French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe must resist eroding trade and diplomatic ties with China as he arrived for a state visit on Wednesday, seeking to refute any sense there was an “inescapable spiral” of tension between Beijing and the West.
Shortly after touching down ahead of EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, who is joining him on the three-day trip, Macron said maintaining dialogue with China was key given its close relations with Russia, which is waging a war in Ukraine.
Macron, on his first trip to China since 2019, spoke to U.S. President Joe Biden before the visit about engaging Chinese President Xi Jinping to hasten the end of Ukraine war, although the United States has voiced scepticism about Beijing’s peace plan.
“We hear increasingly loud voices expressing a strong concern about the future of relations between the West and China that in some form lead to the conclusion that there is an inescapable spiral of mounting tensions,” Macron told reporters at the French embassy in Beijing.
There was also an impression that de-coupling from the Chinese economy was already underway and that the only remaining question was over pace and intensity, he added.
“I do not believe, in any case I do not want to believe, in this scenario.”
The trip will mark von der Leyen’s first visit to China since becoming European Commission president more than three years ago, and comes after she said the EU must “de-risk” ties with Beijing, including limiting Chinese access to sensitive technology and reducing reliance for key inputs.
Europe’s relations with China have soured in recent years first due to a stalled investment pact in 2021 and then Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia over Ukraine.
For Macron, facing embarrassing pension protests at home, the trip also offers a chance to land some economic wins as he travels with a 50-strong business delegation, including Airbus, which is negotiating a big plane order, Alstom and nuclear giant EDF.
However, some analysts said ostentatious deal-signing would appear opportunistic at a time of growing distrust of China in the United States and its allies over issues ranging from Taiwan to its use of sensitive technologies.
“It’s not the time to announce business deals or big new investments,” said Noah Barkin, an analyst with Rhodium Group. “It would essentially be a vote of confidence in the Chinese economy and send the message that France is not on board with the U.S. approach.”
Macron invited von der Leyen on the trip as a way to project European unity, after French officials criticised German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for going to China on his own late last year.
Ahead of the trip, both Macron and von der Leyen have said they want to persuade China to use its influence over Russia to bring peace in Ukraine, or at least prevent Beijing from directly supporting its ally.
China this year proposed a 12-point peace plan for the Ukraine crisis, which called on both sides to agree to a gradual de-escalation leading to a comprehensive ceasefire.
But the plan was largely dismissed by the West due to China’s refusal to condemn Russia, and the U.S. and NATO then said China was considering sending arms to Russia, which Beijing has denied.
UKRAINE ON THE MIND
Suspicion of China’s motives only deepened after President Xi Jinping flew to Moscow for hours of closed-door meetings with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin last month.
Macron has said he is also keen to stress to Xi, who he will meet alongside von der Leyen on Thursday, that Europe will not accept China providing arms to Russia.
“Considering China’s proximity with Russia, it’s obvious it is one of the few countries, if not the only one, which could have a game-changing effect on the conflict, in one way or another,” one of Macron’s advisers said ahead of the trip.
In a meeting with Xi last week, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he had encouraged the Chinese leader to talk to the Ukrainian leadership and learn about their peace formula.
Macron and von der Leyen are expected to echo the message that Xi should talk to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
After brokering a surprise detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia last month, China has been eager to present itself as a peacemaker and an alternative to the United States, which it says is fanning flames by sending weapons to Ukraine.
The talks with European leaders come amid Chinese protests against U.S.-led technology export restrictions, which it views as part of a broader effort by Washington to contain its rise.
It has warned Europe not to join in.
Taking aim at von der Leyen’s comments last week on the risks of trade with China, the state-run Chinese nationalist mouthpiece Global Times said this week that Europe would suffer from any attempt to cut economic ties with Beijing.
“The EU is in a difficult struggle as it is under great pressure from the U.S. to adjust its economic relations with China. China and EU decoupling will only serve U.S. interests, but make both China and Europe suffer,” it said.
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