Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent tour of Italy, Monaco and France caused a stir across Europe and the US. What approach should be taken to projects being proposed under the Belt and Road Initiative? What threats are posed by China’s penetration into the EU economy? EurAsian Times stumbled upon a report from the Russian Council
What foreign economic policy should be pursued in the current trade and economic confrontation between the United States and China? These and similar issues have been discussed by European leaders for years, and now, with Xi Jinping’s latest visit, the debates have taken on a new significance.
While Brussels and Berlin are more concerned about maintaining competitiveness with China, Rome only added fuel to the fire, becoming the first EU founding country to join the Belt and Road Initiative, despite Europe’s attempts to come up with a joint stance on its relations with China.
Paris could not resist getting involved, especially since France was hosting Xi Jinping in the year marking the 55th anniversary of the country’s official recognition of the People’s Republic of China. President of France Emmanuel Macron and his government are attempting to identify the opportunities and threats of cooperating with Beijing and determine how French diplomacy should act in order to maximize the potential benefits and avoid possible mistakes. At the same time, China is a hot topic in French society, with politicians, international affairs experts and journalists all discussing it. French business is also closely watching the situation, looking for new opportunities to break into the Chinese market while protecting its interests from competition in the East.
This article deals with the specific features of France’s take on its relations with China: 1) the basic sentiments about and assessments of China; 2) the reasons for the French leadership’s concerns about China’s might; 3) the benefits of cooperation between France and China; and 4) the impact of the France–China dialogue on the interests of other international actors.
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China: Pros and Cons
When visiting China in January 2018, Macron stated, rather pompously, that France and China were “sharing a rational view of global history” and “building a great friendship” based on the shared values of “reason, fairness and balance.” However, Macron subsequently hinted repeatedly at the danger of China’s “hegemony” (including in Canberra in May 2018) and stressed that “the times of Europe’s naivety with regard to China are over” (in Brussels in March 2019). While these statements seemingly contradict one another, they demonstrate perfectly well the duality of opinions currently held in France about China. This applies not just to Macron, but to the entire country.
On the one hand, there is a notionally “pro-Chinese” camp, whose representatives speak favourably about China and even maintain certain ties with it. Strange as it may seem, this view is shared by many retired and active politicians. One of these is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of the far-left movement Unbowed France. Back in 2008, during an escalation in Tibet, Mélenchon sided with Beijing and spoke against the idea of boycotting the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in China. In the run-up to the 2017 presidential election in France, he hailed China’s economic achievements and suggested that that country, “with its industry, technology, science and cultural development,” should be a privileged partner of France. The French Socialists can boast an even richer history of contacts with China: in 1981, shortly before he was elected president, François Mitterrand visited the country as part of his party’s delegation, and President François Hollande in 2014 received Xi Jinping in Paris (he also visited with Xi Jinping in China in 2018, following his resignation from office).
There are also pro-Chinese politicians to be found among France’s right-wing politicians. In particular, former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has long been a major lobbyist for business contacts with China (he has even been officially cleared to conduct this activity recently by the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs of France). Laurent Wauquiez, the current leader of the center-right party The Republicans, is formally against Chinese capital infiltrating the French economy, but the region of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes over which he presides recently founded a joint financial fund with Chinese partners. Wauquiez himself visited China in 2017 to hold meetings in support of the Republican presidential candidate François Fillon.
Several former politicians of different affiliations, including former ministers, are now employed by Chinese companies, including Jean-Louis Borloo, who is with Huawei, and Bruno Le Roux, who is with CRRC. Both houses of the French parliament have France–China friendship groups. In the Senate, approximately a third of the group is represented by the Republicans. In the National Assembly, the group is dominated by the president’s centrist party The Republic on the Move! (with Unbowed France also represented). Finally, some of the current government members (Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Ministry for the Economy and Finance Bruno Le Maire) periodically visit China in hopes of strengthening bilateral economic ties.
On the other hand, there is the camp of anti-China “alarmists”, which is wary of Beijing’s growing influence. The most vocal member of this camp is Marine Le Pen, who is urging “reasonable protectionism” in France’s trade and economic relations with China, not unlike that professed by President of the United States Donald Trump. However, the key vigilantes when it comes to China are not individual politicians, but some very reputable international experts. President of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI) Thierry de Montbrial is says that China is “playing the intra-European controversies,” using a “quasi-imperial” strategy in its efforts to implement the Belt and Road Initiative and striving to become the leading world power in the next few decades. IFRI Director Thomas Gomart concurs, noting that China’s increasing foreign activity is matched by its growing authoritarianism at home. Their colleague Alice Ekman explains that China and France have differing views of the multifaceted world, even if they describe it in the same vein: for Beijing, it is a source of influence, while for Paris it is more of a way of seeking European unity. Pascal Boniface, Director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), points out that China is deliberately developing bilateral ties with the EU member states, as it easily outweighs any single European country. François Godement, a Senior Advisor to Institut Montaigne, remarks that China historically is very consistent in protecting its interests and is unlikely to compromise, which is quite uncomfortable for Europe when it comes to negotiations.
