The Palais Garnier, much better known as the Opera Garnier, is one of the most beautiful and highly sophisticated Parisian monuments. It was built in 1875 and it’s a real masterpiece of eclectic architecture that inspires me a lot. I like it so much, that I organize often my appointments in the cafés around it. This is exactly what was supposed to happen a few days ago. But once the metro arrived in the Opéra Station, I had a bad surprise. The station was closed for security reasons, because of the visit of the Chinese president in Paris. I just put the blame on me for not checking it in advance. I should have fixed my appointment in another place. Finally, I was just ten minutes late, which is no big deal in Paris.
I had already read an article about the same kind of security measured taken in Nice, in the French Riviera the day before, exactly for the same reason. As a result, Yellow Vest protestors were not happy because their demonstration was also banned by the mayor, who wanted to preserve Nice as beautiful as usual, for a special reason. Because the arrival the next day in Nice of Xi Jinping, just in the beginning of the 2019 touristic season. Tourism is the first economic sector in the French Riviera. Thus, everything should be perfect in the presence of a foreign leader, and of many international media.
One way or another, when a Chinese president visits France it is always a very important matter. Above all for historical reasons. Contemporary French Chinese relations started on January 27, 1964, when General de Gaulle took a quite risky decision. He recognized the People’s Republic of China. Despite that since 1949, China was considered as not a friendly country by Western Allies. Fifty years later, I was really surprised when Chinese students in Paris had a toast “for de Gaulle”! This indicates of how much they appreciate their own history and they are proud of it. So French-Chinese political ties are quite strong, and only this could be enough for justifying Xi Jinping’s trip to France. However, this time the real reasons were much more important than in the past. Something had changed since the last time. More precisely, in my opinion, two main things.
On the one hand, the Chinese-American relations seem to be more and more complicated now. American president’s Donald Trump new dogma “no real deal, or no deal at all” is putting long-standing checks and balances between Washington and Beijing at stake. Even though the US commercial deficit with China is US$323.3 billion, which is 17.2% more than in 2017; and on January 2019, US$ 1.13 trillion national debt is owned by China. This looks strange, because Chinese-American economic ties seem stronger than ever before. But everything relies on politics.
Of course, it was commonly known, even before the last American presidential election, that Donald Trump was defending some kind of protectionism. And once elected he showed clearly that he was ready even to start trade and tariffs wars with almost everybody, including some of the US closest allies. With his “America first” policy he believes that in such a way he is defending of American jobs against globalization. And he is ready to take the risk, no matter the consequences.
As a result, since the beginning of his mandate he pleads for better trade deals with the rest of the world, considering that the USA are not treated in a fair way. So, it was just a matter of time until China was found on the bulls ’eye and a real trade war started. In response to Trump’s metal tariffs for steel and aluminum targeting China, Beijing’s imported of US soybeans stopped last November, and they were replaced by the Brazilian ones.
And things could get even worse, at least in the short term, even though Donald Trump predicts an epic trade deal within the four next weeks. However, the truth is that he is always quite unpredictable. And one of business’ golden rules is that everything relies on psychology and positive thinking. People, buy and invest when they feel safe and when there is political stability. Not when everything can change from one day to another.
Thus, from a realistic point of view, XI Jinping’s top priority now is to build stronger economic ties with someone else! After all, the EU is a huge market of 400 million consumers, with a GDP of approx. US$ 19 trillion, and where 20% of Chinese goods are exported. This could probably explain his visit to France now. Where he met not only the French president Emmanuel Macron, but also the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel as well as the president of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Junker during the official diner at the Elysée Palace in Paris. And, without any doubt, Chinese-EU trade negotiations style seem much more different than the Chinese-US one! At least from a cultural and behavioral point of view.
On the other hand, one thing should not be underestimated. Xi Jinping’s visit in France started at Monaco! Of course, this tiny principality, situated 13 miles from Nice, in the French Riviera, is the second smallest independent state in the world, with a surface of just 2 square kilometers. And as almost one thousand years ago, it is ruled by a prince (in fact, Monaco is a constitutional monarchy), and over 30% of its population are millionaires who appreciate calm, security, and the Mediterranean climate! Monaco is not only one of the most glamorous places in the world, but also F1 Grand Prix rally takes place once a year, attracting many VIPs.
