French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen arrive in Beijing this week for a visit France has framed as a high stakes chance to push China to do more for peace in Ukraine, but where European economic interests will also loom large.
Macron – who is traveling with a delegation of roughly 50 business leaders – will meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other top officials on Thursday, before a separate meeting with Xi and von der Leyen later that day, according to an Elysee source.
Macron landed in Beijing late Wednesday afternoon, it was not immediately clear when von der Leyen would arrive in the capital.
The three-day visit comes amid urgency in Europe to find a path to peace in Russia’s devastating war in Ukraine, and as European leaders grapple with how to navigate their relationship with Beijing – a top EU trade partner whose close ties with Moscow and aggressive foreign policy have made them increasingly wary.
For Beijing, the double-header diplomacy could offer a chance to mend that image, as it aims to reconnect with the world and revive its domestic economy following three years of damaging Covid restrictions.
But that may depend on its ability to make the right signals for Europe regarding its stance on the war.
Macron has for months telegraphed his view that China could play a role in resolving the conflict in Ukraine – and his intention to travel to Beijing to discuss how.
An Elysee source on Friday described Beijing as potentially one of the only countries able to have a “game changer effect” on the war, given its ties with Russia – and said a key aim of the visit was ultimately finding “a way to identify solutions” to end the war.
Both Macron and von der Leyen spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in recent days, with von der Leyen pledging after that Ukraine would be an “important topic” of meetings.
Macron also spoke with US President Joe Biden about the trip and their countries’ shared support of Ukraine in a Tuesday call.
The optics of the visit – which have played up a focus on driving peace in Ukraine, alongside navigating an important economic relationship with China – have appeared to draw skepticism from some quarters.
Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis urged caution in a series of comments on Twitter on Tuesday.
“We should remember that attempts to contain Russia by offering economic partnership failed. Putin was in fact emboldened by our flexibility, not persuaded. Similar tactics would also embolden China. Let’s not make the same mistake twice,” Landsbergis wrote, without directly mentioning the trip in his thread.
The trip comes less than a month after Xi made a three-day state visit to Moscow, where he and Russian President Vladimir Putin affirmed their countries’ alignment on a host of issues.
The Chinese leader has not spoken with Zelensky since the war began.
Ahead of Macron’s departure, the Elysee source referenced the gap between the European and Chinese positions on the war.
“The President will go to China, not to question the Chinese red lines – notably the refusal to condemn Russia – but to find a space to be able to carry initiatives that have a useful effect for the benefit of the Ukrainian population, and then create a way to identify a solution to this war in the medium term,” the source told reporters.
But it’s unclear whether such a goal can be achieved with Beijing – which may be unlikely to depart from a stance laid out in a proposal released earlier this year.
That “political solution” to the war was met with skepticism from European leaders, including von der Leyen, amid criticism that some proposals – like a ceasefire – favored Russia.
Past efforts from European leaders to better align with China against the conflict have also seen lukewarm results.
Xi and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz jointly condemned the threat or use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine during Scholz’s November visit to Beijing – a move analysts saw more as a statement already in line with Chinese policy than a diplomatic win for Germany.
On Monday China’s Foreign Ministry called Macron’s visit an opportunity to “plan and chart course for bilateral relations” with France, and said there would be an exchange of views on “major international” issues.
Xi will also play host while China eyes another key meeting – between Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, expected to take place Wednesday in California.
China last week threatened to “resolutely fight back” against the meeting, which it views as a violation of its sovereignty.
But a show of force, like the military exercises it unleashed around the self-governing island during a visit to Taiwan from then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year, are unlikely to sit well with Macron and von der Leyen.
Also in the mix are the extensive business interests extending between the two sides – and the challenges of navigating these as Europe has adopted a more cautious view on China – which the EU now classifies as a “systemic rival.”
Macron will be joined on the trip by the heads of some of France’s biggest companies, including aircraft manufacturer Airbus (EADSF), BNP Paribas, and L’Oreal, with some expected to finalize or even sign new deals during the trip.
The visit – amid a tense international landscape and after three years without state visits between the two sides – would enable France to “find new parameters for the bilateral relationship,” an Elysee source told reporters Friday.
That included in the economic arena, the source said, while referencing Macron’s efforts within the EU to counter what Europe has viewed as unfair economic practices from China.
Von der Leyen is not traveling with a business delegation, but will meet the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, according to a person familiar with her visit.
One question looming over the visiting leaders’ time in Beijing is how they will navigate economic interests alongside political issues.
In a sweeping speech on the EU-China relationship days ahead of her trip, von der Leyen gave a view into those complexities.
“Our relations are not black or white, and our response cannot be either,” she said in Brussels last week, pointing to Europe’s need to “focus on de-risk, not de-couple” from China.
But at the same time: “How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward,” she said.
CNN’s Xiaofei Xu and Saskya Vandoorne in Paris, Wayne Chang and Sophie Jeong in Hong Kong, and Alex Hardie and Sugam Pokharel in London contributed reporting.