5 key moments from French President Macron's visit to China

French President Emmanuel Macron will wrap up his first official visit to China with a clearer idea of the challenge he faces in wielding Europe's economic power on the global stage.
French President Emmanuel Macron will wrap up his first official visit to China with a clearer idea of the challenge he faces in wielding Europe's economic power on the global stage.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - French President Emmanuel Macron will wrap up his first official visit to China on Wednesday (Jan 10) with a clearer idea of the challenge he faces in wielding Europe's economic power on the global stage.

Macron's calls for a "rebalancing" of Europe's economic relationship with China won few concessions from President Xi Jinping and a meagre return for the business leaders in his delegation.

Here are five key elements of the diplomatic manoeuvres:

COURTING THE DRAGON

Macron pulled out all the stops to warm up the Chinese. He praised their culture, their history, and listened to a long explanation of meaning of their national symbol, the dragon, on a visit to the Forbidden City. He even quoted the Yuan dynasty poet, Wang Mian, whom Xi had referenced in his speech to the Communist Party last year.

Xi talked up the "deep historical significance" of the relationship between France and China and paid tribute to General Charles de Gaulle, who founded the Fifth Republic in France and restored diplomatic ties with China in 1964.

France is already hosting a female panda and her cub at a zoo near Paris. Macron brought Xi a horse from the French Republican guard.

DIFFICULT ISSUES

Macron arrived in Beijing as the spokesman for a European Union that is increasingly uncomfortable with its trade relationship with China.

The president's buzzword throughout the trip was "reciprocity."

The ancient Silk Road wasn't just about China, he pointed out, it was about Europe too. When he went into the detail, it sounded trickier: more market access for EU firms, shared standards, and more Chinese investment in France - but only the right sort.

FRANK WORDS

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire was more candid about French concerns. On the sidelines of a lunch with French chefs working in Beijing, Le Maire told reporters he was determined that investors from China, or elsewhere, wouldn't pick off technology from France or the EU without boosting the local economy.

"There are looters in every country," Le Maire said. "All of them need to understand that Europe has the means to protect itself."

FEW BUSINESS DEALS

Macron's team warned before departure that this trip would yield little in commercial terms. And they were right.

Despite bringing an entourage of more than 50 business leaders, the visit produced just a handful of confirmed business.

Safran will provide jet engines to a clutch of Chinese airlines and Electricite de France signed two energy-services contracts. But the biggest prospective deals, for Areva and Airbus, remained just statements of intent. Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma said he's considering building a logistics centre in France.

"Rather than figures, I prefer a follow-up," Macron told reporters.

RIVALRY WITH THE US

Europe's competition with the US for Chinese favour was an undercurrent to the talks.

 

"When the wind of change is coming, some build walls, while others build wind mills," Macron told a group of business leaders including Ma, deploying a traditional Chinese proverb. "I want to build wind mills."

The reference managed to skewer US President Donald Trump's much-vaunted plans for a wall on the Mexican border as well as his decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. But Xi's response was non-committal.

"China supports a bigger role for France in promoting European integration," he said. "We welcome France making contributions to the development of relations between China and Europe."

While Trump left Beijing in November brandishing US$250 billion (S$332 billion) worth of deals, Macron won no such prize. Chinese officials asked the team from Paris not to give a figure for the value of the business concluded, according to a senior French official.