French President Emmanuel Macron has kicked off his three-day state visit to China by attempting to calm rising tensions between Beijing and the West.
In a conciliatory opening speech, Macron claimed that Europe should not "disconnect" itself from China and suggested that Beijing has an "important role" to play in ending Russia's war in Ukraine.
"More and more, we are hearing voices of great concern about the future of relations between the West and China, to conclude that there is an inescapable spiral of growing tensions," Macron said at a meeting of the French community in Beijing on Wednesday. "I don't want to believe in that scenario."
Macron, who is accompanied by more than fifty French business leaders on his trip, also predicted that "important contracts" would be signed during his visit. "We must not disconnect, not separate from China, but continue to have a trade relationship with China."
'An important role' in Ukraine
During his speech, the French leader emphasised the importance of "firmly defending" the key principles of the UN Charter violated by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February. However, he was also careful to highlight China's potentially constructive role in ending the conflict.
"Precisely because of its close relationship with Russia, China can play an important role [in finding] a path to peace," Macron said.
Last February, China issued a 12-point peace plan for ending the war. The proposal was largely dismissed by Western leaders for its failure to explicitly condemn Russia's invasion. Macron, although also rejecting the plan, nevertheless offered some limited praise for it.
"Do we agree with everything in [China's plan]?" Macron said. "No. However, it shows… a willingness to play a responsible role and try to build a pathway to peace."
Macron's trip, his first to Beijing since 2019, comes at a time of increasing tensions between Beijing and Brussels — relations which were arguably further strained last week by a highly critical speech by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is shortly set to join Macron in Beijing.
"Far from being put off by the atrocious and illegal invasion of Ukraine, President Xi Jinping is maintaining his 'no-limits friendship' with Russian President Vladimir Putin," von der Leyen said in Brussels last Thursday.
"How China continues to interact with Putin's war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward," she added.
The Commission President also criticised China's "more assertive stance in its own neighbourhood", and suggested that such "escalatory actions" form part of a larger plan by President Xi, who "essentially wants China to become the world's most powerful nation."
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The EU chief concluded by suggesting that the EU needs to "rebalance" its relationship with Beijing, which is "increasingly affected by distortions created by China's state capitalist system."
In particular, she alluded to the fact that the EU is heavily dependent upon China for several key rare earths, including 93% of its magnesium and 97% of its lithium. She noted that the Commission's recently proposed Critical Raw Materials Act was designed specifically to "diversify and secure" the bloc's supply of such materials.