News analysis

Macron's China visit paves way for deeper cooperation

He also gets boost in push for closer European integration

French President Emmanuel Macron's visit to China may not have yielded much by way of concrete trade deals. But it was important in that it will help the French leader in his endeavour to push for closer European integration, and paved the way for stronger Chinese-French ties, Chinese analysts said.

The Western media have pointed out the lack of big trade deals during Mr Macron's visit from Monday to yesterday, his first since taking power last year, and the first by a foreign leader this year.

Reuters reported a relatively small number of deals were announced during the trip. Bloomberg wrote: "Despite bringing an entourage of more than 50 business leaders, the visit produced just a handful of confirmed business".

Aerospace company Safran signed deals to provide jet engines to Chinese airlines, while Electricite de France signed two energy-service contracts.

However, the biggest prospective deals - for energy company Areva and aeronautical manufacturer Airbus - remained just statements of intent, Bloomberg said.

The trip comes at a time when the French economy and the European economy as a whole are recovering. However, European unity is still facing challenges posed by Britain's decision to leave the European Union and the centrifugal tendencies of some EU members.

China's relations with Europe have been strained by the EU's blocking of Chinese acquisition of European high-tech firms and its refusal to recognise China as a market economy. The huge trade deficits the EU - and France - have with China do not help matters.

French President Emmanuel Macron at a press conference at the French Embassy in Beijing yesterday.
French President Emmanuel Macron at a press conference at the French Embassy in Beijing yesterday. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Mr Macron arrived on Monday in the western city of Xi'an, an ancient Chinese capital and the eastern end of the ancient trade routes linking China to Europe. There, he gave a speech in which he urged Europe to take part in China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ambitious plan to revive ancient land and sea trade routes from China to Europe by building infrastructure in countries and territories along these routes.

However, he also called for "reciprocity" in trade ties between China and Europe, given that the EU's trade deficit with China in 2016 reached €175 billion (S$279 billion). France has a trade deficit with the Chinese of €30 billion.

"We have an access to markets which is unbalanced, unsatisfying," Mr Macron told French and Chinese businessmen in Beijing on Tuesday.

However, his message to the Chinese was that "Europe is back" and that he planned to visit China every year of his term in office.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reciprocated by saying that China "stands ready to promote exchanges and enhance mutual trust and cooperation with France in order to inject new impetus into the development of the Sino-French comprehensive strategic partnership".

He added that China supported a bigger role for France in promoting European integration.

"We welcome France making contributions to the development of relations between China and Europe," he said. He added that the two sides should seize opportunities created by the BRI.

International relations expert Su Hao of the China Foreign Affairs University said while there were not many concrete trade deals, Mr Macron's trip was politically important. Noting France is one of the EU's main driving forces, he said: "China's support for and affirmation of France will raise its status within the EU."

Professor Xu Mingqi, who heads the European Studies Centre at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said Mr Macron's visit would be a positive factor in his efforts to push for Europe's integration.

Noting that China-French ties have been good historically, he said the visit would build the foundation for stronger cooperation between the two countries. "Leaders' diplomacy is an important platform for building mutual trust and reaching understanding."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2018, with the headline 'Macron's China visit paves way for deeper cooperation'. Print Edition | Subscribe