world leader. Since the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, it has indeed taken the lead since, despite its status as the biggest polluter, it is the country that takes the most initiatives in this area. China is much more advanced than France in energy transition and has become the world's leading investor in clean energy. France, for its part, has not yet really done anything concrete. So, one can understand Emmanuel Macron’s interest in hooking up to the Chinese engine in this area. This is part of the diplomacy of appearances rather than the diplomacy of reality.

F24: Finally, there is the inevitable question of human rights. Will Macron publicly call for human rights improvements in China?

JLR: He does not seem inclined to do it, especially due to Beijing's attitude. Ten years ago, the Chinese government did not have the choice. It gave the impression of being embarrassed about this issue. This is no longer the case today. The standards of living of the inhabitants, especially the peasants, the level of education, the thriving cities: The Chinese economy has developed in an extraordinary way. There is now a sense of pride and assurance about a political system that has achieved results to enable tens of millions of citizens to escape poverty. As a result, while the Chinese leaders were ready to accept human rights lesson a few years ago, today it is not a question at all.

This article has been translated from the original, which appeared in French.

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