by Vincent-Xavier Morvan and Julie Pacorel
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron met for dinner in the south of France Sunday ahead of official talks with the host leader seeking to forge a united European front to contend with Beijing’s advances.
“Very happy to welcome President Xi Jinping and his wife to France,” Macron wrote in a tweet. “This visit will strengthen our strategic partnership and affirm the role of France, Europe and China towards a strong multi-lateralism.”
Xi earlier arrived at the resort city of Nice accompanied by his wife Peng Liyuan to be welcomed by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and an honour guard.
Prior to meeting with Macron, Xi went to the nearby principality of Monaco, where he was received by Prince Albert II and where a government spokesman said talks would “address economic and environmental issues.”
Xi, who has made a priority of establishing China as a global player, travelled from Italy, whose government became the first G7 state to sign up to his landmark new “Silk Road” infrastructure project, a massive undertaking to join Asia to Europe.
Washington and some EU states fear the huge project will give China too much sway. But Xi says it would be a two-way street of investment and trade.
Germany criticised Rome over its participation in the new Silk Road project.
“In a world with giants like China, Russia or our partners in the United States, we can only survive if we are united as the EU,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
“And if some countries believe that they can do clever business with the Chinese, then they will be surprised when they wake up and find themselves dependent.”
The EU’s German budget commissioner, Gunther Oettinger, told the Funke newspaper group that Europe should ensure it retains its autonomy and sovereignty when dealing with China.
He expressed concern that already “infrastructure of strategic importance… is no longer in European but in Chinese hands.
Le Drian had remarked Friday that Silk Road cooperation must go “in both directions”.
Amid tight security, the Chinese and French first couples enjoyed a private dinner at Beaulieu-sur-Mer, near Nice, overlooking the Mediterranean.
They were due to have what a Chinese official termed “a deep exchange of views on Sino-French, Sino-European relations and international and issues of mutual interest”.
Xi’s official visit to Paris on Monday will mark 55 years since Charles de Gaulle established diplomatic relations with Beijing.
A series of cooperation deals on nuclear power, aerospace and clean energy initiatives, some involving lucrative contracts, are expected to be signed.
On Tuesday, Macron and Xi will be joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker to explore “points of convergence” ahead of an EU-China summit in Brussels next month.
As well as addressing commercial cooperation and strategic issues with Xi, Macron has also been urged to deal with the case of Chinese former Interpol head Meng Hongwei.
Meng’s wife has had no news of her husband since his arrest in China nearly six months ago and it emerged Sunday she has written to Macron asking him to bring up his disappearance with Xi.
He is believed to be facing corruption charges.
China as EU ‘rival’
But Xi’s visit poses a particular challenge for Macron, who wants to deepen EU ties with China while also pushing back against Beijing’s growing global clout.
Europe’s distrust of Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which is poised to become the dominant player in next-generation 5G mobile technology worldwide, is emblematic of the increasingly rocky relationship.
Monaco, which notably is eyeing a share of Chinese luxury tourism and has its own foreign policy, only last year signed an accord with Huawei to make the principality the first country entirely covered by the company’s 5G mobile network by year end.
Macron has lauded the EU’s “awakening” to the challenges posed by China, which the bloc now labels a “rival” despite being Europe’s biggest trading partner.
“The reality is that the world has changed significantly – China is not the country it once was, and we are dealing with a very major partner,” a Macron aide said ahead of Xi’s visit.
The US is pressuring European allies to not use the Huawei technology, saying it creates a security risk by potentially letting Beijing snoop on sensitive communications.
But France has not ruled out using Huawei gear.
Beijing has accused Washington of trying to escalate President Donald Trump’s trade battle with China.
‘Reality very different’
Despite the many sources of friction, France wants to engage China as a closer partner as Washington makes a pointed withdrawal from global affairs under Trump’s “America First” policy.
For example, Macron may seek more Chinese support of the French-backed G5 Sahel force fighting Islamist extremists in Western Africa.
China has been investing heavily in a diplomatic offensive across Africa, promising to help build infrastructure projects as part of the new Silk Road initiative.