The trip comes amid growing resistance from European leaders over what they see as China’s failure to change long-term practices unfair to foreign investors. French President’s trip to Beijing follows Chinese leader’s visit to France in March.
French President Emmanuel Macron will visit China next month as Europe’s most diplomatically active leader focuses on climate change cooperation and trade promotion with Asia’s leading power, a source briefed on the Elysee Palace’s discussions said.
This will be the second Chinese tour for Macron since he took office in 2017, and it will come amid escalating resistance from European politicians and business communities over what they see as China’s failure to change long-standing practices unfair to foreign investors.
His visit also comes at a time when France as well as the European Union as a whole – is bracing for Washington’s potential levies of tariffs on European products, and the lack of progress on climate change policies with US President Donald Trump’s administration.
“President Macron will meet President Xi Jinping, while France strives for better cooperation with China on climate and trade,” the source said. “His itinerary is still in the pipeline, but he is expected to visit Beijing and Shanghai.”
Macron, 41, who is widely seen as emerging as Europe’s most aggressive leader filling the political vacuum left by German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s political twilight, has cast himself as an honest broker between Russia and Ukraine, and between the US and Iran.
He has also been critical of China’s influence in Europe, joining forces with Merkel to push for a tougher EU stance on the world’s second biggest economy.
In March, when Xi claimed a major diplomatic victory by clinching a memorandum of understanding with Italy on the Belt & Road Initiative, Macron declared: “The time of European naivety is ended. For many years we had an uncoordinated approach and China took advantage of our divisions.”
Macron also backed investment screening mechanisms for Chinese business moves in Europe, while endorsing plans to change the EU’s notoriously strict antitrust rules in order to facilitate mergers between large European groups and companies to counter Chinese companies’ global ambitions.
The EU is also wary of China’s effort to “divide and rule” the European Union. Greece and Hungary – both recipients of large amounts of Chinese investments – have repeatedly wanted to water down EU’s stance on issues deemed sensitive to Beijing, including the South China Sea and China’s human rights violations.
“It would be good for Macron to stress that 17+1 is irritating,” said Joerg Wuttke, President of EU Chamber of Commerce in China, in reference to China’s engagement with a group of EU and non-EU member states in eastern and southeastern Europe. “After all, the EU has a ‘one China’ policy, so EU could expect this position from China too.”
Macron’s domestic call for EU unity has translated into diplomatic appeals, with China being one of the targets.
When Xi visited France in March, Macron hosted him at the Elysee Palace in the presence of Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, showcasing European solidarity when it comes to EU-China policies.
In terms of French-Chinese bilateral ties, trade imbalances have persisted after Macron called for a “rebalancing” during his last visit.
France has a 1.4 per cent market share in China, compared with China’s 9 per cent market share in France. China represents France’s largest bilateral trade deficit, totalling €29.2 billion (US$31.9 billion) last year, ahead of Germany.
The EU has been calling for reciprocal investment treatment with China, a call that European business leaders in China expect Macron to make.
“We Europe need … a solid investment agreement to allow EU business to conduct their affairs in a similar manner as Chinese companies can operate in Europe. The agreement should be finalised in 2020, but not at all cost,” said Wuttke.
“The last thing EU business needs in China is a weak agreement that institutionalises imbalances,” he added.
Part of that involves building “more efficient defensive tools to prevent abusive technology transfers and to address the deep asymmetry in EU-China relations when it comes to access to public procurement markets,” said Mathieu Duchâtel, director of Asia programme at the Paris-based think tank Institute Montaigne.
Duchâtel added that it was also important to convey the message to Beijing that there are areas for cooperation even amid a more defensive China policy from France.
One such area is the climate and environment, where China is “an important partner” for France to reach its goal of global carbon neutrality by 2050, he said.
“The energy/environment agenda is a political priority in Paris and one of very few issues on which cooperation with China remains promising and will continue to create business opportunities,” he said.
China is the world’s biggest carbon polluter, producing around 30 per cent of the planet’s man-made carbon dioxide. It remains committed to the 2015 Paris accord on climate change, even after Trump pulled the US out of the deal.
Under the agreement, the long-term temperature goal is to keep the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C.