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2nd Mar 2024

France takes Chinese billions despite EU concerns

  • The French and Chinese leaders ate dinner with their wives, prior to announcing business deals in Paris (Photo: elysee.fr)

France has signed €40bn of business deals with China, despite concerns on strategic investment and human rights abuse.

The bulk of the new deals, worth €30bn, were in the form of 300 airplanes to be sold by European firm Airbus to China Aviation Supplies Holding Company, while the rest covered energy, transport, and food.

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French president Emmanuel Macron and Chinese president Xi Jinping announced the moves at a bilateral meeting in France on Monday (25 March).

They will meet again in an enlarged format with German chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker also in France on Tuesday.

Xi is in Paris after having earlier gone to Rome to sign a memo on Italy's participation in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - a vast scheme for Chinese investment in European infrastructure projects, among others.

He said alongside Macron in the Elysee palace in Paris that "French investors are welcome to share development opportunities in China".

"I also hope that Chinese companies can do better in France and make a greater contribution to its economic and social development", he added.

"We want our development to benefit others and that's the case with the BRI," he said.

The wave of Chinese investment, which had so far focused on poorer central European states, has raised alarm in Europe that China's acquisition of sensitive assets, such as commercial ports, or involvement in high-end IT projects, such as 5G telecoms networks, posed strategic, intellectual property, and security threats to the EU.

"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," German foreign minister Heiko Maas warned on Sunday.

Gunther Oettinger, Germany's EU commissioner, also voiced concern the same day that, soon, "in Italy and other European countries, infrastructure of strategic importance like power networks, rapid rail lines or harbours [will] no longer be in European, but in Chinese hands".

Macron himself, speaking on Monday, said he had invited Merkel and Juncker precisely to address those fears by creating a common EU front.

"Europe must be united and have a coherent message. That's what we are doing on strategic investments," he said.

"Beyond the bilateral relationship, we have placed at the centre of our discussions the question of the partnership between China and Europe," he added.

Xi's visit to Paris was marked by protests against China's mass imprisonments of its Muslim Uighur minority and of its oppression of Tibet.

Grace Meng, the wife of Meng Hongwei, a reformist Chinese official who was president of Interpol, the international police agency based in France, until he vanished while on a trip to China last year amid bribery allegations, also spoke out.

"I hope the president [Macron] can help Mr Meng and his family, to protect our fundamental human rights," she told French media.

"They [Chinese authorities] have no bottom line. Even if I am in France, they want to kidnap me and my children," she warned.

The French and Chinese leaders, who also held a private dinner with their wives on Sunday, nodded to the protests.

Values?

"China will always back cooperation and development with Europe, which falls in line with our multilateral values," Xi said at the Elysee on Monday.

"The European Union is based on respect for individual freedoms and fundamental rights," Macron said.

"That's why France brings up this issue in its dialogue with China - to express concerns that are ours and those of Europe on the question of respecting fundamental rights in China," he added.

They did not take questions from press on the potentially prickly issues, however.

The aviation firm at the centre of the new deal, Airbus, was even more deaf to mention of values.

"We are honoured to support the growth of China's civil aviation with our leading aircraft families - single-aisle and wide-bodies," Airbus' commercial aircraft president and its new CEO-in-waiting, Guillaume Faury, said.

Barriers to fall

Top EU officials and China will meet at a subsequent summit in Brussels on 9 April.

A draft summit communique, seen by the Reuters news agency, called for the removal of market access barriers on both sides to stimulate further investment despite the strategic concerns.

China and the EU will "agree by summer 2019 on a set of priority market access barriers and requirements facing their operators," the draft statement said.

The two sides would set "deadlines for their swift removal by the next EU-China summit in 2020 at the latest", it added.

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