Xi, in France, offers few concessions on trade, support for Russia

LONDON — Chinese President Xi Jinping offered few concessions to his counterpart and host Emmanuel Macron as he wrapped up a two-day visit to France on Tuesday evening. Both presidents are seeking to mend ties on Xi’s first trip to Europe in five years, after relations were soured by trade disputes and Beijing’s support for Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.

Macron invited Xi high into the Pyrenees Mountains, the home region of the French president’s maternal grandmother. Beneath snowy peaks shrouded in fog, the two leaders and their wives watched traditional dancers before dining on locally produced ham, lamb, cheese and blueberry pie.

French officials said the mountain trip on Tuesday would provide a chance for less- formal one-on-one discussions after the pomp and ceremony of Xi’s official state welcome in Paris on Monday.

Relations have worsened significantly since Xi last visited the region in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic. Europe accuses Beijing of subsidizing industries that are undercutting its own companies in areas such as electric vehicles — but Macron told his Chinese guests that the European Union is not seeking to cut economic ties.

“Our shared objective is to continue our relationship,” Macron told delegates Monday at the Franco-Chinese Business Council in Paris. “There is no logic in decoupling from China. It’s a desire to preserve our national security, just as you do for your own. It’s a desire for mutual respect and understanding, and a desire to continue to open up trade, but to ensure that it is fully fair at all times, whether in terms of tariffs, aid or access to markets.”

WATCH: While visiting France, Xi offers few concessions over trade, Russia

China’s response

Xi made no immediate concessions, said analyst Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies.

“Xi Jinping does not feel that China has an overcapacity issue. And he feels that the European position on Chinese EVs, for example, is unreasonable. But then of course he is also trying to engage with the French and potentially having a leading Chinese car manufacturer setting up facilities in France, as a kind of incentive to persuade that maybe it’s in France’s interest to engage with China and welcome Chinese EVs,” Tsang told VOA.

The trade relationship is tilted in Beijing’s favor, according to Nicholas Bequelin, a senior fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.

China “has a major export economy towards Europe. The trade deficit in Europe is huge and growing. The de-risking or anti-subsidy policies that the European Union wants to put in place will take a lot of time — and because they affect the different countries in the European Union differently, it is very difficult to get to an agreement,” Bequelin said.

Russia threat

Europe faces the more pressing security threat of Russia, as the Kremlin’s forces slowly advance in eastern Ukraine. China has given Moscow diplomatic and economic support, despite Western appeals for Beijing to help end the illegal invasion.

Xi declared a “no limits” partnership when Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Beijing in February 2022, just days before the Kremlin’s tanks rolled across the Ukrainian frontier.

A recent U.S. assessment concluded that China is providing vital components such as machine tools and microelectronics that Russia is using to make weapons. Last year, trade between China and Russia hit a record $240 billion.

Speaking in Paris Monday, Xi rejected European accusations that China was aiding Russia’s war.

“China is neither the creator of the crisis, nor a party, a participant of the war. However, we didn’t just watch the fire burning across the river but have been playing an active role in achieving peace,” Xi told reporters.

Europe’s message

China’s claim is demonstrably false — and European leaders must take a tougher line, said analyst Igor Merheim-Eyre, a policy adviser at the European Parliament and research fellow at the University of Kent.

“We’ve already had [German] Chancellor Olaf Scholz, we’ve had Macron, we’ve had Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, we have [EU Commission] President [Ursula] von der Leyen, all making trips to Beijing and repeating the same message: that China should not be supporting Russia in its aggression against Ukraine. And in those two years, I see no change,” Merheim-Eyre told VOA.

“What they’ve really failed at is spelling out to Xi Jinping what will be the cost of China supporting Russia’s war of aggression — which it clearly is. I mean if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t already have four Chinese companies on the EU sanction list. And the circumventions are much broader than that,” he said.

Costs for China

Europe should make the costs clear, said analyst Tsang, because China’s “policy has always been one of declaring neutrality, supporting Putin and refusing to pay a price for that.”

Sanctioning Chinese companies that are supplying Russia’s military would likely be effective, he said. “For Xi Jinping, the important thing is that he stays in power, and that means he has to keep the Chinese economy on an even keel. Supporting Putin is a desirable thing — but fundamentally staying in power overrides the aspirational goal of undermining U.S. global preeminence and leadership.” Tsang said.

“Shared interest”

Von der Leyen on Monday urged Beijing to help end the war. “We agree that Europe and China have a shared interest in peace and security. We count on China to use all its influence on Russia to end Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” she said in a recorded video address.

But European leaders should be more realistic about Beijing’s ambitions, argued analyst Merheim-Eyre.

“I’m looking at my world map, and I’m trying to see where exactly this common interest lies. Because wherever I look, from Africa to the South China Sea to Ukraine, China is playing a destructive role, and I do not see common areas of interest in these matters.”

After visiting France, Xi was headed Tuesday for Serbia, a key Balkan partner in Beijing’s Belt and Road investment program. On Wednesday, Xi is due to travel to Hungary, his closest European ally and a longtime thorn in the side of EU unity on Russia and China policy.

VOA’s Mandarin Service contributed to this story.

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