Emmanuel Macron has arrived in China for a three-day state visit during which he hopes to dissuade Xi Jinping from supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while also developing European trade ties with Beijing.
Shortly after arriving in the Chinese capital, Macron said he wanted to push back against the idea that there was an “inescapable spiral of mounting tensions” between China and the west.
“China is the only country in the world capable of having an immediate and radical impact on the conflict, in one direction or the other,” an official from the French president’s office said of the war in Ukraine.
Macron also said he wanted to “relaunch a strategic and global partnership with China”, with an eye on boosting France’s trade links with the world’s second-largest economy.
Paris sees China as a possible “gamechanger” in the war: able to tip the balance in a positive way through potential dialogue on conditions for an end to the conflict, or in a negative way if Beijing were to increase support for Russia and provide arms.
China has portrayed itself as seeking a peaceful resolution to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But the Chinese president’s friendly visit to Moscow last month and announcement of a peace plan most saw as skewed towards Russia have left western countries concerned.
French officials know China will stop short of criticising the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and will not condemn the Ukraine war, but Macron intends to stress the EU’s position on the danger of the conflict. China is seen as the only country able to open communications channels to all parties in the conflict and to put effective diplomatic pressure on Putin.
But Macron wants to stand firm on the issue of Ukraine while taking a pragmatic French stance – described as “another path” from the directly confrontational tone often heard from the US, an official said.
The French president’s visit, his first to China since the Covid pandemic, will include more than six hours of time with Xi, between meetings and banquets. A French official said human rights issues would be raised, including the treatment of Uyghurs and other minorities.
Key issues under discussion will be the Ukraine war and the rebalancing of trade links after stringent zero-Covid regulations, as well as the climate crisis and renewable energy. There will also be talks on renewing cultural links and travel, as Paris wants to encourage Chinese tourists back to France.
Many analysts in China see France as a stronger partner in Europe than Germany or the EU as a bloc. In a report published in February and translated by the Sinification newsletter, Zhang Ji and Xue Sheng, professors at Fudan University, argued that the Aukus deal had damaged Franco-US relations, and that “in the face of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, France and the US have diverging interests and attitudes” with regards to Russia. All this leads some in China to see Macron as a potentially friendlier western leader than Joe Biden or the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz.
Macron will be joined for part of the visit by the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, who has struck a firm tone on China over the Ukraine war. Von der Leyen said last week that “far from being put off by the atrocious and illegal invasion of Ukraine, President Xi is maintaining his ‘no-limits friendship’ with Putin’s Russia”.
She said: “How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward.”
The EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, on Tuesday called China’s support of Russia amid the invasion of Ukraine “a blatant violation” of Beijing’s UN commitments.
“There cannot be siding with the aggressor,” Borrell said. “There is a clear expectation from a permanent member of the UN security council to stand up in defence of international rules-based order and China has a moral duty to contribute to a fair peace.”
The EU does not expect a significant change in China’s position but believes it is crucial to keep engaging with the superpower, notably on trade issues.
In 2022, China was the EU’s third-largest partner in exports of goods and the largest partner for EU imports. EU leaders want to rebalance their commercial relationship while also addressing the 27-nation bloc’s dependence on China in strategic sectors such as critical raw materials, computing-related technologies, semiconductors and clean technologies.
Macron has brought a delegation of 60 business leaders to Beijing, including the bosses of Airbus and EDF – some hoping to sign lucrative contracts and reset trade relations that slowed during the Covid pandemic.
Macron met French residents in Beijing on Wednesday afternoon, before talks on Thursday with Xi and the Chinese premier, Li Qiang, and a state dinner in the evening. On Friday, he will travel to Guangzhou to meet students before another dinner with Xi.
Macron and Von der Leyen’s visit follows recent trips by Scholz, the European Council president, Charles Michel, and the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, as part of a drive by European leaders to visit Beijing after China dropped its zero-Covid restrictions in December 2022.