Top EU leaders – Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron – flew into in China on Wednesday for talks on business and the war in Ukraine.
The pair are keen to smooth ties with a key economic partner while also tackling tough issues like Ukraine and trade risks.
Macron on his first trip to China since 2019, spoke to US President Joe Biden before the visit about trying to engage Chinese President Xi Jinping on hastening the end of the war in Ukraine, started by Beijing’s close ally Russia.
“We hear increasingly loud voices expressing a strong concern about the future of relations between the West and China that in some form lead to the conclusion that there is an inescapable spiral of mounting tensions,” Macron told reporters at the French embassy in Beijing.
There was also an impression that de-coupling from the Chinese economy was already underway and that the only remaining question was over pace and intensity, he added.
“I do not believe, in any case I do not want to believe, in this scenario.”
Von der Leyen, meanwhile, has not travelled to China since becoming European Commission president more than three years ago, with China’s strict pandemic controls forcing all diplomatic meetings online.
In that time, Europe’s relations with China soured, first due to a stalled investment pact in 2021 and then Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia over Ukraine.
EU keen to ‘de-risk’ China ties
For Macron, facing embarrassing pension protests at home, the trip also offers a chance to land some economic wins as he travels with a 50-strong business delegation, including Airbus, which is negotiating a big plane order, Alstom and nuclear giant EDF.
However, some analysts said ostentatious deal-signing would appear opportunistic at a time of growing distrust of China in the United States and its Western allies over issues ranging from Taiwan to its cosy ties with Moscow.
“It’s not the time to announce business deals or big new investments,” said Noah Barkin, an analyst with Rhodium Group. “It would essentially be a vote of confidence in the Chinese economy and send the message that France is not on board with the US approach.”
Von der Leyen has said the EU must “de-risk” ties with Beijing, including limiting Chinese access to sensitive technology and reducing reliance for key inputs such as critical minerals, as well as batteries, solar panels and other clean tech products.
Macron invited von der Leyen on the trip as a way to project European unity, after French officials criticised German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for going to China on his own late last year
China the peacemaker?
After brokering a surprise detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia last month, China has been eager to present itself as a peacemaker and an alternative to the United States, which it says is fanning flames by sending weapons to Ukraine.
The talks with European leaders come amid high tension with the US over issues ranging from Taiwan to bans on semiconductor exports, and China is eager that Europe does not follow what it sees as a US-led effort to contain its rise.
Taking aim at von der Leyen’s comments last week on the risks of trade with China, the state-run Chinese nationalist mouthpiece Global Times warned on Monday that Europe would suffer from any attempt to cut economic ties with Beijing.
“The EU is in a difficult struggle as it is under great pressure from the US to adjust its economic relations with China. China and EU decoupling will only serve US interests, but make both China and Europe suffer,” it said.
Macron has pushed the EU to be more robust in trade relations with China and is broadly supportive of von der Leyen’s stance, the French president’s advisers said, but he has publicly refrained from using strong anti-China rhetoric, Beijing being prone to bilateral retaliatory measures.
Beyond trade, both have said they want to persuade China to use its influence over Russia to bring peace in Ukraine, or at least prevent Beijing from directly supporting its ally.
“Both have not only business in mind but also Ukraine,” Joerg Wuttke, president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, said of Macron and von der Leyen.
“I’m sure it’s not going to be an easy visit.”
‘Speak to Zelenskiy’
China this year proposed a 12-point peace plan for the Ukraine crisis, which called on both sides to agree to a gradual de-escalation leading to a comprehensive ceasefire.
But the plan was largely dismissed by the West due to China’s refusal to condemn Russia, and the US and NATO then said China was considering sending arms to Russia, claims which Beijing has denied.
Suspicion of China’s motives only deepened after President Xi Jinping flew to Moscow for meetings with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin last month.
Macron has said he is also keen to stress to Xi, who he will meet alongside von der Leyen on Thursday, that Europe will not accept China providing arms to Russia.
“Considering China’s proximity with Russia, it’s obvious it is one of the few countries, if not the only one, which could have a game-changing effect on the conflict, in one way or another,” one of Macron’s advisers said ahead of the trip.
In a meeting with Xi in Beijing last week, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he had encouraged the Chinese leader to talk to the Ukrainian leadership and learn first-hand about their peace formula.
Macron and von der Leyen are expected to echo the message that Xi should talk to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Bid to reset ties
But aside from some hard talk on Ukraine and trade tension, the trip will serve up some lighter opportunities to demonstrate what Macron’s adviser said was an attempt to “reset” diplomatic and economic relations with China.
On Friday, Xi will accompany Macron on a trip to the southern port of Guangzhou, where the first French ship reached Chinese shores in the 17th century and where France opened its first consulate.
After meeting students there, Macron will attend a dinner and tea ceremony with the Chinese leader who also has sentimental attachment to the city as his late father, Xi Zhongxun, worked there as provincial first secretary.
“We believe that this has very large symbolic significance and suggests that (France) is ready to relaunch cooperation with China,” said Henry Huiyao Wang, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-based think tank.
- Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard
NOTE: Further details were added to this report on April 5, 2023.