Macron’s State Visit to China: Outcomes and Implications for Bilateral Relations

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The meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron took place on the first week of April 2023. It represented another step in Beijing’s attempts to shift away from the containment strategy in the region that has been proposed by the United States. As a result of the continuing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the United States and its western allies have been split into two blocs: the former supporting Russia’s aggressive actions against Ukraine, while the latter maintaining its stance on Ukraine’s right to its territorial integrity.  However, the fact that Macron is visiting China demonstrates that France is committed to preserving a level of economic as well as diplomatic harmony with China amidst the ongoing rivalry between these two nations.

The level of animosity and mistrust between the European Union and China has reached an all-time high as the Russia-Ukraine war is ongoing. However, despite this fact, France continued to pursue high-level economic cooperation with China. Since his election as president in 2017, Emmanuel Macron has made numerous visits to China. During these visits, France has signed a number of agreements concerning environmental finance, the protection of intellectual property, and foreign investments. Emmanuel Macron, paid a state visit to the People’s Republic of China from April 5 to April 7, 2023, in response to an invitation sent to him by Xi Jinping. But Macron’s visit to Beijing this year is focused on three goals. Firstly, Macron wanted to bolster the economic ties between EU and China and strengthen economic links between the two regions. Due to this, 60 French business executives had accompanied Macron, including the presidents of Airbus and the energy company Électricité de France. Macron has been pursuing the goal of preventing the relationship between Europe and China from becoming even more strained. Secondly, Macron is also trying to pursue Chinese President Xi who can be a mediator to stop the Russia-Ukraine war and start the peace process. Lastly, Macron is assuring Xi that Europe’s security architecture is not solely reliant upon American umbrella but Macron’s push for European strategic autonomy which is a European security independence from the United States.

The journey that Macron took to China is hardly the first significant visit to China made by a Western leader in recent months. In April 2023, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, also travelled to Beijing to meet with Xi as well as Macron. It is also important to note that at the time of this visit, Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted a meeting at the Great Hall of the People with the French President Emmanuel Macron and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. The discussion was attended by all three leaders of China, France, and the European Union (EU). During this visit, Xi highlighted that competition and contention between the two groups were outweighed by the benefits of cooperating and finding common ground. Macron urged that, China and the European Union needed to work together to foster political trust, deepen communication and collaboration, preserve international peace and stability, promote shared growth and prosperity, and work together to confront global concerns like Russia Ukraine war and the ongoing security issues. Xi also lauded that China and the European Union (EU) needed to work together to protect global peace and prosperity, as well as efforts to decouple economies or break supply chains. China had high expectations that its economic cooperation with Europe would serve as a stepping stone to the development of tighter diplomatic relations with Europe. During the discussion between Franc and China, agreements were signed between France and China to expand their collaboration in the fields of aeronautics, aerospace, and nuclear energy. Additionally, the two countries agreed to create a joint zero-carbon center in order to improve green technologies. French company Airbus finalized negotiations to construct a new assembly line in China, which would double the company’s capacity in the world’s second-largest aviation market. By signing cooperation agreements with each other, China and France were sending a strong statement against economic decoupling. France signed 15 commercial agreements with China, totaling billions of euros in value and only Airbus was worth 30 billion euros. France’s Fives Industry group and China’s National Building Materials Group had also agreed to work together to reduce energy consumption in developing nations as part of an agreement worth one billion euros. A contract of €1.2 billion had been reached between CMA-CGM and China State Ship-building Corporation to construct 10 containers. In addition, the parties came to an agreement to end the ban on chicken exports from France. SUEZ, an environmental corporation in France, had inked an environmental cooperation partnership with Chinese partners to aid in the strengthening of China’s shift to a more environmentally friendly economy. Additionally, the company received the final go-ahead on several previously announced aircraft orders. The French state utility EDF and the Chinese utility CGN, both of which are significant operators of nuclear facilities, have inked an agreement to extend a long-standing collaboration. Additionally, contracts for offshore wind projects were agreed upon and signed between EDF and China Energy Investment Corporation.

China’s status as a diplomatic player was bolstered in March when it brokered an agreement for Iran and Saudi Arabia to restart relations after years of enmity. The hostility had been one of the primary factors contributing to the instability in the region. To end the Ukraine crisis, China had suggested a 12-point peace plan as a solution. The proposal urged all parties involved to commit to a gradual de-escalation of the conflict. While discussing the Russia -Ukraine war, Macron expressed that the West would continue to engage with China in order to help settle the crisis and avoid tensions that might potentially divide global powers into blocs. Macro asked Beijing to have rational discussions with Russia on the conflict in Ukraine. The United States argued that they had received information indicating that China was contemplating supplying armaments to Russia. However, Beijing refuted these claims. Also, to bring the peace process in Ukraine, The Chinese government wanted to collaborate with the French government in order to achieve a negotiated ceasefire in the conflict. China also expressed willingness to EU to provide ideas and plans for a political solution of the issue in Ukraine.

The EU leaders’ travel to China took place after years of deteriorating ties with Beijing on problems such as allegations of rights abuse in Xinjiang, and China’s unwillingness to denounce Russia for its military attack on Ukraine. The United States, together with Japan and Europe has always intended to show a unified front in order to challenge China’s actions on Taiwan and economic security. However, stronger ties between China and European nations may undermine this American-led strategy. The United States of America increasingly views China not just as an economic and political competitor, but also as an opponent. The United States has sought, with various levels of success, to convince its European allies to adopt this point of view.

To sum up, this visit by Macron has been positive as both states have emphasized to carry out cooperation that is mutually beneficial on an equal footing, to address urgent global challenges such as climate change, and to keep expanding the EU-China comprehensive strategic partnership. But both Macron and Xi reiterated that the situation in Ukraine was not an issue that concerned China and the EU’s comprehensive relationship. In this visit, China has expressed that it views Europe as autonomous within the context of a multipolar world. This visit has proved that France does not plan to disentangle itself from China in the foreseeable future. It was a clear indication that European states does not consider the United States’ alliance with Europe to be a defining character in the 21st century, but also prioritizing comprehensive partnership with China.

– Aishwarya Sanjukta Roy Proma is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Modern Ghana [Link]