On the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires late last year, one media event stood out, with UN Secretary General António Guterres, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, reiterating their commitment to the fight against climate change.
Besides demonstrating their determination to tackle climate change, the event also revealed close coordination between China and France.
When it comes to ties with France, the Chinese side tends to view it as “special,” as proclaimed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in a signed article in the French newspaper Le Figaro, “China and France are special friends and win-win partners.
” It’s part of Chinese culture to keep in high regard those who contribute to their nation. So every time France becomes a topic, many often point to the fact that France was one of the first developed countries to forge full diplomatic ties with China in the 1960s. France is also among the first countries to open direct flights to China, host a Chinese Culture Year and create a Chinese language department in its universities.
With exceptional wisdom and courage, Charles de Gaulle fully recognised the People’s Republic of China in 1964, helping break the Cold War barriers between China and the West. The bold move has been highly appreciated in China.
The special-ness originates from France’s independent foreign policy. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, France – for a time chose to stay out of NATO affairs during the Cold War and vehemently opposed the U.S. led war in Iraq in 2003. France, together with China, is again playing a leading role when it comes to fighting climate change.
The flourishing relationship between China and France owes a great deal to such independence. The two countries now boast 102 pairs of sister provinces and cities. In 2018, nearly 40,000 Chinese students were studying in France, more than 100,000 French students were studying Chinese, and a record number of Chinese tourists visited France.
Also noticeable is the openness of China and France towards each other. As early as 1978, when China initiated its reform and opening up policy, the then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to build a nuclear power station with French technology. French technicians were in China to help build the Dayawan nuclear power plant in Guangzhou. Given the sensitivity of nuclear technology, the cooperation speaks volumes about the high degree of mutual trust between the two countries.
Today, the two countries have created the Taishan 1 nuclear reactor, the world’s first EPR (European Pressurised Reactor) unit connected to the grid. France and China are also joint investors in the Hinkley Point nuclear project in the UK. Meanwhile, bilateral trade between China and France came in at 62.9 billion U.S. dollars in 2018, a year-on-year growth of 15.5 percent.
The world is undergoing deep changes with increasing uncertainty. France and the European Union are working to re-adjust their policies both domestically and externally, including that toward China, with the purpose of keeping their competitive edge. Some in France have expressed concerns over Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Whatever policy changes there might be, the China-France “special friendship” will be maintained and consolidated as long as they follow certain key principles, as noted by President Xi Jinping in his recent article: Independence, openness, inclusiveness and a strong sense of responsibility.
Both China and France are major global powers. Their independence in walking their own line in foreign affairs is based on playing a responsible role to maintain world order and stability.
The stated mandate of the Belt & Road Initiative is “mutual consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.” Given the strong mutual trust enjoyed by Paris and Beijing, France is poised to play a prominent role through the BRI by teaming up with China to explore both bilateral and third-country opportunities.
Italian Finance Minister Giovanni Tria recently noted that the BRI is “a train that Italy cannot afford to miss.” As the second largest economy in the European Union, why wouldn’t Paris consider becoming a co-driver with China in the BRI?
In 2018, total retail sales of consumer goods in China exceeded 38 trillion yuan (some 5.7 trillion U.S. dollars), hitting a record high. That number already makes China the world’s largest consumer market, which provides tremendous opportunities for China’s trading partners, including France.
French-made products such as wine, beef, cosmetics, clothes and other items enjoy a strong reputation in the Chinese market. In the first two months of 2019, French exports to China surged 42.2 percent.
Fifty-five years ago, France showed the world its independence and courage by establishing ties with China. Today, amid the rise of populism and protectionism, there’s a call for France to once again demonstrate resoluteness and independence.