European position

Macron warns China over Silk Road project

France, China, Macron, Xi
Still far apart: President Macron meets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on a three-day China visit. Source: Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron has begun a trip to China with a warning to Beijing that the proposed €100 billion ($120 billion) Silk Road development project will be hampered unless Europe is allowed to participate as an equal partner.

With German Chancellor Angela Merkel preoccupied at home with stubbornly long negotiations aimed at forming a new ruling grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party, Mr. Macron is increasingly taking it upon himself to push his own view of Europe’s agenda to the world.

The Chinese, in turn, hope that the French president, who wants to reform his country’s sclerotic labor rules, will prove more amenable than Germany to permitting free access to the European market for Chinese companies.

“By definition these roads can only be realized together and not as a one-way street.”

Emmanuel Macron, French president

“France’s approach to Asian and Chinese policies is more strategic than Germany’s,” said Alice Ekman, a China expert at France’s Institute for International Relations. While Germany pays more attention to export possibilities in the Chinese market, she said, the French government thinks more about political questions like the Silk Road project.

For one thing, Mr. Macron fears that China will attempt to split European unity by doing side deals with weaker countries, using them as what the French call “Trojan horses within the EU.”

Known as the One Belt, One Road Initiative in China, the Silk Road project aims at linking China by road, rail and sea with 16 European countries. The EU has been skeptical of the project because there are concerns the Chinese hope to use investments to make eastern European countries more submissive to their views.

“Let’s work together on this big project, the Silk Roads were never pure Chinese after all,” Mr. Macron told his hosts on the first day of his trip in Xian. “I’m simply letting you know that by definition these roads can only be realized together and not as a one-way street.”

French officials said this was an example of Mr. Macron’s double–edged China policy: on the one hand, Europe should see China’s strength as a big opportunity, but at the same time insist on transparency and clear rules going forward.

Cui Hongjian, director of the European Institute at the China Center for International Studies, a foreign ministry think tank, brushed off Mr. Macron’s warning on the Silk Road and noted that France needed Chinese investment, too, if it hoped to reform its economy.

Mr. Cui told Handelsblatt that the Chinese hoped that the pragmatic Mr. Macron will push the EU to be for “free market access and against protectionism.”

He said that China and France would work together on such issues as the Paris Climate Accord because other countries are using nuclear power to replace the us coal as a way of cleaning up the environment. Mr. Macron, in fact, singled out China on the Paris Accord, saying that “without China’s involvement, there would be no agreement.”

But the Chinese have been cool to the idea of dealing with Europe as a bloc.  “Beiijing will always choose the kind of relationship that benefits us most,” Mr. Cui said. He added that the country doesn’t avoid multilateral agreements, but said “if bilateral relations are more effective , then they will be preferred.”

Like the Germans, Mr. Macron couldn’t resist signing a few deals while in China. Airbus is expected to conclude a $10 billion sale of aircraft to Chinese airlines and French retirement home builder Orpea is expected to sign a deal to build retirement homes for the Chinese, who have a rapidly aging population.

Thomas Hanke is Handelsblatt’s Paris correspondent and Sha Hua is a correspondent for Handelsblatt in Beijing. This article was adapted into English by Charles Wallace, an editor for Handelsblatt Gloabl in New York. To contact the authors: hanke@handelsblatt.com and Sha@handelsblatt.com.

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