XI'AN (China) • French President Emmanuel Macron yesterday said China and Europe should work together on Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, because a project aiming to build a modern-day "Silk Road" could not be "one-way".
Unveiled in 2013, the Belt and Road project is aimed at connecting China by land and sea to South-east Asia, Pakistan and Central Asia, and beyond to the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
Chinese President Xi Jinping, who along with First Lady Peng Liyuan played host to Mr Macron and his wife Brigitte at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing yesterday, expressed confidence that bilateral ties will go a long way in the new era.
Mr Xi also said China is willing to work closely with France based on a win-win premise to boost their cooperation under the framework of the Belt and Road project.
Mr Macron began his first state visit to China with a stop in Xi'an, an eastern departure point for the ancient Silk Road, hoping to relaunch EU-China relations often strained by Beijing's restrictions on foreign investment and trade.
"After all, the ancient Silk Roads were never only Chinese," the French leader told an audience of academics, students and businessmen at the Daming Palace, the royal residence of the Tang dynasty for more than 220 years.
"By definition, these roads can only be shared. If they are roads, they cannot be one-way," he said.
Mr Xi pledged US$124 billion (S$165 billion) for the mega plan at a summit last May but it has faced suspicion in Western capitals that it is intended more to assert Chinese influence than Beijing's professed desire to spread prosperity.
Mr Macron, who pledged to visit China at least once every year during his mandate, said the new infrastructure and cultural projects promoted by China could also be in France's and Europe's interest if done in the spirit of cooperation. "These roads cannot be those of a new hegemony, which would transform those that they cross into vassals," he said.
Dr Alice Ekman of the Paris-based IFRI think-tank said: "For the moment, considering how extensive and unclear the Chinese project continues to be, several European countries, including France, have shown caution about it.
"For China, the new Silk Roads are also a tool to promote new international standards, rules and norms that are different from those currently used by France and other European countries."
British Finance Minister Philip Hammond had said in December that Britain, which is quitting the European Union, wanted closer cooperation with China over the Belt and Road scheme. Mr Macron has said Europe should not be "naive" in its trade relations, pushing in Brussels for more stringent anti-dumping rules against imports of cheap Chinese steel.
In June, he urged the European Commission to build a system for screening investments in strategic sectors from outside the bloc, which drew criticism from Beijing.
In Xi'an, Mr Macron said he hoped EU-Chinese relations could have a new start, based on "balanced rules", after acknowledging there had been mistrust and "legitimate questions" about China, as well as fears among Europeans.
Europe is now united and ready to cooperate with China after years of crisis-management and economic stagnation, Mr Macron said.
The French President, who is travelling with a delegation of 50 businessmen, is hoping to gain more access for French companies to Chinese markets. He also went out of his way to win the heart of Mr Xi on the first day of his state visit by offering him a horse from the elite French Republican Guard.
Mr Macron will meet top Chinese officials today and oversee the signing of business deals.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE REUTERS, XINHUA