Sino-French ties bolster China-EU relations

By Yan Shaohua |
Updated: April 29, 2024

Following German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's visit to China in April, President Xi Jinping's state visit to France in May will be another defining moment for China-European Union relations in 2024.

But unlike Scholz's visit to China which was focused on trade and investment, and unlike Sino-German economic relations which have been flourishing despite a de-risking agenda pushed forward by the European Commission, China-French relations are more of a strategic nature.

Since the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries 60 years ago, Sino-French relations have been driven by a strategic consensus that both countries are major countries in a multipolar world and they occupy an important position in each other's foreign policy.

Based on this consensus, leaders of both countries have made great efforts to navigate the bilateral relationship from the top level, which provides the political impetus and strategic guidance needed in times of difficulties.

This is the spirit in which French President Emmanuel Macron visited China in April 2023 amid strained China-EU ties due to the Ukraine crisis. The Chinese leader will visit France in the same spirit, viewing to not only deepen Sino-French ties on the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, but also stabilizing China-EU relations in these turbulent times.

With the Russia-Ukraine conflict having entered its third year and the Middle East crisis deepening, the world is sailing into uncharted waters where global stability and prosperity are being threatened. It is time therefore for China and France to tap the potential of their strategic partnership and translate it into more fruitful cooperation.

At the political level, the concept of strategic autonomy championed by Macron will provide room for China and France to enhance dialogue on regional and global issues. Strategic autonomy essentially means the EU having the ability to act independently in an interdependent world.

Although the EU's strategic autonomy remains a controversial issue in Europe, China has continuously voiced its support for its strategic autonomy in high-level meetings with European leaders. However, China's support for the EU's strategic autonomy should not be misunderstood as an attempt to drive a wedge between the EU and the United States, as some in Europe have argued.

For China, the EU's strategic autonomy will allow the bloc to play a mediating role in China-US competition rather than rallying behind the US in the latter's geopolitical game to contain China. That's why when Macron called for the EU to pursue strategic autonomy and avoid following the US into a conflict with China over the Taiwan question, his credibility as a mediator increased in the eyes of the Chinese people.

In a speech at the Sorbonne University on April 25, Macron reiterated that Europe should not become a "vassal" of the US and should be able to talk to everyone. In an interesting coincidence, the People's Liberation Army's Southern Theater Command signed a framework agreement on dialogue and cooperation with the Pacific marines of the French military on the same day with the aim of building trust between the two militaries in the Asia-Pacific.

The Ukraine crisis continues, with the looming threat of escalating into nuclear conflict.

As nuclear powers and members of the United Nations Security Council, China and France shoulder the common responsibility of avoiding the risks of a devastating nuclear conflict. On nuclear risks, China has made it clear in its position paper on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis that nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought.

On the economic front, China and France should make more efforts to back the strategic partnership with more solid economic cooperation. During their recent summit in April, EU leaders' discussions were focused on boosting the bloc's competitiveness to reverse the EU's decline. And when it comes to competitiveness, it is important that both sides should avoid zero-sum thinking.

Since China's launch of reform and opening-up in the late 1970s, European companies have been playing an important role in enhancing the competitiveness of the Chinese economy. The same could be said about Chinese companies in Europe. The story of Huawei in Europe is an apt example.

"In Europe, for Europe." Jim Lu, Huawei's regional president in Europe has made such remarks. Working with EU partners, Huawei has been helping Europe build the digital infrastructure, nurture local talents and achieve the EU's digitalization goals.

The green industry is another example. By exporting green products such as electric vehicles (EVs) to and investing in the EU, Chinese companies will not only contribute to the EU's green transition but also boost its competitiveness in green industry. It is therefore better that the EU and China pursue competitiveness with each other rather than competitiveness over each other.

Such a spirit should help resolve the China-EU dispute over the alleged subsidies to EV-makers in China — a dispute in which France is believed to be a key player.

In a world that is increasingly divided by geopolitical and ideological fault lines, it is important to keep building bridges across different levels of societies. The 2024 Summer Olympic Games Paris is scheduled to host offers France a precious opportunity to bridge the gap in a contested world, showing that humankind and countries could compete, but in the spirit of peace and friendship.

The author is an associate professor of European Studies at Fudan University. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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