China & France vow to forge strong partnership in the “Belt and Road Initiative”

Authors: Wang Li and Raphael Lissillour

hinese presidents usually reserve phone calls to heads of foreign countries for use in case of emergency, such as the Korean peninsula crisis. However, on May 7th 2017, President Xi Jinping immediately extended his warm regards to French President Emmanuel Macron after his election, and two days later, they talked to each other again over the phone.

According to Chinese media, both leaders expressed their shared interest to strengthen the Sino-French strategic partnership, to boost both countries’ global economic growth and promote peace. Now the question arises as to why China is so keen on the recent election of new president Macron, despite the fact that the Fifth Republic is not considered a global power on the same level as the United States and Russia, or as the emerging powers like Brazil and India. To answer this question, it is necessary to explore the issue from three perspectives: historical, geopolitical, and economic.

As acknowledged by Chinese officials, France was the first Western great power to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1964. At that time the United States had retained strong sanctions against the Beijing government for 15 years and continued to reject the legitimacy of P. R. China. Since then, France and China have enhanced their strategic consensus and their cooperation to new levels, accordingly with the volatile modernizing world. For instance, during President de Gaulle’s tenure in office, France and China pursued independent nuclear capacity. During the presidency of Jacques Chirac, the two powers promoted their bilateral relationship and global partnership. From the Chinese perspective, France is still a great power with global dimensionality, especially in the fields of culture, education, and technology. President Xi formally invited France to participate to the “Belt & Road Initiative”. As a token of friendship and mutual respect, former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin was chosen by president-elect Macron as special representative to the “Belt & Road Initiative” Forum held 14-15 May 2017.

Diplomatically, China has not only cherished their bilateral ties with France, but also endorsed European integration from its inception. After Brexit became a reality in 2016, China consistently and clearly supported “the EU speaking with one voice”. Indeed, a French version of Brexit would have disastrous consequences for the Euro currency. As a rising power and simultaneously a developing country, it is the priority for China to maintain more open and stable financial markets as a proper environment for its economic development. It is important to note that 1/3 of Chinese foreign currency reserves are held in Euros. This substantial currency reserve implies potential risks for the Chinese economy. Indeed, a fall of the Euro’s exchange rate would lower the value of Chinese foreign currency assets, along with the value of all investments made in the Euro-zone. China tends to view the Euro as a balancing currency against the U.S. dollar. Although Beijing has no need to be involved into the entanglements of EU member-states, it is in China’s core interests to sustain strong overall relationships with the EU in strategic terms. As the largest integrated entity in the world, the EU has sufficient resources to surpass the United States in terms of GDP and global economic influence. Since it has been one of the key co-players of the EU, France welcomes a prosperous and dynamic China, which emphasizes that “the huge Eurasian region between France and China should become a community of interests, responsibility and shared destiny”.

In terms of international strategy, it is worth remembering that China and France are both nuclear powers and members of United Nations’ Security Council. As President Xi reiterated over the phone with the newly-elected President Macron, China would like to cooperate closely with France to support global governance efforts and contribute to its major achievements, such as “the Paris Agreement” which deals with the mitigation of global greenhouse gas emission. In October 2016, several EU member states ratified the agreement. As a result, the ratifying states’ production of green-house gases went over the agreed threshold and the agreement could finally enter into force. The Paris agreement went into effect in the same year, and France's Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius called this ambitious and well-adjusted plan, “a historic turning point in the goal of reducing global warning”. Considering global governance in the 21st century, China has advocated globalization since it is the framework under which its unprecedented development continues to unfold. Unlike the other presidential candidate Le Pen, Macron does not consider globalization to be a negative force, but rather a phenomenon which provides many opportunities for growth and development. Due to this, during the electoral campaign in France, Chinese media, such as Weibo and Wechat, displayed expressions of the Chinese people’s consistent preference for Macron by depicting Le Pen as a proponent of the extreme right, whose racist tendencies would be a menace to foreigners, including many Chinese who would like to live and study in France. Conversely, Macron has been viewed favorably in China’s eyes, because France under Macron may promote stronger cooperative links between China and the EU. In this setting, France may be more instrumental in balancing against the U.S. hegemony, thus contributing to the strategic goals of China. In addition, Macron as the newly-elected President has positive perception of the leading role that China plays in the world’s economy. In consideration of disputes related to China, he openly accepted to bring Chinese dumping practices to the negotiation tables at the G20 and OECD. Given the popular sentiment against Chinese dumping in France and the EU, Macron, then the Minister of Economy, famously stated: “you can’t dislike the Chinese who buy airbus, and dislike those who invest in the airport.” In the aftermath of the privatization of Toulouse Airport, Macron was highly praised as a standard-bearer of the European Union and a promoter of globalization. Both the continuity of European integration and the perception of globalization as a positive force in the EU are important factors for China. Indeed, the return on investment of the “Belt & Road Initiative” may sink drastically if the EU were to collapse.

China has consistently endorsed France to be involved in global governance, for both countries have global dimensions including their seats at the UN, G-20 and other international forums. Since China has dedicated itself to the “project of the century” initiated by President Xi, the “Belt & Road Initiative” represents a substantial economic potential and welcomes any country including France to join the project. There is no doubt that in West of Europe the “Belt & Road Initiative” does not receive the same attention as it does in East European countries and Stan countries. Unlike other innovative 21st century ideas, it is not a speculative or virtual project, but rather an opportunity for many developing countries to develop their infrastructure and trade facilities. On one hand, the romance of the ancient Silk Road has fed local imagination for centuries, but few people know that the term Silk Road was coined by German geographer Ferdinand von Richthofen in 1877. Today, with substantial currency reserves and geopolitical ambitions, China is making the New Silk Road a reality by employing sufficient financial and structural means to match its ambitions. Meanwhile in Europe, the “Belt & Road Initiative” is mostly perceived as a distant curiosity and limited to mere cultural exchanges. On the other hand, more and more people have become aware of a new growth potential in the world’s economy, to the extent in which this economic growth has been accelerated by China. This new setting contributed to the initialization of a deep strategic reflection by President Xi himself.

Even though China has long been the world’s largest manufacturing power, it is now seeking access to new markets for its industrial products and strategic partnership to boost its innovation capacity. Indeed, because of the shrinking gains generated by the manufacturing industry, innovation has become crucial to add value. Since the start of the “Belt & Road Initiative” in 2013, huge financial and multilateral tools have been invested to give shape to the project, which may contribute to the reform of global governance. It will not only be significant for global balance and sustainable development, but also important for France and the European Union as well. As a well-established industrial power and a mature source of advanced technologies, France follows the initiative with strong interest. France will have the opportunity to contribute to China’s innovation drive via technology transfer, to strengthen vibrant economic and cultural exchanges and to promote a comprehensive partnership between China and the EU, the former being the largest rising power and the latter the largest ruling stake-holder. More than that, as Rafarin put it, “France and China have always placed a major interest in bilateral relationship, putting aside […] internal political differences between various parties. To that end, the priority of the project is global equilibrium for peace and development because both sides have trust in a common vision for a multi-polar global system and multilateralism, not to mention their strong relations with African nations.”

(*) Raphael Lissillour, PhD candidate in IR at SIPA, Jilin University

Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.


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