French President Emmanuel Macron hopes to dissuade Beijing from supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while also using his visit from Wednesday to forge closer ties with a crucial trade and geopolitical partner.
Macron will look to stand firm on Ukraine during talks with his counterpart Xi Jinping and offer “another path” from the directly confrontational tone often heard from Washington, an official from his office told reporters before the three-day trip.
The French leader’s aims include preserving and rebalancing China’s trade ties with Europe as well as safeguarding French interests in the Asia-Pacific region, where Paris sees itself as a player through its overseas territories and military deployments.
Macron will land in Beijing at around 3:30 pm (0730 GMT) and then meet French residents in the capital, before talks on Thursday with Chinese leaders and a state dinner in the evening.
He will travel to Guangzhou in southern China to meet local students on Friday, taking with him a broad delegation of top politicians, business leaders and even celebrities, including composer Jean-Michel Jarre.
Macron, 45, will also be eyeing France’s footprint across the entire Asia-Pacific region and beyond.
Around 1.6 million citizens live in French overseas territories there, from La Reunion off Madagascar’s east coast to New Caledonia northeast of Australia and the dozens of Pacific islands of French Polynesia.
Thanks to its vast population, abundant natural resources and economic heft, the Asia-Pacific has become “the nerve centre of the planet”, said Cedric Perrin, co-author of a French Senate report on the region.
France hopes its vast economic zone and 7,000 deployed troops can lend it a seat at the table as tensions mount on several fronts, including with nuclear-armed North Korea and between China and the United States over the self-governed island of Taiwan.
Perrin believes France “must restate a strong and realistic position towards China, especially regarding the need to respect international law” if it wants to be taken seriously as a regional player.
Macron’s visit — his first in four years — coincides with a flashpoint meeting between Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California on Wednesday.
Beijing has said it would “closely monitor the situation and firmly defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity”, and warned Republican McCarthy that he would be “playing with fire” by meeting Tsai.
China claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory to be retaken one day, by force if necessary.
The presence of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, who met Macron in Paris on Monday to coordinate preparations, is a clear sign the trip will ripple beyond France across the entire 27-nation European Union.
In a speech last week, von der Leyen cautioned Beijing against direct support for the war in Ukraine, while ruling out the EU “decoupling” from China.