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Sino-French Relations: Sailing in Choppy Waters

07 Oct 2020
By Jelvin Jose
ROCN Kang Ding (PFG-1202) Shipped at Zuoying Naval Base

Paris and Beijing want to enjoy the fruits of economic cooperation. However, stark variations in worldview, political standpoints, and global values give rise to diplomatic strife and conflicts of interests.

The resolution demanding a fair probe into the COVID-19 outburst at the WHO council, backed by over 122 nations, denoted a black day in the history of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) international engagements. France has been at the forefront of the campaign, censuring PRC for its alleged mishandling of the virus. French President Emmanuel Macron himself stepped into a confrontation with Beijing, blaming it for the virus mismanagement.

Besides this, Paris has extended unflinching support to New Delhi in the border standoff with Beijing. Concomitantly, Beijing and Paris have once again locked horns over French defence supply to Taiwan. Apart from the mutual engagement, several regional and international politico-strategic developments take centre stage while interpreting Sino-French relations’ ongoing trajectory. A multitude of determinants, including the ideological standpoints, global vision, value sets, strategic alignments, and economic interaction, assume new criticality concerning the interaction between both nations.  The scope and future of the Sino-French relations necessitate a renewed appraisal against the backdrop of this unfolding scenario.

Sino-French Engagements

Historical relations between France and China date back to the late 17th century between the Kangxi Emperor and King Louis XIV. Formal diplomatic relations were established between China and France on 27 January 1964.

Strategic dialogue between Paris and Beijing was launched in 2001, and issues such as climate change, regional developments, and global governance were addressed. Following this, in 2004, the mutual connection was elevated to a “Global Strategic Partnership.” On similar lines, the High Level Economic and Financial Dialogue commenced in 2013 to discuss economic concerns. In 2017, France and PRC entered an extra bilateral mechanism called the High-Level Dialogue on Human Exchanges to advance their cultural and scientific partnership.

Former French President Francois Hollande undertook his maiden visit to China in November 2013. During this visit, China Aviation Supplies Holding Company clinched a deal for the purchase of 18 A330 aircraft and 42 A320 aircraft from Airbus. Hollande and Xi Jinping inked 18 exchanges for mutual collaboration, and the state-owned French energy giant EDF joined hands with China General Nuclear Power Group to execute the UK’s Hinkley Nuclear power project in 2016.

In November 2015, Hollande arrived in Beijing for his second official bilateral visit, a few months ahead of the critical Paris Climate Treaty. The French president solicited Beijing’s support, the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, for the realisation of the global climate endeavour. Chinese leaders responded positively to Hollande’s call for action. Later, Macron, during his 2019 trip to China, joined hands with Beijing to stand up against Washington’s stance on the Paris Climate Treaty and open trade. Delivering a speech at the China International Import Expo held in Shanghai, Macron declared that no one wins a trade war, while also criticising Chinese protectionist measures.

Paris and Beijing have signed 40 agreements worth US$15 billion embracing the trade, tourism, health, aviation, energy, and digital technology sectors. President Macron scored a substantial diplomatic triumph, striking a $34 billion contract for Airbus to supply of 300 aircraft for the Chinese aviation sector. Other than these, China and France have undertaken joint research and development enterprises in the aerospace and infectious diseases sectors.

Bilateral trade was valued at $11.5 billion in 2000. Now, it exceeds $62 billion. The PRC is the seventh largest export destination of French goods and services. French exports hold 1.4 percent of the Chinese market share. In return, the PRC is the second most significant source of French imports. There is massive asymmetry in bilateral trade as the PRC owns a surplus of over $32 billion.

Irritants in the Relationship

China and France have divisive standpoints on various vital issues, though they collaborate on many fronts. Paris sold La Fayette-Class Frigates in 1991 and 60 Mirage 2000-5s in 1992 on request of the Republic of Taiwan. PRC authorities, who perceived this action as a severe violation of its territorial integrity, ordered the French Consulate in Guangzhou to shut down. The divide was mended after French authorities committed to restricting their defence corporations from providing weapons to Taiwan in 1994.

However, the row over weapon supply has re-emerged in the current environment, as Paris has decided to go ahead with plans to assist Taiwan in refurbishing the missile interference systems on the French vessels which it procured in 1991. As per the new deal, Taiwan would procure the DAGAIE missile defence system for $26.8 million from the French defence firm DCI-DESCO. Beijing has already articulated its dissent, saying this is a breach of the One-China Principle, to which agreement is a primary condition for sustaining diplomatic ties with the PRC. Despite this, Paris has clarified its unwillingness to step down, stating that it is only fulfilling contractual obligations with Taiwan.

In October 2019, during President Macron’s Beijing trip, Paris criticised the suppression of Hong Kong demonstrations. Beijing gave a harsh response to the EU and the French statement, terming it “hypocritical.” At the same time, it must be noted that Macron, who raised concern over Beijing’s behaviour towards Hong Kong protests, exercised silence on the human rights breaches in China’s Xinjiang territory during his visit. Nevertheless, in July 2020, France called for a UN mission to inquire into alleged human rights infringement in China’s Xinjiang province.

In July 2020, as per the ANSSI report, instead of banning Huawei altogether, the French authorities are compelling telecom players to avoid using the Huawei gear. The decision comes out in contrast with the UK and Australian decision to completely ban the Chinese firm.

In August, Paris scrapped the extradition treaty inked with Hong Kong in 2017, on grounds of the new repressive National Security Law. This action is in contrast to an extradition treaty with China signed in 2015, for which France was at odds with other Western countries which were hesitant to ink an extradition pact with Beijing.

The true backbone of the Sino-French bilateral relationship is economic cooperation and engagement. To date, the cultural dimension of the bilateral exchange remains widely underexplored. Despite their distinct political alignments and divergent global visions, Paris and Beijing do want to enjoy the fruits of economic collaboration. While Paris does not want to engage in an all-out battle with Beijing, stark variations in worldview, political standpoints, and global values between both nations give rise to diplomatic strife and conflict of interests.

France’s stance towards Hong Kong and the Xinjiang province is a growing irritant in their bilateral ties. The Taiwan-France strategic relationship is a violation of Beijing’s fundamental policy frameworks. Moreover, the political and strategic alignments of both countries largely divaricate from each other. France’s growing defence cooperation with New Delhi and Taiwan is in opposition to PRC’s regional interests. These strategic and ideological contradictions hinder the scope of the Sino-French partnership beyond a particular limit.

Jelvin Jose is an intern at National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), India. He has previously published articles at The Geopolitics and NIICE, Nepal. 

This is an edited version of an article originally published in NIICE on 11 August 2020.