French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave after a press conference in Beijing. Photo: Reuters / Charles Platiau
French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave after a press conference in Beijing. Photo: Reuters / Charles Platiau

On Wednesday, President Emmanuel Macron of France wrapped up a three-day state visit to China aimed at improving ties between Europe and the Asian giant, with no apparent breakthrough.

The French leader tried to put himself forward as the standard-bearer of the “great rejuvenation of Sino-European cooperation” – paraphrasing one of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s maxims, his dream for “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” But he likely failed in his bid.

Despite all the diplomatic trimmings and a rather flattering approach, Macron actually offered his Chinese counterpart little prospect for progress in relations. His finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, reaffirmed during the trip that Paris would scrutinize Chinese investments in an attempt to protect France’s high-tech sector. More important, the French president delivered remarks on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that could not but cause uneasiness in Beijing.

Sino-European routes

Macron said France was ready to join the BRI, Xi’s signature project designed to connect East Asia with Europe and Africa through a string of land- and sea-based infrastructures. He also presented his country as a possible driver of Belt and Road in Europe.

China’s grandiose plan is a divisive issue within the European Union. Major EU countries are basically wary of Beijing’s intentions, while smaller members are eager to see Chinese funds and investments flow in their economies.

However, Macron reminded his interlocutors that the ancient Silk Road was never only Chinese, but a Sino-European trade route. He pointed out that, by definition, New Silk Roads could not be “one-way.” This meant he and other EU leaders expected to cooperate with China on an equal basis in their development, and according to a principle of reciprocity.

The European bloc has always maintained that BRI transport links will have to be set up in accordance with international standards for financing, environmental protection, labor conditions and tendering procedures. The problem is that the EU and China have different rules as far as their development policy is concerned.

Fears of China’s neocolonial expansion

In a speech in Xian, the eastern end of the ancient Silk Road, Macron harked back to the French colonial experience in Africa to urge the Asian powerhouse not to turn the BRI framework into a new form of hegemony. In his view, host countries along modern-day Silk Roads must not become China’s vassals, but active partners in their realization.

Macron’s argument reflects widespread fears that China’s BRI strategy is nothing but a modern version of the ancient Chinese tributary system. Beijing’s debt-trap diplomacy is seen as the staple of this neocolonial architecture, with the Chinese government using development loans to gain control of poor countries’ natural resources and infrastructure.

This vision rejects the idea that Chinese help to struggling nations comes with no strings attached. China’s borrowers, or “tributary states,” are indeed forced to align with its policies, recognize its trade and investment standards and, if insolvent, agree to debt-for-equity swaps.

Even Pakistan, a traditional friend of Beijing, has started questioning Chinese terms under the BRI project. Last November, a Pakistani official was quoted as saying by local media that his government would block China’s plan to build a hydropower dam in the north of the country. Muzammil Hussain, chairman of Pakistan’s Water and Power Development Authority, emphasized that Chinese conditions for financing were not doable and were against Pakistan’s interests.

In the Western camp, Australia has come out with similar accusations. Denouncing China’s funding of “white elephant” infrastructure in Pacific island nations, Australian International Development Minister Concetta Fierravanti-Wells said on Wednesday that Chinese financing in the area “often had less than favorable terms”, meaning that these Pacific countries risk handing over their sovereignty to Beijing if they do not repay their debt.

Macron expressed the same concept during his China tour, even if he put it in more general terms and in a more cryptic fashion than the Australian minister. The French president, like other EU leaders, does not want Xi’s “China Dream” to become the mere expansion of Chinese influence around the globe.

In this regard, it comes as no surprise that the European grouping is concerned about Beijing’s courting of EU member countries in Central and Eastern Europe through BRI loans and investments.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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