Features | Politics | East Asia

France-China Ties on Mend

Last week’s state visit to China by Nicolas Sarkozy was another sign of improved Franco-Sino ties, says Richard Weitz.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy must hope that his state visit last week to Beijing and Shanghai, his second since becoming president, yields better results than his first one. Shortly after that trip, in November 2007, Sino-French political relations quickly soured over Tibet and other disputes.

On this occasion, though, his meetings appear to have gone well (indeed, Sarkozy received more Chinese leadership attention than the high-level European Union delegation that also visited China last week) and there appears to have been an upturn in bilateral relations since the low of two years ago, when the French president aroused Chinese anger by attacking Beijing’s March 2008 security crackdown in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The following month, pro-Tibet demonstrators and other human rights activists concerned about China’s policies in Darfur and elsewhere disrupted the Olympic torch relay as it passed through Paris.

These protests, which were followed by others as the torch moved across the globe, garnered international attention and embarrassed Beijing organizers of the Games, who confronted worldwide calls to boycott the ‘Genocide Olympics.’ In response, many Chinese responded by boycotting French goods, with the most notable victim being French-owned retail chain Carrefour, whose major shareholder, the LVMH Group, was accused of donating funds to the Dalai Lama. The Chinese government declined, however, to annul previous contracts to purchase French nuclear power plants and other big ticket items.

Beijing did cancel a EU-China summit scheduled for December 2008 after Sarkozy met in Poland with the Dalai Lama (France then held the rotating six-month presidency of the EU), who Chinese authorities accuse of inspiring the separatist unrest that March and seeking to split Tibet from the rest of the People’s Republic of China.

When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao toured Europe in January 2009, he visited Switzerland, Germany, Spain, Britain, and the European Union headquarters in Brussels, but purposefully avoided France. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Jiang Yu stated at a press briefing in February that year that ‘the responsibility of the current difficulty in Sino-French relations does not lie with the Chinese side. The French side should actively take specific measures (and) bring about an early return to the normal track in Sino-French relations through positive efforts.’

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Sarkozy subsequently labored hard to patch up bilateral relations, using opportunities to engage Chinese leaders at the various multilateral meetings, such as those of the United Nations and the Group of Twenty. Sarkozy also adopted a less confrontational stand toward the Chinese in public, declining to attack Beijing vigorously for its crackdown in Xinjiang after ethnic violence between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese in July 2009, centered in the province’s capital of Urumqi, killed almost 200 people. He also didn’t confront Beijing over the alleged Chinese-based cyber espionage conducted against European governments and companies, among others.

Even before the latest trip, there was evidence of progress. In February of this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi included France on his European itinerary, along with Britain, Cyprus, Germany, and Turkey. In Paris, Yang met with Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Yang also gave a speech at the French Institute for International Relations, in which he said 2010 could see major positive developments in Chinese-French relations and that his government was prepared to elevate bilateral ties to a new height.

Sarkozy, for his part, avoided confronting the host government about Tibet, the value of the yuan, Beijing’s human rights policies, or other sensitive issues. He also reaffirmed that both Taiwan and Tibet belonged to the one Chinese government in Beijing, a position Paris has held since French President Charles de Gaulle became the first major Western government to recognize The People’s Republic on January 27, 1964, moving the French Embassy from Taipei to Beijing. During his three-day stay last week, Sarkozy met with Wen, President Hu Jintao, and Wu Bangguo, chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and officially the second highest-ranking official in the Chinese Communist Party. In addition to consulting with these and other officials in Beijing, Sarkozy also attended the April 30 opening ceremony of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

In Beijing, Sarkozy called China a very important strategic partner of France and advocated greater Sino-French cooperation on major international economic and security issues. The day before his departure from Paris, Sarkozy told the official Xinhua News Agency that he wanted to establish a ‘comprehensive and strategic’ partnership with China. ‘Comprehensive, because it covers all aspects of our relationship; strategic, because China has become an absolutely essential player on the international stage….There are no more big issues today that we can tackle without China.’

Wen reciprocated by telling Sarkozy that the Chinese appreciated the great importance of having good ties with France and the French people, adding that, ‘A stable and cooperative China-France relationship accords with fundamental interests of both sides, and can make more contributions to the world.’ At a joint presidential news conference in Beijing, Hu said that ‘Sarkozy’s visit to China has opened a new page in Sino-French relations.’

