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GUANGZHOU — France and China have reached an agreement to work together to deepen military dialogue, at a time of heightened tensions between Beijing and the West.
As his trip to China drew to an end, Emmanuel Macron issued a joint statement with Chinese leader Xi Jinping calling for peace in Ukraine.
The 51-point document — which also touched on space, trade, aviation and climate — set out the two countries’ intention to shore up “mutual political trust” and “promote global security.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided a fraught backdrop for Macron’s landmark mission to China. In recent months there’s been growing Western pressure on Xi to distance itself from Vladimir Putin, to little avail. At the same time, Beijing has voiced dismay at what it sees as Western meddling in the status of Taiwan and unfair persecution of Chinese businesses.
According to Friday’s joint statement, the Southern Theater of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army — chiefly responsible for the South China Sea — will “deepen the dialogue” with Asia-Pacific command of the French forces.
An Elysée official however downplayed the extent of future cooperation between the Chinese and the French forces saying it would be limited to promoting “the respect the law of the sea”.
“We have a navy that patrols the region, the Pacific Ocean and the South China sea … It means ships passing, which need to respect the law of the sea, to respect borders but also freedom of navigation. That’s what we mean,” said the official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
On Ukraine, the statement said: “Both sides support all efforts to restore peace in Ukraine on the basis of international law and the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter.” The joint statement also said the two countries “call in particular women and children, victims of the conflict”, an addition that the French interpret as an indication that China condemns the deportations of Ukrainian children.
However, there were no concrete Chinese commitments on Ukraine, whether on preparing peace talks, talking to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy or using China’s influence on Russia.
“It’s all those things that need to be detailed,” said the same official.
The statement called on Russia to ensure the safety of Ukraine’s nuclear facilities. China and France “oppose armed attacks on nuclear power plants and other peaceful nuclear facilities” and support the International Atomic Energy Agency in ensuring “the safety and security of the Zaporizhzhia plant,” the statement said.
They also urged “all parties to the conflict” to “scrupulously observe international humanitarian law.”
While such calls are largely in line with China’s policy, the fact that Xi agreed to a joint statement individually with France on these points illustrated its concerns over the trajectory of Russia’s war.
However, the statement did not mention Russia by name, underlining Beijing’s refusal to publicly criticize its strongest diplomatic ally in the world.
In a later statement, the Chinese government said Xi told Macron a ceasefire was needed in Ukraine. “The Ukraine crisis has complex causes. Its continuation is not beneficial to any party. A ceasefire and cessation of the warfare as soon as possible would be consistent with the interests of all parties and the whole world,” Xi told Macron, according to Xinhua. “We’d welcome France presenting concrete proposals on a political resolution of the crisis. China would be willing to support it, and is willing to play a constructive role.”
Tea for two
On the third day of Macron’s state visit to China, the two leaders spent three hours in talks about Ukraine, Taiwan, and relations with the U.S. in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, according to an official from the Elysée who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Macron and Xi visited the residence of the Guangdong, where Xi’s father lived for several years, before sitting down for tea at a terrace overlooking a lake.
The two leaders exchanged small talk on local Chinese governance, and travel during the COVID-19 pandemic with Macron asking most of the questions and Xi expounding on his visits to China’s different provinces.
While the French leave China with no tangible foreign policy deliverables, the same Elysée official quoted earlier said the French president’s “objective had been fulfilled”.
“The conversation was long, Xi thanked Macron and said he says things more clearly … Now we can start working on a pathway out of the crisis,” the official said.
Earlier Macron also met a large group of students from a university. He asked the students not to let ideologies stand in their way of pursuing critical thinking in China.
This is the first time since the pandemic that Xi has accompanied a visiting leader outside of the capital Beijing.
Clea Caulcutt reported from Guangzhou, Stuart Lau reported from Brussels. This article has been updated with more detail and context.