However, Xi Jinping top priority over there was neither the famous casino, nor a gastronomic restaurant, but for a high-tech matter. The Chinese giant, Huawei will be in charge for the 5G Smart Nation project in Monaco. This is excellent news. Especially because Huawei’s equipment is banned in the USA, considered by the officials as a security threat. Even worse, the company’s Chief Financial Officer, Meng Wanzhou, who is Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei’s daughter, has been arrested in Canada, on December 1st, 2018, and faces extradition to United States. Huawei retaliated by suing the US government about the ban and provoked a diplomatic incident between Washington and Beijing. As a result, Monaco’s green light for Huawei’s 5G could be an excellent opportunity for proving its efficiency in a small, but very prestigious European market, despite of the US opposition.
From a more global point of view, visiting Monaco and Paris, is just a part of China’s trillion US$ Belt and Road Initiative. Which is of vital importance for Beijing’s economy for the years to come. For a European like me, my perception of world’s geography is quite different from a Chinese one. I still remember spending time during my Master, by studying Chinese maps, which presented the globe in a completely different way than the one I was used to. In the same time, we should never forget of the impact of the 2008 subprime crisis on the Chinese economy. For the first time after many years, there was a slowdown in Chinese exports in Europe. This could be perceived by Beijing as a potential risk that should be taken into consideration very seriously. This means that the Chinese presence in Europe should be stronger in the future.
This could explain the choice of the Chinese COSCO Shipping to pay US$ 1 billion for the Greek port of Piraeus in Greece and to invest more and more money in order to transform it into China’s gate to Europe. As well as the strong Chinese interest for Trieste, a cosmopolitan Italian port situated at the Adriatic Sea. However, Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Rome raised some sceptic voices in Europe. For the ones, China could be seen as some kind of potential threat; for the others, the EU should apply some kind of protectionism, in order to better defend its own interests.
But, in my opinion, in a more and more globalized world, China’s integration in the international trade is very important. Above all for geopolitical reasons. A fully economically integrated China could be more opened to a moderate foreign policy and dialogue. Especially because Beijing’s number one geopolitical goal is to stop being landlocked. And this is already dominating the geopolitical landscape of East Asia. Also leading to a competition with the USA and their allies, within the decades to come. But as the EU project has already showed since 1950, building strong economic ties between different countries (including former rivals, such as France and Germany) was proved to be the best way to neutralize any kind of temptation for a new military conflict. There is no doubt that this explains why, after being the theatre of endless wars for centuries, western Europe remain pacific since WWII. So it might be exactly same in East Asia by China’s contribution of the peace and prosperity for a long period of time.
Back to Paris, this visit was another opportunity for a demonstration of the famous French culinary diplomacy. Firstly, to the ancient greek style villa Kerylos at Beaulieu sur Mer (population 3,700), situated on the Mediterranean coast of France, approximately just 5.5 miles from Nice. On March 24, the French president Emmanuel Macron had an official diner there with the Chinese president Xi Jinping. In my opinion, the choice was made very carefully in order to underline France’s deep Mediterranean roots. Personally speaking, a few years ago, I saw the most beautiful sunrise in my life at Beaulieu sur Mer. So, I think that it was a very good choice to invite such an important foreign leader in such a beautiful place.
After the diner, Xi Jinping spent the night in a famous hotel in Nice and he even slept in his own bed which was brought by airplane from China. And, of course, there were some quite interesting commentaries about that in the French media, with a little bit of humor.
Secondly, the day after, at the official diner in the Elysée palace, some French movie stars and singers, who are well known in China were also invited. As well as French businessmen as CEOs of big French companies doing business in China. Many business contracts were signed, confirming the strong economic ties between Paris and Beijing. For France, the Chinese market is a strategic goal, and this was confirmed for another time. Not only because Chinese appreciate a lot of French wines, but also for luxury products and industrial ones.
In terms of French politics, Xi Jinping’s visitation gave a golden opportunity to president Macron to take some distance from his everyday occupations such as the Yellow Vests crisis, which seems to arrive at its end (only 22.000 people demonstrated on April 7, 2019 all over France). But also, because foreign policy is a matter in which there is almost always a very consensual approach among, French politicians, business elites and media, in the name of the national interest. For example, on 2013, the former Conservative Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin (from 2002 to 2005) was invited by the Socialist French president François Hollande (2012-2017) in his trip to China. After all, Raffarin has a very deep knowledge about China, a country he visited for the first time in 1971 and he goes there five-six times per year. This made him a big asset for the French official delegation, above all kind of political parties’ cleavages and rivalries.
Finally, it is always nice for a French president like Emmanuel Macron to announce for example that China Aviation Supplies Holding Company buys 300 airplanes, or that CMA-CGM signed a contract with China State Shipping Corporation for building ten new ships. All this are good news just a few weeks before the next European elections, which will be the first ones after Emmanuel Macron’s election in 2017. Winning them could be the first step for his reelection in 2022. Even though French politics are always so unpredictable!