In line with standard Chinese diplomatic practice, Hu offered a four-point proposal to further upgrade the China-France relationship: maintain high-level exchanges, dialogue and consultations; boost pragmatic cooperation; strengthen cultural exchanges; and cooperate on local and global challenges to promote a peaceful and stable international environment. Hu accepted Sarkozy’s invitation to visit France later this year.

According to the Chinese media, at one point Hu told Sarkozy that both their countries had an interest in promoting ‘multi-polarization’ in international affairs, and the World Bank’s decision on April 25 to expand the voting power of China, India, and other developing countries, following the successful BRIC [Brazil-Russia-India-China] summit the previous week, testifies to the increasing multilateralization of the global economy.

Starting this November, France will hold the rotating one-year presidency of the G8 and G20, making Paris an important power center next year. Although China is not a formal member of the G8, Hu has become a regular attendee at the second-day ‘outreach’ sessions, when the G8 leaders meet with the most important non-member countries. China is of course a major player in the G20, and Sarkozy said he wanted to work with China within that framework to develop ‘a new multipolar monetary order.’

But such multilateralization has made less progress in the case of global political and security affairs than in terms of international economic influence. Many political and military issues still remain dominated by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. This was evident in Sarkozy’s emphasis on securing Chinese support for imposing additional UN sanctions on Iran. Both France and China are permanent members of the Security Council, with the capacity to veto enforcement resolutions. Previous UN resolutions and sanctions had failed to reign in Iran’s nuclear programme and the representatives of China and Russia have expressed skepticism that further sanctions on Iran will have any positive effect on Tehran’s behavior, although Western governments believe they lack a superior alternative strategy than more sanctions.

Sarkozy also said that although he understood Beijing’s preferences for further negotiations, ‘if dialogue doesn’t work, then we can only use sanctions.’ However, despite Hu having agreed earlier in the month when in Washington to discuss the possibility of imposing additional sanctions on Iran, the Chinese government has made no commitment to support any particular sanctions resolution.

Another reason why Beijing was eager to improve relations with Paris is that France is an influential player in European politics as a whole. The day after Sarkoy’s arrival, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton, and dozens of other senior EU Commission members visited China for their own three-day stay. The 27 members of the EU are collectively China’s largest trade partner, while China is the EU’s second-largest partner after the United States.

The April 29 session in Beijing was the first senior-level meeting between an EU delegation and the Chinese government since the new EU Commission took office in February 2010, following last year’s adoption of the new Lisbon Constitution, which among other measures restructured the EU’s foreign-policy representation. Barroso told Wen in Beijing that the newly streamlined EU structure created by the Lisbon Treaty will make it easier for the EU to deepen relations with China. Yet, the spokesman for the Chinese embassy to the EU, Wang Xining, acknowledged that the organization’s post-Lisbon Treaty structure is ‘complicated’ and that, even among his team in Brussels, ‘We’re still in the process of identifying the real functions of all the EU figures.’  A more formal EU-China summit, the 13th such bilateral session, is scheduled to occur later this year.

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In his joint press conference with Barroso after their formal meeting, Wen made some interesting observations about China’s willingness to ‘undertake greater international responsibilities.’ He specifically pledged, for example, to collaborate more with the EU on nuclear non-proliferation, energy security, and climate change. ‘This is not only to meet international expectations but also serves China’s interests,’ Wen explained.  He also returned to the multipolar theme Chinese officials raised in their talks with Sarkozy, observing that China and the EU ‘both stand for world multi-polarity and diversity…we both believe that major decisions in world affairs should be taken in an open, democratic and transparent manner.’

Unlike Sarkozy, the EU delegation raised the issues of the value of the yuan and China’s human rights practices, though to little apparent effect. As Jason Miks noted recently in The Diplomat’s China Power blog the EU’s post-Lisbon structure is still weak, a problem compounded by the refusal of the EU governments to select their most prominent personalities as the new EU leaders.

As a result, Miks notes, the government of China, like that of the United States and Russia, will continue to seek to negotiate with the most important European countries bilaterally rather than within a multilateral framework.

Richard Weitz writes a weekly column for The Diplomat on Asian defence and security. He is a senior fellow and director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Political-Military Analysis.