These and similar opinions are being actively disseminated by the French media, which often sound alarmist with regard to Chinese politics. In fact, many French citizens seem to identify with this alarmism. A recent survey conducted by Kantar Group indicates that 81 per cent of those polled believe China to be “an influential world power,” with 60 per cent of respondents describing the country as being influential or extremely influential with regard to France. A total of 47 per cent define EU–China relations as being imbalanced in favour of China. In addition, 50 per cent of those polled perceive Chinese investments negatively, and 47 per cent believe China has already overtaken France technologically.
A Power Imbalance
In actual fact, France does have good reason to be vigilant.
First, France is evidently no match for China economically. Back in 1980, the two countries were comparable in terms of their GDP PPP share: France was slightly stronger, at 4.32 percent against Communist China’s 2.32 percent. Now, almost 30 years on (in 2018), Beijing is in a totally different league with 18.72 percent, against Paris’s meagre 2.19 per cent. According to the French treasury and customs service, there is a massive imbalance in bilateral trade in favour of China. In 2017, Beijing purchased 19 billion euros’ worth of French commodities (4 percent of all French exports, which put China in the seventh place among France’s key foreign customers), but exported 49 billion euros’ worth of goods to France (9 per cent of all French imports, making Beijing the country’s second largest supplier). Interestingly, no other country in the world demonstrates such an imbalance in its trade with France. France’s overall share of the Chinese market is relatively low at 1.5 per cent (mainly present in China’s aerospace, electronics, agricultural, chemical and luxury sectors).
According to the French Embassy in Beijing, there are 1100 French companies operating in China which have generated a total of 570,000 local jobs. In France, the 700 Chinese and Hong Kong businesses support just 45,000 jobs. The possibility of France’s strategic economic sectors falling into the Chinese hands may not appear to be as much of a problem as it is in Italy and Germany at the moment, but there are certain preconditions for this (given China’s sustained interest in the Port of Marseilles, DongFeng Concern’s participation in Groupe PSA, etc.). Chinese investment in France grew by 86 per cent in 2018, with the highest growth reported in the hi-tech sector. The French government expects to be able to resist this “plunder” (as Le Maire put it) by way of expanding the scope of the 2014 Montebourg Decree, under which any investment in France’s strategic sector is to be approved by the government.
Second, France is extremely wary of potential Chinese espionage (including, but not limited to, industrial espionage). In December 2017, the French authorities detained several people who were believed to have been Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE) officers subsequently turned by China. According to Le Monde, they had been feeding China information about their former employer’s operating methods. In October 2018, the media picked up Le Figaro’s investigation, which had concluded that Chinese secret services were actively using fake social network accounts to make contact with French public servants and employees of key healthcare, IT and nuclear enterprises. Promising candidates would be offered remuneration for their cooperation and an opportunity to visit China “for a conference or seminar.” In this context, it is worth noting that France is home to the largest Chinese community in Europe (approximately 500,000 people), which is hard for the French authorities to penetrate and may potentially be used by Chinese diplomats and secret services “for the acquisition of political, scientific, technological and commercial intelligence.”
Third, France and China directly compete in certain regions, first and foremost in Africa. France, for example, is worried about China’s military and economic presence in Djibouti. Macron visited the country during his recent tour of Africa. Of no less import was his visit to Ethiopia, where French businesspeople are aiming to carve a bigger niche (including at the expense of China). Also, China is sizing up the potential resources of the Sahel, especially the uranium in Niger, which has historically been controlled by France (as represented by Operation Serval in Mali). Notably, in January 2019, China joined the financing of the G5 Sahel joint contingent and also proposed to equip and outfit the force. France is also nervous about China’s growing naval might. Hence Paris’s contacts with the Japan Maritime Self-Defence Force and its effort to build 12 Barracuda-class submarines for Australia.
Reasons for Rapprochement
All this notwithstanding, in building its policy towards China, France is weighing up all the pros and cons of developing a partnership with the country.
