PARIS • Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in the French Riviera yesterday on the final leg of his European tour as his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron tries to forge a united European front to contend with China's global ambitions.
Mr Xi arrived at the airport of the iconic resort city of Nice accompanied by his wife, Ms Peng Liyuan, to be welcomed by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and an honour guard.
He goes first to the nearby principality of Monaco before face-to-face talks with Mr Macron.
The two leaders head to Paris today for the official state visit, marking 55 years since Charles de Gaulle broke ranks with the West to establish diplomatic relations with the communist nation.
A series of cooperation deals on nuclear power, aerospace and clean energy initiatives, some involving lucrative contracts, are expected to be signed.
But Mr Xi's visit poses a particular challenge for Mr Macron, who wants to deepen European Union ties with China while also pushing back against Beijing's growing clout.
Europe's distrust of Huawei, which is poised to become the dominant player in next-generation telecom networks worldwide, is emblematic of the increasingly rocky relationship.
"We've a lot to do together in terms of climate action, in terms of multilateralism, but we also have to defend our own interests," Mr Macron said in Brussels last Thursday.
He has lauded the EU's "awakening" to the challenges posed by China, which the bloc now labels a "rival" despite becoming Europe's biggest trading partner.
A Macron aide said ahead of Mr Xi's visit: "The reality is the world has changed significantly - China is not the country it once was, and we are dealing with a very major partner."
Mr Macron and Mr Xi will be joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker tomorrow to explore "points of convergence" ahead of an EU-China summit in Brussels next month.
Mr Xi arrived in France from Italy, which has angered its EU partners by formally joining China's "new Silk Road" initiative for a string of maritime, rail and road connections aimed at expanding Chinese trade.
Mr Macron is expected to press his call for increased "reciprocity" regarding market access to China, in particular Beijing's demands that foreign companies hand over vital technological know-how in order to invest in the country.
"If we're going to talk about a new Silk Road, then it must be one that goes in both directions," Foreign Minister Le Drian told BFM television last Friday.
Huawei is another fraught issue at the centre of a dispute over the rollout of crucial 5G mobile network infrastructure. The United States is pressuring European allies to not use Huawei's technology, saying that it creates a security risk by potentially letting Beijing snoop on sensitive communications.
Yet France has so far not ruled out using Huawei gear - and Monaco has already signed a deal with the Chinese giant to roll out a 5G network as early as this year.
Beijing has bristled at the suspicions, accusing Washington of trying to escalate US President Donald Trump's trade battle with China.
Despite the many sources of friction, France's goal is to engage China as a closer partner, as Washington makes a pointed withdrawal from global affairs under Mr Trump's America First policy.
For example, Mr Macron may seek more Chinese support of the French-backed G5 Sahel force fighting Islamist extremists in western Africa.
China has been investing heavily in a diplomatic offensive across Africa, promising to help build infrastructure projects as part of the new Silk Road, officially called the Belt and Road Initiative.
Aides say Mr Macron will press Mr Xi to ensure such projects are fair and explore the participation of French firms amid allegations that the deals could load African countries with unsustainable debt loads.
The French leader is expected to urge Mr Xi to commit to the ambitious global bid to cut carbon emissions, though analysts note that China is still building dozens of coal-burning power plants.
France also plans to voice concerns about rights abuses against China's Uighur Muslim minority, including allegations of mass internments in the restive Xinjiang province.