Key takeaways from Xi Jinping’s French tour

3 min read

There are … not many.

Rather, the greatest takeaway is exactly that: the lack of anything of significance. Anything that would have been worth mentioning on a press conference.

Especially in comparison with the visits to Belgrade and Budapest that followed it, during which Serbia signed a free trade agreement with China (among other things), strengthening the “rock solid” relationship between the two countries, while the link between Beijing and Budapest got reinforced by as many as 18 new agreements.

President Xi Jinping arrived in France on May 5, hoping to stabilize China’s fragile relationship with Europe (or at least France).

It was a grandiose and cordial, but mostly unsuccessful visit, no matter to what extents the French went, including taking President Xi to a trip to the Pyrenees, the childhood sanctuary of President Macron.

Paris had many hopes (at least according to their official statement) ahead of the meeting, starting with “exchanges on international crises, first and foremost the war in Ukraine and the situation in the Middle East (…) as well as trade issues, scientific, cultural and sporting cooperation (…) and the climate emergency”. Among those myriad other things, President Macron wished to have an “Olympic truce”, a stop of hostilities in Ukraine during the 2024 Olympic games and is counting on Beijing’s help in convincing Moscow.

Ahead of the visit, President Macron invited German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to a “secret” dinner, where, accompanied by their respective wives and without other preying ears, they had a short chit-chat about what they could or should do with China, in the moment when the European Union is trying to stand up against the “dragon” and its “unfair competition”. (Or maybe the French president just wanted to get some insights to Herr Scholz’s own China-encounter about a month ago.)

If the German chancellor was fazed by the criticism he got for failing to raise the threat of Beijing-subsidized goods for the European economy (especially in a moment when the European Commission is moving ahead with anti-Chinese steps in many fronts), or for failing to scold China for providing dual-use goods to Russia, he didn’t show.

Germany is, after all, still the biggest economy of Europe and China is an important market for them. And will remain so for quite a while.

Chinese-EU relations reached their summit a while ago, probably around or before 2019, the last time President Xi ventured to a multi-country Europe tour. Back then, Italy signed on to the Belt and Road Initiative (just to withdraw from it in 2023). At German pressure, the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment was reached in 2020, but was never ratified.

Things were going downhill ever since, even more so since the Russian attack on Ukraine.

President Xi hasn’t visited any major European countries for five years amidst the deepening crisis of EU-China relations.

The fact that he singled out Paris could show the slight difference of French-Chinese relations (in comparison with the rest of Western Europe), but also that right now, he didn’t feel the need to do a “Walk of Canossa”, he is not desperately trying to mend ties with European capitals, but can focus on his country’s priorities and allies. On places where the mutual interests and interdependence are acknowledged and handled with realistic approach, instead of ideological lectures.

Furthermore, as the mountain couldn’t go to Muhammad, Muhammad went to the mountain: instead of a meeting in Brussels, Ursula von der Leyen travelled to Paris to stand on President Macron’s side as he tried to reach an agreement with China that would give some breathing space to the ailing European car industry (among others) and keep the wind in the wings of Europe’s green transformation.

The truth is that right now, the EU probably needs China more than in reverse.

Something not easily admitted publicly in Western capitals.

Probably this is one of the reasons while not much is known about the details of the Macron-Xi meeting, even less so about the tentative agreements they might have reached. “Europe will not waver from making tough decisions needed to protect its market”, was the openly declared standpoint. We’ll see only in a few years, what the reality is.

Back in 2023, British Home Secretary James Cleverly, who, speaking on the margins of the UN general assembly in New York, admitted that the “west will be in trouble unless it learns to listen better to the global south” (whatever that expression means, especially knowing that the countries usually considered to be parts of this “group” are anything but a homogenous community).

Mr. Cleverly added, “there is a risk that because the US, UK, members of the G7, for example, have traditionally been a repository for the wealth and power, that our instinct is (…) to talk (…) some of the leaders in the global south, perceive it as lecturing”.

The hard-learned lesson from Ukraine (globally and for the West) is that most of the world would not blindly follow Western (EU or US) wishes that go against their own interests. Amongst the few details known from the Macron-Xi meeting is that the Chinese President urged his counterpart “to join him in showing independence and prevent a new Cold War between blocks”, a not-so-veiled reference to the open US-China hostilities.

As it is, sanctions against Moscow, while they did hurt Russia’s economy (at the same time as they hit Europe’s), didn’t bring “the bear” to his knees (if the IMF is correct, then Russia’s economy will actually grow by 1.1 percent in 2024) and are unlikely to so in the medium and long term, thanks to the rest of the world.

While no single country can speak for the “global south”, as there are several contenders (amongst them China, Brazil, India and South Africa) for the leadership position, China is among those who have significant leverage over the rest.

Ukraine isn’t the only issue the G7 cannot solve on its own, conflicts and problems that require global cooperation are aplenty (climate change, debt crises, failing states, redefining the role of international institutions in the changing world, etc.). To solve most of these, Beijing’s cooperation is unavoidable.

It would be wise to admit this instead of engaging in ideology-driven warfare.

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