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China-France cooperation: Jointly ushering in a new era

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Chinese President Xi Jinping on May 6 delivered a speech at the closing ceremony of the Sixth Meeting of the China-France Business Council with the theme of “Building on Past Achievements to Jointly Usher in a New Era in China-France Cooperation.”

He stressed that China is willing to engage in close, comprehensive communication and cooperation with France, to elevate bilateral relations to a higher level and achieve greater accomplishments.

Since France’s recognition of China on January 27, 1964, relations between the two sides have generally been stable and growing steadily, raising the level of the “global strategic partnership” since 2004.

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From a strategic perspective, the two countries have been engaged in a strategic dialogue that began in 2001, covering all areas of cooperation, including reforming global governance, climate change and regional crises. In contrast to the U.S., whose approach toward China is deliberately offensive, and which expects its allies to do so, Paris follows an independent foreign policy and is pursuing an economic and strategic alignment with Beijing.

As President Xi said “as one of the earliest participants in China’s reform and opening-up, France has contributed to China’s modernization drive and benefited from it. Deeper friendship calls for frequent exchanges and closer cooperation.” France is China’s third largest trading partner and China is the third largest source of real investment in the European Union (EU). France is China’s largest trading partner in Asia and seventh largest in the world.

China and France have reached several economic and financial agreements. For instance, at the ninth China-France High-Level Economic and Financial Dialogue in July of 2023, they agreed to adopt a joint approach on multilateral and global challenges and accelerate international economic recovery, reaffirmed their willingness to push quality and sustainable infrastructure investment and made a commitment to advance cooperation on climate change, biodiversity conservation, multilateralism and facilitating bilateral trade, among others.

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In defiance of the U.S.-led decoupling strategy, France has been looking to strengthen relations with China. During his visit to Beijing in April, French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne clearly expressed the French desire not to decouple from China, seeking to rebalance the economic partnership, echoing French President Emmanuel Macron’s stance last April that warned Europe of reducing trade and diplomatic ties with the world’s second largest economy, seen as denunciation of decoupling as a trap.

Macron is very much vocal in his criticism of the U.S. and his support of European strategic autonomy. Washington “has two priorities. The U.S. first, and that is legitimate, and the China issue, second. And the European issue is not a geopolitical priority for the coming years and decades,” he said, reiterating his call that the EU should never be a “vassal” of the U.S.

This is precisely the view most Europeans share. A multi-country poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations last year found that 74 percent of Europeans wanted to see the bloc less dependent on America’s security guarantees and become self-reliant in foreign policy. Contrary to the EU de-risking approach, Europeans were reluctant to “de-risk” or decouple from China too.

The Elysée Palace seeks to slash its trade deficit with Beijing; and the gap is gradually narrowing as China’s imports from France, as reported by Chinese customs, increased 5.5 percent in 2023. China’s imports of French agricultural products for 2023 jumped 50.5 percent from 2019; and its consumer goods imports from Paris grew 12.3 percent annually over the last five years.

More and more French companies see China as a lucrative market as the Chinese government continues to address their concerns. Surveys showed profits of over half of the firms either increased or stabilized, and they were expecting better results in 2024 given they were optimistic about Beijing’s economic growth in the next three years.

China – estimated to account for a quarter, nearly a third and around two-fifths of global cloth sales, jewelry and handbags, and cars respectively, as well as the largest market for machine tools and chemicals – is a big market of 1.4 billion people. Not only large but mid-sized and small and medium enterprises too have succeeded in China and there is great potential for them to capitalize on the country’s new economic priorities and growing middle class and excel in areas such as consumer goods, agri-food, beauty and luxury products, health, innovative technologies and cultural and creative industries.

The China-France relationship has a long history with French companies getting involved very early on in iconic projects and with more than 2,000 operating in China.

France’s cultural and educational network across China and celebration of 2024 as the China-France Year of Cultural Tourism will solidify the relationship and people-to-people exchanges.

As two countries commemorate the 60th anniversary of their diplomatic ties, President Xi’s visit to Paris, supplemented by a compelling chemistry between the two leaders, will inject far more impetus to the bilateral relationship.

By addressing rare differences, deepening existing and exploring new avenues of cooperation, a solid Beijing-Paris strategic partnership could also help de-risk the world from intense economic and security challenges and give a new vision of a peaceful, multilateral and economically rising world.

Azhar Azam, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, works in a private organization as a market and business analyst and writes about geopolitical issues and regional conflicts. The article reflects the author’s opinions and not necessarily those of CGTN.

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