by John J. Metzler
Weirs Times Contributing Writer
PARIS – China’s Premier Li Keqiang descended upon Paris for a shopping spree; signing contracts and making deals which will energize the still anemic French economy. The French put on the Ritz as even Francois Hollande’s Socialist government can do so well; the impressive ceremony at the Elysee Presidential Palace and the glittering Parisian protocol. But the business bottom line was clearly the key element stressed during the three-day visit where Beijing’s Premier signed $20 billion in contracts and investments with France.
“Airbus Strengthens its Stake in China,” touted the headline in the business paper Les Echos.
The Chinese put in orders for 75 Airbus A330 airliners valued at $18 billion. In a meeting between PRC Premier Li and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, the Chinese side agreed to a host of aviation deals. Already the European consortium-built Airbus has over 1,150 of its aircraft flying with Chinese carriers.
Later when the Chinese delegation visited the Airbus assembly site in southern France at Toulouse, an agreement was made to further expand the current Tianjin Airbus assembly factory in Mainland China. The new A 330 Completion and Delivery Center is slated for Tianjin which is near the current assembly line for the smaller A 320 aircraft.
Airbus projects that the Chinese market is ripe for its aircraft and projects sales at over 5,000 planes between 2014-2033.
Though Airbus is enchanted with Chinese market possibilities, the question of industrial espionage at the Tianjin mega facilities as well as the very real possibility that Chinese-produced Airbus jets will eventually replace workers at the firm’s European facilities in France and Germany remains a nervous concern.
A series of Franco/Chinese agreements were reached between the countries on Climate policy, the internationalization of the Chinese Yuan currency, and for civilian nuclear power. A letter of intent between the French firm Areva, EDF, and China General Nuclear was aimed at “establishing a long term partnership in the field of medium and high power reactors.” Currently China’s two Taishan reactors near Hong Kong are based on the French Areva’s design and are currently being constructed in China. The $10 billion contract saw construction start on the first Taishan 1 reactor in 2009 which is expected to start up next year. The Taishan 2 facility is expected to come online in 2017.
France has long been an exponent of nuclear power for electricity production and remains one of the world’s most nuclear powered countries. China on the other hand has long been dependent on highly polluting fossil fuels and is trying to make a transition to alternative power sources for its massive electricity demand.
Another agreement was signed whereby France and China would work together on infrastructure and energy projects in Africa. Such a plan would allow for China to find overseas markets in Africa while at the same time going through France as a respected go between on much of the continent. Though China remains Africa’s largest trading partner, there’s an clear undercurrent of resentment between many of the African countries and Beijing. In such cases, France would presumably be a third party facilitator in this form of economic diplomacy.
Franco/Chinese relations are still basking in the afterglow of the 50th anniversary celebrations in both Paris and Beijing recalling France being among the first major West European countries to open diplomatic ties with Mao’s then-isolated People’s Republic back in 1964. This diplomatic move put France in a special relationship with China.
Yet modern China is less about sentiment than about the business bottom line.
For Francois Hollande’s Socialists, France’s traditional commitment to the rights of man and freedoms in general are easily shelved in this lucrative commercial entente with People’s China.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism The Diplomacy of Divided Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014).