France and China: Political Reconciliation and Beyond


I know that neither of these countries are technically a part of South Asia (although I’ve included China in the list of countries I intend to discuss), but since I live in Paris I feel I should discuss elements of French foreign policy from time to time, especially since it often goes unnoticed abroad, and yet cannot be dismissed too quickly. By the way, just because I live in France doesn’t mean I’m an expert on its foreign policy, which is one of the reasons why I don’t intend to write about it too often. But it seemed to me that a recent state visit by Nicolas Sarkozy to China warranted attention from “South Asia-ish” and could be of interest to those enlightened individuals who visit The Mantle…

One last comment related to my living in France: my last post, on the U.S. and India, is also available via the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS) or Institute of International and Strategic Relations, one of France’s premier think-tanks, and incidentally where I received my Masters’ degree: and Check out their websites, which contain analyses in English in addition to articles in French, covering a variety of subjects. It’s a very dynamic research center on foreign policy (and a great place to study) that provides students with a range of neat opportunities, thanks among others to the combination of a grad school and a think-tank.


After the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China is currently hosting another international mega-event, the 2010 World Expo taking place in Shanghai; France used this event, “largely overlooked by the American public,” as the backdrop for an official state visit to China to undo much of the harm wrought by President Sarkozy unto the bilateral relationship since 2008. The president’s trip, accompanied by his wife, represents the culmination of nearly two years of sustained efforts by various French officials (from a slew of ministers to former French Prime Minister and current president of the French-China Commission in the Senate Jean-Pierre Raffarin) to appease Beijing following a series of tactless decisions in 2008. The goal of this trip (President Sarkozy’s fourth since being elected in 2007) was not only to turn the page on recent tensions, but also to lay the foundations for 2011, when France will chair (and host) the G8 & the G20. Making amends while advancing France’s ambitions to redefine the international system in a post-Copenhagen world: this visit may thus be considered an exercise in both humility and ambition for France’s embattled president, who remains far less popular in China than his predecessor, Jacques Chirac.


A new beginning after a turbulent past?

The most immediate objective of the prolonged visit (April 27-May 1st, 2010) by Sarkozy was to make up for the acrimonious and quasi-hostile relationship the strategic partnership had lapsed into in 2008.

The confrontational tone of recent years stemmed from Sarkozy’s firm condemnation of domestic repression in March 2008, a turbulent reception of the Olympic flame in Paris in July (marred by numerous protests), and his decision to meet the Dalai Lama in Poland in December 2008. This last encounter reveals the limits of Sarkozy’s approach, or more specifically, the lack of coordination with partners necessary to bear a meaningful message. The insufficient thought put into these events, the lack of a coherent China strategy at the élysée palace (where the President lives) due perhaps to an inadequate consultation of Foreign Ministry experts (among others) by Sarkozy’s advisors, enabled China to marginalize Paris and prevented Sarkozy from reaping any tangible benefits from his bold openings. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with boldness, nor with firmness, but adopting such attitudes merely to bolster one’s image (be it domestic or international) is useless and indeed counterproductive: it is likely to merely foster confusion and a mutual lack of comprehension, while offering the alleged offended party an opportunity to throw its weight around, to make certain demands in a more forceful way than would have been otherwise possible.

The proper response is not to abdicate blindly to such demands any more than it is to upbraid or confront China aimlessly, but to acknowledge Chinese sensibilities, to sooth insecurities publicly in order to engage Beijing in a more productive and meaningful – and if necessary at times forceful – dialogue in private. Such an approach seeks neither to confront nor pressure China, neither to transform nor impose, but doesn’t condone human rights violations either. Rather, it recognizes that sustained engagement is the best way to achieve optimal cooperation from China on important international issues, be it Iran or climate change, as well as on economic concerns (like exchange rates), by acknowledging China’s concerns and their legitimacy. In doing so, it becomes possible to seek a mutually beneficial situation that forces China to face the reality not only of any “responsibilities,” but also of its own rhetoric, which emphasizes win-win situations. This approach recognizes the importance of China (by the way, the regime does face serious challenges and requires innovative thinking to face them; for all the talk of democracy, the consequences of a failing regime would be catastrophic, if not for global commerce then for the billion-plus people whose lives would be upturned) and seeks to convince China’s leaders that solving certain challenges is in their own interest.

