French President Emmanuel Macron will have to muster all his diplomatic adeptness and political acumen on a three-day state visit to China where the war in Ukraine will be front and center, along with tough talks on trade.
Macron is expected to warn China against sending weapons to Russia and instead ask that the country use its influence to support peace efforts.
Beijing claims to hold a neutral stance in the war, but has also stressed its “no-limits friendship” with Russia. China’s President Xi Jinping last month met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
China has refused to criticize Russia for its actions in Ukraine. A top French official acknowledged that Paris isn’t expecting to see a major shift in that position.
But France will push for initiatives helping ordinary Ukrainians and for possible avenues toward reaching a halfway solution to the war, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with the French presidency’s customary practices.
Paris and Beijing may find a point of convergence following Putin’s recent announcement that his country plans to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus. China, without naming Russia, made clear its opposition to the planned deployment.
Macron will also seek to involve China deeper in global discussions on climate-related issues, as things are getting more complicated for him at home.
The 45-year-old leader has in recent weeks faced strong opposition among ordinary French citizens and lawmakers to his plan to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64. A surge of street protests resulted in a state visit by Britain’s King Charles III having to be postponed.
While Macron is in Beijing, French trade unions on Thursday will stage the 11th round of nationwide demonstrations since January.
The visit also comes amid ever-rising tensions between the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies.
Trade will also be a major focus as Macron has asked European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to join him for a meeting with Xi that’s meant to show European unity especially on economic issues. The French president said last month that he took such an initiative because he is “attached to European coordination.”
Last week, von der Leyen warned the European Union must be prepared to develop measures to protect trade and investment that China might exploit for its own security and military purposes.
China is both the EU’s commercial partner and a rival, Thierry Breton, EU Commissioner for Internal Market, said Monday on French news broadcaster FranceInfo. Breton said the message to Chinese authorities is that they “must stop trying to play one country against another.”
“Of course, China still is an important market for many European companies. But the (EU) internal market is a crucial market to China,” Breton added.
Macron will be accompanied by a delegation of over 50 CEOs including from French energy giant EDF, rail transport manufacturer Alstom and European plane-maker Airbus.
The top French official said negotiations were still being held on a potential deal with Airbus that would come on top of China’s 2019 order for 300 aircraft.
NGOs including the International Federation for Human Rights, International Campaign for Tibet and the Human Rights League have called on Macron to put human rights at the heart of his talks with Chinese authorities.
Macron “must strongly denounce privately but also publicly the repression against Chinese activists and human rights advocates, Hong Kong’s people, Uyghurs and Tibetans,” France’s Human Rights League President Patrick Baudouin said in a statement.
Macron’s office said human rights issues will be mentioned during the visit.
Macron, who last traveled to China in 2019 before the COVID-19 crisis, is to start his trip Wednesday in Beijing with a speech to the French community.
On Thursday, he will have meetings with the head of the National People’s Congress, Zhao Leji, and China’s new No. 2 leader, Premier Li Qiang, in addition to a meeting and a state dinner with Xi in the presence of von der Leyen.
On Friday, Macron will head to the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou, where Xi’s father used to work as provincial governor in the 1980s.
The French president will answer questions there from some of the 1,000 Chinese students at Sun Yat-Sen university. He will then meet Xi again for a private dinner and later meet with Chinese investors.