French President Emmanuel Macron will visit China from Wednesday, hoping to dissuade Beijing from supporting Russia's invasion of Ukraine but without alienating a crucial trade and geopolitical player.
"China is the only country in the world capable of having an immediate and radical impact on the conflict, in one direction or the other," an official from Macron's office told reporters Friday on condition of anonymity.
Macron will look to stand firm towards President Xi Jinping on Ukraine while taking "another path" from the directly confrontational tone often heard from Washington, the official added.
The French leader's aims include preserving and rebalancing China's trade ties with Europe as well as safeguarding French interests in the Asia-Pacific region -- where Paris sees itself as a player thanks to its overseas territories and military deployments.
That Macron's visit will have an impact beyond France and affect the entire 27-nation European Union is clear from that presence on the trip of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.
She visited Macron in Paris Monday to coordinate their preparations.
In a speech last week, von der Leyen cautioned Beijing against direct support for the war while ruling out the 27-member European Union "decoupling" from China.
The Europeans won't hold Xi back from arming Russia by "saying nicely what he shouldn't do," said Antoine Bondaz of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS).
He predicted instead that the leaders would warn him off arms deliveries in public while dangling the threat of sanctions in their private talks.
- 'No-limits' friendship -
China has portrayed itself as seeking a peaceful resolution to Russia's attack on its neighbor.
But Xi's friendly visit to Moscow last month and announcement of a peace plan most saw as skewed towards Russia have Western countries doubtful.
Von der Leyen last week complained that "far from being put off by the atrocious and illegal invasion of Ukraine, President Xi is maintaining his 'no-limits friendship' with Putin's Russia" -- recalling a phrase coined immediately before the invasion last February.
"How China continues to interact with Putin's war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward," she added.
Within the bloc, economic heavyweights France and Germany see preserving trade with China as a priority, while nations in the EU's east -- closer to Ukraine and with stark memories of Russian occupation -- would prefer to up the pressure on Beijing over the invasion.
Macron will himself bring a delegation of some 60 business leaders to Beijing, including the bosses of Airbus and EDF -- some hoping to sign lucrative new contracts.
"We do not want to cut economic, societal, political and scientific ties," von der Leyen said, although Brussels like Paris hopes to "rebalance" the trading relationship "on the basis of transparency, predictability and reciprocity".
Macron and the EU Commission chief will place the "accent on de-risking rather than de-coupling," Francois Godement, an Asia expert at the Institut Montaigne think-tank, wrote on Twitter.
He added that they would look for "low-key but practical responses" to frictions with Beijing that "do not insult China's future" -- given Xi appears firmly in the driving seat at home.
- 'Nerve center' -
Macron will also meet French residents in Beijing after arriving on Wednesday afternoon, before Thursday talks with Chinese leaders and a state dinner in the evening.
On Friday, he will travel to Guangzhou in southern China to meet local students.
But Macron will also be eyeing France's footprint across the entire Asia-Pacific region.
Around 1.6 million citizens reside in French overseas territories there, from La Reunion off Madagascar's east coast to New Caledonia northeast of Australia and the dozens of Pacific islands of French Polynesia.
Thanks to its vast population, abundant natural resources and economic heft, the Asia-Pacific has become "the nerve centre of the planet", said Cedric Perrin, co-author of a French Senate report on the region.
France hopes its vast economic zone and 7,000 deployed troops can lend it a seat at the table as tensions mount on several fronts, including with nuclear-armed North Korea and between China and the United States over the island of Taiwan.
Perrin believes the country "must re-state a strong and realistic position towards China, especially regarding the need to respect international law" if it wants to be taken seriously as regional player.
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