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Xi in Europe: How Chinese President posed as ‘ruler of world’ while Europeans 'begged' a solution for Ukraine
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Claude Arpi | Date:16 May , 2024 0 Comments
Claude Arpi
Writes regularly on Tibet, China, India and Indo-French relations. He is the author of 1962 and the McMahon Line Saga, Tibet: The Lost Frontier and Dharamshala and Beijing: the negotiations that never were.

Observers could see that France was fascinated by China when President Xi Jinping of China paid a three-day visit to France; he was lavishly received by his French counterpart, President Emmanuel Macron.

What is strange is that at a time when President Vladimir Putin of Russia is considered to be the supreme villain in France (and in Europe in general), Xi is seen as a decent person that France needs to engage with.

But is Xi really different from Putin? Does he treat his minorities better? Have the Chinese people more freedom than the Russians? Certainly not. But Europeans and Westerners in general remain fascinated by China and prefer to bury their faces in the sand about the dark side of the Middle Kingdom.

Let us not forget that it is thanks to China that, for the past two years, Russia has survived all the US and European sanctions.

Putin may not be what one can call a ‘good human being, but unlike India, France has been unable to find a balanced relationship with Russia and China.

What were Macron’s motivations to receive so elaborately Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan (a major general of the People’s Liberation Army) with red carpets all over Paris and even in the snows of the Pyrenees mountains?

France’s Short Memory

In France, as elsewhere, political leadership has a short memory.

Who remembers February 23, 2017, when French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve went to Wuhan to inaugurate a ‘P4’ virology laboratory? That day, Cazeneuve declared, “France is proud and happy to have contributed to the construction of the first high biological security ‘P4’ laboratory in China.”

The French Prime Minister further explained: “This cutting-edge tool is a central element in achieving the 2004 intergovernmental agreement on Franco-Chinese cooperation for the prevention and fight against emerging infectious diseases.”

This investment did not prevent or even foresee the forthcoming disaster, though it showed the level of trust between the two countries.

My point is that, despite having a very privileged relationship with India, Paris would not have trusted New Delhi enough to build a P4 lab in India.

But thankfully, during the following years, relations between New Delhi and Paris have grown in strength and depth.

First Visit to China

During his first state visit to China in 2018, the French President brought with him two key messages.

One was the huge possibility of cooperation between China and Europe and France’s commitment to that effort.

The other is a warning to not underestimate growing concern and frustration in Europe and elsewhere with what many regard as China’s unfair trade practices (such as investment restrictions).

At that time, Mathieu Duchatel, deputy director of the Asia and China Programme at the European Council of Foreign Relations, stated: “[Macron] wants to present himself as a leader of the EU, but at the same time, I think he wants to send a signal that Europe and the EU are in better shape than many think in China.”

In 2018, in a speech in Xi’an, in northwestern China’s Shaanxi province, Macron admitted that China faced a “united front from developed countries against its unfair trade practices”.

Nothing has changed since then. This has become acutely worse after the COVID crisis (made in Wuhan), though today the Chinese leadership desperately needs to be accepted by the world. This explains the Chinese President’s first outing after five years (to France, Serbia, and Hungary).

A Failure?

In an article published in Le Figaro (belonging to the Dassault family), President Xi Jinping spoke of “carrying forward the spirit that guided the establishment of China-France Diplomatic Relations [in 1964], working together for global peace and development.”

Xi wrote that he was bringing three messages with him: “China will work with France to carry forward the spirit that guided the establishment of their diplomatic ties, build on past achievements, and open new vistas for China-France relations.” He further observed: “I think it’s important to have a dialogue, everyone together, so we can all go in the same direction. It’s very important for French and Chinese people to communicate. China is a very important country.”

He added that China understands the repercussions of the Ukraine crisis on the people of Europe, adding that the longer the Ukraine crisis drags on, the greater harm it will do to Europe and the world.

Good intentions indeed, but will they be followed by resolute action when an economic war is raging between China and the United States?

The French Motivations

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Macron has expressed his desire to ‘play a role’, but it was doubtful from the start that he could influence Beijing, which has its own interests with Russia; despite the official declarations, China has always stood firm behind Putin.

Further, the French President has stated several times that he does not rule out sending ground troops to Ukraine. Is it compatible with ‘playing a role’?

In an interview with The Economist earlier this month, Macron reaffirmed his previous statements backing Ukraine: “If the Russians were to break through the front lines, if there were a Ukrainian request, which is not the case today, we would legitimately have to ask ourselves this question,” he said.

Isabelle Lasserre in Le Figaro frankly noted: “Emmanuel Macron failed to win over his Chinese counterpart, reflecting France’s lack of clout in the face of China.”

Speaking of the joint press conference, she wrote: “Behind the tense face of the French president…and that of the Chinese president, uncomfortable and closed, we could not see the ‘friendship’…but the confrontation between two worlds that oppose each other on everything.”

It is indeed two opposite worlds.

Special Friendly Outing

In a very special gesture, Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte took Xi Jinping and his wife to the Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, where they watched folk local dancers and enjoyed local gastronomy.

Does it remind you of an outing in Mahabalipuram?

They had lunch on the spot; on the menu, typical Pyrenean dishes were chosen by Dominique Bouchait, the local chef. For starters, garbure, the traditional local soup. Then shoulder of lamb confit, with ham from Porc Noir de Bigorre cut into pieces, accompanied by Tarbais beans and porcini mushroom heads. After a cheese platter, for dessert, the chef had prepared a pastry known only to the local Béarnais: le russe (the Russian). It is made with an almond-based cookie and praline paste and is said to originate from Crimea.

However, in view of the war in Ukraine, this dessert, particularly appreciated by Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron, was at the last minute replaced by a banal blueberry tart. Diplomacy and politics prevailed.

Not Much Progress

The bilateral negotiations did not see much progress, though China will allow imports of pig origin protein feed as well as pork offal from France. However, European hopes for an Airbus plane order have been dashed, with the two sides only agreeing to expand cooperation.

A European diplomat said Xi was the ‘winner’ of the visit, having ‘cemented his image as the ‘ruler of the world’ where westerners are begging him to solve European problems in Ukraine’.

Macron probably wanted to impress the French public with his diplomatic skills before the European elections in June. Unfortunately for him, banners and flags were unfurled by Uyghur, Tibetan, and Chinese activists on the streets of Paris. “Free Tibet. Dictator Xi Jingping, your time is up!” stated a large white banner that his motorcade had to drive under on the Outer Boulevard. On the top of the banner was the flag of Tibet, a symbol of the Tibetan independence movement.

The protesters were joined by Chinese, Taiwanese, Mongolian, and Vietnamese human rights activists, as well as Hong Kong pro-democracy supporters, because after all, France is a democracy and people can express their views.

Indo-French Relations

More discreet but perhaps more concrete, on May 13 in Versailles, France will host its seventh edition of the ‘Choose France Forum’.

A French official told Business Today Television: “Seven Indian CEOs will meet President Macron on the 13th. There will be a Franco-India forum where the Indian CEOs will interact with the French CEOs.”

The official objective is to welcome more Indian investments in France and to increase further partnership between both countries.

This may not bring votes for the European elections to Macron’s party, but it will certainly enhance relations between France and India.

The South China Morning Post summarised Xi’s three-nation tour: “Xi Jinping, his tour over, leaves behind a Europe split by how to deal with China,” adding: “Despite long-standing ties to President Emmanuel Macron, [Xi] made few if any concessions to reduce the flood of Chinese imports into the European Union.” And no concession on Ukraine either.

But for Xi, these few days must have been a relief from the pressure under which he lives in Beijing.


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