These certainly include new economic advantages. The French leadership believes that, if China agrees to let the country into its domestic market and also develops the Belt and Road Initiative on the basis of reciprocity, then this will somewhat correct the trade imbalance currently observed between the two countries. Accordingly, the vision is that Chinese capital penetrating the EU economy could be both curtailed in France and somehow made up for by similar activities in China. Exports to China are of particular importance to French companies at present, as the national economy is still recovering from years of stagnation. In this sense, the main result of Xi Jinping’s visit to Paris was the signing of a hefty bundle of business contracts, including the Airbus deal for 300 airliners worth a whopping 30 billion euros. Immediately after Xi Jinping’s tour, Beijing sent another important signal that it is prepared to cooperate: the country’s intellectual property court had suddenly sided with the French appellant in a trial.
In addition to the economy, Paris has certain foreign policy ideas with regard to Beijing. France’s logic suggests that maintaining full-fledged ties with China, as well as reciprocal visits and joint declarations, is an indication of its important role in the world and stresses its status as a country that is capable of independently developing dialogue with the strongest global powers. Moreover, this dialogue concerns high-profile issues, including multilateralism, global trade reform and climate change (in their joint communique, Macron and Xi Jinping agreed that their positions were close on most of the topics). Xi Jinping’s visit to France is being used by both parties as a demonstration of their prestige, and the Chinese leader used this notion expertly by mentioning, in his piece for Le Figaro, the spirit of independence which guided France 55 years ago when it recognized Communist China.
Today, however, the French leadership is striving for supremacy, not only at the national level, but also across all of Europe. The long-standing dream of the French presidents has always been to increase their own authority and use Europe as a kind of magnifying lens. This dream is now becoming increasingly important in the context of China. Macron is aiming to form a common European front above and beyond bilateral relations with Beijing, one that should allow every EU member to talk to China with one voice and defend common interests in the face of a common “systemic rival” (as the European Commission recently described China). It is for this very purpose that Macron invited Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker for the concluding phase of his talks with Xi Jinping (so the two could outline once again that the European Union’s chief criterion for China’s projects was mutual benefit). In an editorial piece, Le Mond said that, by taking the initiative, Macron had “proven the sincerity of his pro-EU approach and actually outlined Brussels’ new strategy towards China.” France is trying to be the main diplomatic “organizer” of the EU–China dialogue, although Italy’s behaviour (including its own business interests) seriously undermines these efforts.
China’s own interest in cooperation with France is understandable. France wields some political weight in the European Union. It is the European Union’s second largest economy with diverse industry, technology and major ports. From the point of view of the Belt and Road Initiative, it is logical to use France as another “entry point” to Europe and the Mediterranean. On a global scale, it would definitely not hurt Beijing to get close to another permanent member of the UN Security Council and nuclear power.
Points to Consider for Other Actors
To conclude, here are a few thoughts about the significance of the current relations between France and China relations to other parties in the light of Xi Jinping’s visit to Paris.
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On the whole, the European Union could either benefit or suffer from France’s evolving cooperation with China. On the one hand, it would be very convenient for Brussels if someone did all the legwork for it in terms of uniting the member states in the face of China, especially if it is the Euro-optimist Macron who does this legwork. On the other hand, there are fears that France, too, will follow in the footsteps of Italy sooner or later by officially joining the Belt and Road Initiative, given the bilateral economic interest. In that case, there would be no hope left for a united EU front; moreover, all the European integration drive would begin to erode.
The United States is being forced to revise its position in Europe in the light of Xi Jinping’s visit: is China is beginning to establish control of the European Union, pushing Washington to the side-lines? While the United States is offering the European Union a rather hard line of dialogue, China, despite all the reservations about it, is increasingly becoming a more convenient partner for European nations because of its tendency to make appealing proposals from the get-go. In addition, as Russian political analyst Timofei Bordachev notes, by including the European Union in the broader Eurasian context, Beijing is effectively securing itself against the constant fear that the United States will decide to blockade shipping routes linking China to Europe and the Middle East.
For Russia, Xi Jinping’s European tour once again demonstrated that China is being very pragmatic in refusing to make a choice between Russia and the European Union: both are equally important to its plans. It would be interesting to see how European countries, including France, seek a balance between the economic benefits from cooperation with China and the need to protect their own business, because this problem is no less relevant for Moscow. China is gradually becoming a common topic for France–Russia and EU–Russia relations.
In January 2018, Emmanuel Macron promised to arrange official visits to China annually until the end of his tenure. Whether he will keep this promise in 2019 remains unclear, but the next phase in the dialogue involving France, the European Union and China is scheduled for April 9, when the EU–China summit will be held. Xi Jinping’s March visit to France clearly demonstrated that Paris definitely wants to be an important partner of Beijing, both bilaterally and at the regional level. It is symbolic that, as the French media likes to stress, Macron’s name roughly translates into Chinese as “the horse vanquishes the dragon.” The problem, however, is that the dragon has his own plans for the horse.