Regarding Iran and the question of UN sanctions, nothing will be known about how effective Sarkozy’s visit may have been until after Brazilian leader Lula de Silva’s visit to Tehran, at which time Security Council members will again consider how best to respond to Iran and how sincere its desire for negotiations are.

“Tourism diplomacy:” adopting a new tone towards China

For all the talk of “tensions” in the bilateral relationship, it is important to remember that no major issue opposed the two countries directly: the differences stemmed from ruffled feathers and cultural misunderstandings, and therefore required little by way of substantive results to be smoothed out (in short, China felt slighted). Indeed, a gesture that apparently went a long way was the decision to include Carla Bruni-Sarkozy on the trip, and to take the time to visit several cultural sites, in addition to meeting the top trio of Chinese dignitaries – Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, and Wu Bangguo, the central figure in the Chinese National Assembly and a key decision-maker within the Communist Party apparatus. This “tourism diplomacy” stands in stark contrast to the President’s hasty trip to China for the Olympics, which lasted only a few hours, and was deemed a mark of disrespect for Chinese culture. More importantly, it failed to acknowledge the importance of perceptions in Chinese foreign policy, coming on the heels of the turbulent passage of the Olympic flame in France which provided Beijing an opportunity to fan anti-French sentiments (boycott for instance of Carrefour, the French equivalent – at its scale – of Wal-Mart).

The change in pace visible during this visit was an important factor in ensuring the success of the “reconciliation” initiative; Sarkozy was thus the only world leader present for the opening of the World Expo to visit Beijing in addition to Shanghai. One can expect that Carla Bruni-Sarkozy will again accompany her husband when he visits India later this year – a visit that suggests a renewed focus on emerging powers following the Copenhagen summit, to ensure the success of France’s own summitry diplomacy in 2011, which will focus on the reform of the international financial system and on agricultural issues (of particular interest to India).

Ensuring a successful French presidency of the G20 in 2011 in a post-Copenhagen world

While I don’t believe that Copenhagen constitutes an absolute turning point in world order (the power hierarchy wasn’t affected), I do however feel that it was a significant moment, perhaps even a decisive one, in terms of conducting efficient diplomacy on the world stage, which requires coordinating with and listening to a larger group of key players than the usual suspects.

At any rate, such a perspective undoubtedly guides Sarkozy’s new tack: the apparent lack of a coherent China strategy on a bilateral level does not mean that he undertook this visit without any strategy whatsoever, simply that the objectives in mind weren’t necessarily bilateral ones. Indeed, a key priority of President Sarkozy is to ensure a successful G20 in 2011, when France will chair and host the international gathering of the world’s most important economies. With that in mind, Sarkozy was careful to phrase the issue of Chinese currency in a conciliatory manner that linked it to his own ambition of redefining the global financial system: “France’s conviction is that it is utterly un-productive to throw accusations at one another. A much smarter approach is to prepare the necessary evolution of the monetary order of the 21st century.” On April 28th, Sarkozy declared that France and China would share ideas on achieving “multipolar monetary order” as part of France’s preparation of “its” G20.

It would appear that the President chose to put off the signing of any major agreements on this trip – the Chinese leader and his advisors will be more eager to finalize them and to sign contracts next autumn, when Hu Jintao visits France and will thus need something to show for his trip – in favor of re-establishing a less confrontational relationship focused on global issues. This could ultimately prove to be a productive strategy, if its eventual success in the economic realm spreads to a new attitude on security-related issues, although one should be careful not to overstate France’s influence on overall Chinese foreign policy. Nevertheless, as a permanent member of the Security Council, European power, close yet independent ally of the U.S., and owner of advanced civilian nuclear technologies, Paris undeniably warrants a certain attention from Beijing.  However, it is also true that very few things matter more to “Sarko” than being perceived as an effective decision-maker and bold leader, an objective which sometimes seems to take precedence over defining actual results to be achieved and then defining a process able to accomplish these objectives. Image is important in international politics (as in other areas), but only if it leads to greater results: by moving beyond his previous confrontational policy, Sarkozy has thus enabled France to meet new challenges, to tackle actual issues. In short, the relative success of his trip to China is one whose true measure will be whether it is the beginning of a concerted strategy or whether it is perceived as an accomplishment in and of itself.

France, China, Diplomacy