President Emmanuel Macron has chosen: He will go to China for his first visit to Asia. To those around him, who argue for a strengthening of ties between Paris and Beijing, it is an obvious choice. China is the second largest economy in the world; its overwhelming “Belt and Road” project seems to offer unlimited opportunities. And of course, for France, which has the ambition to play a global role on the international scene, China seems to be the right partner: a nuclear power and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, with a veto right that weighs on all major decisions. Moreover, for a French president who wants to assert himself as the antithesis, if not the equal of U.S. President Donald Trump, “mighty China” offers the opportunity to play that role.
Beijing knows all this, and needs allies to face an American power that, contrary to the initial hopes of the Chinese leadership, might be unpredictable but has not given up its engagement in Asia. And not everyone in Paris appreciates the growing uneasiness and tensions in the region, far beyond the nuclear crisis in the Korean peninsula, around China’s future role. Confident in this lack of awareness, Chinese leaders look forward to a reception where flattering could win the support of a French president whose model is de Gaulle, and who hitherto has tended to focus — and know — much more about Europe and its environment than about faraway Asia.
The ambition of the Chinese leadership is to persuade the French president to position himself on issues like North Korea as a “go-between,” defending “dialogue” against the more “aggressive” posture of the United States, and to implicitly recognize by his choices the pre-eminence of China in the region. Macron may be all too ready to welcome that role.
Yet, everything might not be that simple in this first visit. Opportunities and commonalities do exist. However, mutual expectations are far from coinciding perfectly. And the frustrations that also characterize the Sino-French relationship have not disappeared.
For Beijing, France is never better than when it confines itself to its role of “old friend of China.” This role should be that of the constant supporter of “multipolarism,” against the “hyperpuissance” (a French concept) of the United States. This, without stressing the fact that, if China is favorable to the “democratization of international relations,” its only objectives are actually to increase its room for maneuver by driving a wedge between like-minded liberal democracies, and to establish itself as the uncontested leader of the Asian pole.
This ambition however, does not correspond to the evolution of the contemporary world. It cannot serve the interests of France in an area where the will to find support against a destabilizing and too assertive Chinese power is the common point of all of Beijing’s neighbors. In other words, for Paris, which indeed is not an irrelevant player in the region, the question of “siding” with or against China, and its strategic and economic consequences, cannot be avoided.
France is the only European country with direct territorial interests in the Asia-Pacific. By multiplying military cooperation deals, with Australia, Indonesia, or India for example, or maybe tomorrow with Japan, France also plays a major role in defense capacity building in the region. As such, and because of its position in a post-Brexit European Union, and at the UN, what France does is of interest to countries whose primary strategic objective is to balance a Chinese power obsessed by its own strategy of “rejuvenation” through assertiveness.
The second factor of frustration, of which the French president seems much more conscious as it directly relates to France socio-economic issues, is that of the persistent lack of balance in economic relations and trade. China may be perceived as an economic superpower; however, it still needs high growth to try to preserve political stability. Beijing is not ready to give up any export market, nor any strategy of division between individual members of the European Union to gain better access to benefits.
In terms of investments, the PRC, whose party-state has the capacity to act without checks – contrary to norms-abiding democratic governments – is also ready to seize all opportunities that can feed its own development, particularly in advanced technologies, at the fringe of the civilian and the military.
Faced with these undisguised ambitions, Macron is the first to plead with such clarity for more reciprocity, and France supports the strengthening of regulations for Chinese investments in sensitive sectors. Similarly, with regard to the Belt and Road Initiative, the flagship project of President Xi Jinping to achieve his “China dream,” France remains cautious and aware of its many financial and governance pitfalls.
Beijing – as with any other partners – would like the Franco-Chinese relationship to be entirely at the service of its own priorities. On the contrary, the strategic and economic interests of France in Asia are multiple and cannot be limited to an exclusive partnership with the People’s Republic of China. The successes of the new French presidency’s “Asian policy” will be appreciated only in light of the capacity that Paris will demonstrate — by concrete actions — to maintain a necessary balance between the powers of the region.
Valérie Niquet is a senior visiting fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs and head of the Asia department at FRS (Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique), Paris.