World News

France's Macron takes the reins when it comes to EU-China relations

Posted January 10, 2018 12:56 a.m. EST

— With his brown hair and youthful step, he came to China Monday on a special plane, ready to win over President Xi Jinping and cement a new era of France-China relations.

We are, of course, talking not about France's President Emmanuel Macron, but Vesuvius de Brekka, the 8-year-old gelding plucked from the French presidential cavalry and presented to Xi as a gift during Macron's three-day swing through China.

Paris called the horse an "unprecedented diplomatic gesture," and its intent was very clear: Macron's visit was to be a charm offensive for the French President and the horse was just the beginning.

Macron's first stop on his tour was the ancient city of Xi'an, the start of President Xi's sprawling, ambitious (and frequently criticized) Belt and Road trade initiative.

The French President said Europe should play a key role in the trillion dollar trade and infrastructure plan, and by doing so in Xi'an, he sent a symbol of France's strong support for the project.

Climate and trade

In Beijing, following a trip to the Forbidden City, Macron poured praise on Xi for China's commitment to open, multilateral trade and for sticking to Beijing's commitments under the Paris Climate Accords.

He even offered a twist on his "Make our planet great again" slogan, by delivering the line in Mandarin.

Such praise will delight Xi, who has tried to position himself as a leader on both trade and climate in contrast to the US under President Donald Trump.

Critics however point to China's less-than-free economic climate, and its ongoing offshoring of coal production and other polluting industries, even as it pursues investment in renewables at home.

Macron's compliments are a symbolic attempt to get at what he's really after: a more solidified, profitable, and balanced economic relationship with China, while cementing France's role as the de facto European Union representative abroad.

France's trade deficit with China is around $30 billion, its largest with any country.

Macron wants to solve that, and has urged China to give French companies greater access to Chinese consumers (how this gels with Xi's supposed commitment to open, multilateral trade is less clear).

As part of this trip, 50 business deals were signed, including in online retailing, aerospace and nuclear energy, French media reported. A Chinese embargo on French beef will also be lifted in six months.

The deals did lack impressive dollars figures attached to them, as compared to the $250 billion in deals announced during President Trump's visit in November. Macron suggested those deals were overinflated, though, saying he would not flaunt nominal amounts.

Human rights

In addition to trade, Macron will be keenly aware of the relative stability France enjoys politically and the opportunity that presents.

Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, long considered the de facto leader of Europe, has lost influence recently as she struggled to cobble together a stable coalition government at home.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is still preoccupied with the UK's looming exit from the European Union, and her own coalition and cabinet problems, to play a great role overseas, though she is expected to make a long-delayed visit to China later this year.

Macron likely sees an opening to position France as the most reliable trading partner with China, and have a major influence on EU policy towards Beijing as well.

As with every country that chooses to increase engagement with China, however, there are strategic tradeoffs that must be made.

China's human rights record, long criticized has worsened under Xi, with hundreds of lawyers, activists and other dissidents jailed, detained and harassed.

But big business deals and public criticism of those issues don't usually go hand-in-hand

Unlike in the past, when foreign leaders would often lecture their counterparts in Beijing on human rights, to the fury of the Chinese, increasingly today politicians seem to ignore the topic -- at least in public. Macron was urged by human rights groups to lobby for jailed activists and freedom of speech.

The Elysée said human rights issues would be brought up in private.

Macron said raising them publicly would be "totally inefficient."

"These preoccupations, I brought them up with the President Xi Jinping. He knows that they exist in Europe, particularly regarding freedoms and universal rights. And I know that the subject is important for him," Macron said.

The calculation is clear for leaders like Macron -- play up the good while ignoring the bad.