French President Emmanuel Macron
French President Emmanuel Macron takes pictures with attendees at the Red Brick Museum in Beijing, China, April 5, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Beijing: French President Emmanuel Macron said Europe must resist reducing trade and diplomatic ties with China as he began a state visit on Wednesday, seeking to refute any sense there was an “inescapable spiral” of tension between Beijing and the West.

Macron said maintaining dialogue with China was key given its close relations with Russia, which is waging a war in Ukraine. Asked about Western concerns Beijing might be considering sending arms to Moscow, Macron said any nation that did so would be complicit in a breach of international law.

“China’s interest isn’t to have a lasting war,” Macron said.

On his first trip to China since 2019, Macron spoke to US President Joe Biden before the visit about engaging Chinese President Xi Jinping to hasten the end of the Ukraine war, though Washington is sceptical toward Beijing’s peace plan.

“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 is also an impression that de-coupling from the Chinese economy is already underway and that the only remaining question is over pace and intensity, he added.

“I do not believe, in any case I do not want to believe, in this scenario.” Macron arrived ahead of Ursula von der Leyen, who will join the French leader on her first visit to China since becoming European Commission president more than three years ago.

Last week she said the EU must “de-risk” ties with Beijing, including limiting Chinese access to sensitive technology and reducing reliance on China for key inputs.

Europe’s relations with China have soured in recent years first due to a stalled investment pact in 2021 and then Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia over its attack of Ukraine.

De-risking did not mean severing trade ties with China, Macron later told reporters.

There is no contradiction in reducing Europe’s dependence on China in strategic sectors such as telecoms and increasing business links in other areas, Macron added.

In a break from embarrassing pension protests at home, Macron travelled with a 50-strong business delegation, including Airbus, which is negotiating a big plane order, luxury giant LVMH and nuclear energy producer 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 allies over issues ranging from Taiwan to Beijing’s use of sensitive technologies.

“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.”

Ukraine in focus

Both Macron and von der Leyen have said they want to persuade China to use its influence over Russia to bring peace in Ukraine, or at least deter Beijing from directly supporting its big power ally in the conflict.

China earlier 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, which Beijing has denied.

Suspicion of Chinese motives only deepened after Xi flew to Moscow for hours of closed-door meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month.

Macron said it was imperative Russia not be allowed to have an exclusive dialogue with China and that Beijing could help in brokering an end to the conflict in Ukraine.

In a meeting with Xi last week, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he had encouraged the Chinese leader to talk to the Ukrainian leadership and learn about their peace formula.

Macron and von der Leyen are expected to echo the message that Xi should talk to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

After brokering a surprise detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia last month, China has been eager to present itself as a peacemaker and alternative to the United States, which it says is fanning flames by sending weapons to Ukraine.

The talks with European leaders come amid Chinese protests against US-led technology-export restrictions, which it views as part of a broader effort by Washington to contain the rise of what is now the world’s second largest economy.

It has warned Europe not to join in.

The state-run Chinese nationalist mouthpiece Global Times said this week 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.