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France’s Macron visits China to talk fairer trade and the future

In his first official visit to China, French President Emmanuel Macron asserted his "determination for the Europe-China partnership to enter the 21st century." (Video: Reuters)
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BERLIN — As French President Emmanuel Macron began his three-day visit to China on Monday, he arrived with a bold message. “Europe is back,” he said.

“I came here to tell China my determination to get the Europe-China partnership into the 21st century,” Macron said.

Even on foreign soil, the 40-year-old French president seemed to bring with him his flair for cinematic spectacle. On Monday, Macron spoke for more than an hour in Xian, at the Daming Palace, the former seat of the Tang Dynasty. He gave his host, President Xi Jinping, a rare gelding horse named Vesuvius. Macron’s office told Reuters that the horse represented an “unprecedented diplomatic gesture.”

But with or without Vesuvius, the big question of how an emerging Franco-Chinese partnership might look will depend on three key aspects.

1. Balancing trade ties

Macron’s mission in China doesn’t necessarily revolve around only making friends. The French president is seeking cooperation on some major initiatives that would expand European-Chinese trade ties, including infrastructure projects such as the Silk Road route between the two partners.

At the same time, however, France and other European Union nations — alongside the United States — are pushing for more reciprocal ties. So far, Chinese laws are hindering foreign investments, whereas Chinese investors have had significantly more leeway in Europe. Macron is pushing to tighten existing foreign investment regulations.

“I want us to define together the rules of a balanced relationship in which everyone will win,” announced Macron. The problem is that China is unlikely to consider a slowing down of its European investments a win-win.

2. European-U.S. relations

Macron’s investment regulations initiative is being backed by the United States, which has voiced similar concerns. But their policy agreement on that front can’t hide Macron’s determination to deepen relations with China, even as U.S.-European relations are shifting.

It bears remembering that even as Macron is vowing to make trips to China an annual tradition, he has yet to visit President Trump.

The E.U. is now China’s top trading partner, and European officials have gone to great lengths to expand ties, even as human rights concerns and economic tensions linger. The almost inevitable repositioning was sped up by the victory of Trump in the 2016 election and his subsequent attacks on U.S. allies in Europe over trade practices, defense spending and immigration policies, among other areas.

3. Who is the leader of Europe?

“Europe is back” is not necessarily a quote that anyone would have expected to attribute to a French leader earlier this year, when E.U.-skepticism defined many of the politicians competing for the French presidency.

At the time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to be not only the leader of Europe, but also of the Western world, as some argued.

For more than 12 years, she had defied the laws of political gravity but has since stumbled after her party suffered major losses last September. With Merkel’s influence fading, Macron has sought to insert himself — and France — into the void that Merkel has left, as Europe’s chief interlocutor on the world stage.

So far, the French president has had some success in that arena. Indeed, very few geopolitical ruptures since his inauguration have not featured at least a cameo appearance from Macron.

In November, for instance, he stepped into a dispute among Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Iran, urging Riyadh to release Prime Minister Saad Hariri and allow him to fly to Paris. In December, he vocally opposed Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to move the American Embassy there. He then hosted a major climate summit in Paris, assembling world leaders and philanthropists to continue the fight against climate change after the United States withdrew from the 2015 Paris accord.

Climate change will also be an agenda item when Macron meets Xi, who supports the Paris agreement but who also presides over the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

In Xian, Macron praised China’s role in fighting climate change and proposed a “Franco-Chinese year of ecological transition” for 2018-2019, but it remains unclear how forceful the French president will be on the tense issue of China’s own emissions.

McAuley reported from Paris.

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