BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in China on Monday (Jan 8) for a state visit that will test his ability to simultaneously woo his host, President Xi Jinping, while threatening to make life harder for him.
Macron, 40, sets out on his first trip to Asia since winning office last year bearing a call for greater reciprocal market access. That's a request he must reconcile with his pursuit of a more economically sovereign Europe willing to block outside investments.
To western governments including France's, Xi's public defense of globalisation has yet to translate into serious attempts to open up China to foreign companies.
Macron is likely to reference the paradox in a speech at the start of his tour in the symbolic setting of the ancient imperial capital of Xian, the eastern departure point of the Silk Road trade route.
"The best Macron can do to help the European and French economies is to take Xi at his word on free trade and globalization and push relentlessly for more reciprocity," said Francoise Nicolas, the director of Asian studies at the Institute for Foreign Relations in Paris.
Pushing hard is still no guarantee of success. President Donald Trump made similar demands during his own state visit to Beijing in November, and left town with little in terms policy assurances - albeit financial services were a notable exception. The US is now counting on Europe to help provide a united front against China on trade.
Since taking office last May, Macron has advocated that the Europe Union strengthen its defenses in the face of both US and Chinese trade competition, saying the bloc must end its "naive" approach. For France as for the EU, making the trade relationship with China more balanced and fair would help to narrow deficits. In Macron's case, that deficit amounts to some 30 billion euros (S$47.9 billion), France's largest bilateral trade shortfall.
In a speech to French diplomats in Paris on Thursday (Jan 4), Macron insisted that his push is "not for protectionism, just for protection where needed and reciprocity." Europe, he said, "had its door wide open when others had it half or three-quarters closed."
While the new French leader's active foreign policy makes him a potential ally - not least with his pledge to provide help in maintaining stability in Asia - his stance on trade may be less welcome. Beijing sees new European trade and investment rules supported by France as discriminatory to Chinese businesses.
"The recent trend of trade protectionism and populism in Europe makes China worried," said Feng Zhongping, vice president of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, a government-backed think tank in Beijing.
"Currently there is growing suspicion and even hostility about rising Chinese influence in the world. China hopes France can at least hold a fair and level-headed stance, and not side with those spurious arguments."
Macron and Xi will discuss how to "safeguard multilateralism and an open world economy," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters on Friday.
Macron may remind Xi of his pledge to Trump to further open the Chinese economy, and ask for more access for financial institutions after China announced a plan to remove ownership limits on banks and asset-management companies. BNP Paribas, Societe Generale, BPCE Natixis executives are travelling with Macron, his office said.
Airbus is discussing a large plane order from China during Macron's visit, according to people familiar with the plans. The size of the order is in flux, while talks are focused on Airbus's A320 single-aisle and A330 and A350 wide-body jets, said the people, who asked not to be named discussing the negotiations. Reuters earlier reported that the Toulouse-based company was in talks on the sale of at least 100 planes going to Chinese carriers.
Xi will accompany Macron on a visit to the Forbidden City - the imperial palace that served as the political center of China's government for almost 500 years - and to a start-up incubator, where the French president will deliver a speech. There will be a state dinner for Macron and his wife Brigitte. He will also visit the Chinese Space Academy.
The two leaders already share views on climate change and the Paris Accord. Human rights questions will be raised "in a spirit of efficiency," French officials said, suggesting the topic won't play a major role.
Macron's finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, told the Wall Street Journal in December after his own visits to China and Russia that France was looking to them to act as "a counterweight" to increasingly uncertain trade relations with the US and the UK after Brexit.
Those same economic uncertainties make it harder for France to adopt a hardline trade stance toward China, said Wang Yiwei, director of Renmin University's Institute of International Affairs in Beijing and a former Chinese diplomat based in Brussels.
"There'll be more mutual economic benefits to reap if France and the EU adopt a more conciliatory stance to work with rather than against China, especially against the backdrop of the 'America First' Trump administration," said Wang. "Reciprocity from China is a by-product of a cooperative attitude."