The 60th anniversary of China’s bilateral relations with France this year marks a very significant milestone in this enduring partnership. The diplomatic relations between China and France have traversed six decades, witnessing a spectrum of cooperation, challenges, and strategic recalibrations. Against this backdrop, it is crucial to delve deeper into the historical foundation, current dynamics, and prospects that define the Franco-Chinese relationship.

Historical Foundations

  • French recognition to the People’s Republic of China came on 27 January 1964, fifteen years after the Chinese Communist Party had won a bloody civil war against the Nationalist Kuomintang. China-USSR relations were tense at the time which forced China to seek support outside Asia, with ambitions to lead the Third World. France worried this could hurt their interests in Africa. By recognizing Beijing, France hoped to influence China's actions. This decision also aimed to control radical French youth and curb their activities inspired by Beijing. Additionally, by engaging with China, General De Gaulle sought to enhance France's diplomatic autonomy in its relationship with Washington. Recognizing China was also influenced by China's nuclear capabilities as China conducted its first nuclear test in the same year.

  • The formal diplomatic relationship between China and France was established on January 27th, 1964, marking a historical milestone. The formalisation of the diplomatic ties between China and France in these troubled times contributed to China’s emergence on the global stage, particularly considering China’s relatively isolated and underdeveloped status in 1964 compared to France’s advanced and strategically independent position. 

  • In contemporary times, Sino-French Relations transcend mere economic interactions. Despite the stark difference in the political landscape, social makeup, and cultural fabric, China and France have consistently fostered cooperation and ensured mutual growth. France’s pursuit of a united European Union approach towards China is pivotal in enhancing its negotiating position and fostering joint collaboration on regulatory frameworks, connectivity projects, and strategic decision-making autonomy.


Current Dynamics and the Strategic Vision

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron have articulated a vision of strengthening bilateral relations across various dimensions. President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on upholding fundamental principles and building a solid foundation for a comprehensive strategic partnership resonates with France’s commitment to fostering a dynamic and mutually beneficial relationship. This strategic vision encompasses areas such as trade, investment, technological collaboration, cultural exchanges and cooperation in global governance, reflecting the multifaceted nature of Franco-Chinese Cooperation.

  • During his recent visit to Beijing, Macron was accompanied on the initial day of the trip by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. However, it became apparent quite quickly that both had differing perspectives on the core of the Sino-European relationship. Von der Leyen approached China cautiously and sceptically, focusing primarily on managing risks, as indicated by the term de-risking. Conversely, Macron viewed China as a valuable counterweight to the dominant influence of the United States in global geopolitics. On his way back from Beijing, Macron caused a stir by urging Europe to avoid becoming “America's followers.” He also cautioned that there is a great risk for Europe getting caught up in crises that “was not ours”, hinting towards the Taiwan issue. Instead, Macron advocated for Europe to pursue its strategic autonomy, a key aspect of his foreign policy vision. This entire disunity on display, points towards France's starkly different approach towards China as compared to the common line of action taken by the EU.


Areas of Cooperation in the Sino-France Partnership

  • The bilateral investment relations have been substantial, marked by agreements in various sectors. During XI Jinping’s visit to France in 2015, the two countries signed more than 50 agreements covering areas such as nuclear energy, aerospace and finance. Similarly, Macron’s trip to Beijing in 2018 resulted in contracts worth billions of Euros in agriculture, energy and aeronautics. These agreements demonstrate the growing interest of French companies in the Chinese market and highlight the potential for increased cooperation between the two countries in strategic sectors. President Macron’s visit to China in 2023 further underscored the depth and the importance of these economic ties. Macron signed a sweeping 51-point joint declaration during his China visit and agreed to work with China on issues ranging from 5G technology to military engagement. Apart from this, a series of deals were signed by Emmanuel Macron for French firms in sectors including civilian nuclear energy, wind power, pork and cosmetics. These initiatives emblematic of the enduring “China-France Spirit”, have brought about significant transformations for both countries. 

  • China ranks third as France’s largest trading partners in Asia and seventh globally, Conversely, France is China’s third largest trading partner within the EU, with the total volume of the bilateral trade reaching US $78.9 billion in 2023. China’s export to France grew from USD 28.7 billion in 2014 to USD 41.6 billion in 2023. Similarly, China’s imports from France went from USD 27.1 billion in 2014 to USD 37.3 billion by 2023.  The top exports from China to France in February 2023 included laboratory reagents, telephones, computers, passenger and cargo ships. On the other hand, France's main exports to China during the same period were beauty products, packaged medications, trunks and cases, wheat, and gas turbines. It highlights the significant trade exchange between the two countries, particularly in technological products and consumer goods.

  • China and France have been engaged in civil nuclear energy cooperation for over four decades, encompassing technology research and development, industrial supply chain and personal training and post-operative activities. The initial cooperation agreement regarding the use of nuclear energy was signed in 1983, outlining collaboration in research, development, production and the application of nuclear energy.

  • In addition to technology exchange, the bilateral relationship also extends to goods such as aircraft, satellites, wines, cheese and cosmetics. French-made Airbus planes dominate the Chinese market, representing over 50% of aircraft in service by early 2023. On the other hand, Chinese products like mobile phones and electric vehicles have gained popularity in France. In recent years, there has been a growing popularity of French delicacies such as Bordeaux wine, Charolais beef, Bonne Maman jam and President cheese in China. 

  • Cultural exchange between China and France is also very strong, with nearly 30,000 Chinese students studying in France and a growing number of French students learning Mandarin. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, more than two million Chinese tourists visited France, showcasing the strong tourism connections. The year 2024 has been designated as the Sino-French Year of Cultural Tourism, featuring cultural performances and establishment of cultural centres in both countries. These exchanges have accelerated notably since 2023, leading to robust growth and mutually beneficial outcomes. People-to-people exchanges have flourished with China implementing a 15-day visa-free policy for short-term French  visitors.


The China Factor in France’s Indo-Pacific Strategy

  • From a security perspective, France unveiled its Indo-Pacific strategy in 2019, which was later updated in 2021, reflecting a comprehensive vision aimed at establishing France as an inclusive and stabilising force within the region. France’s strategic significance in the Indo-Pacific is further underscored by its extensive territorial and military presence across the region, encompassing territories like Mayonette, Scattered Island, La Reunion, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, French Polynesia, Clipperton Islands and French Antarctic and Sub-Antarctic territories. The strategic framework envisions the promotion of a stable, law-based, and multipolar order in the Indo-Pacific, emphasising the importance of strategic engagement and cooperation. A notable aspect of France’s strategy is the initiation of the dialogue between the Southern Theatre of the People’s Liberation Army and the French Forces Command in the Asia-Pacific (ALPACI), emphasising the need to strengthen security and foster regional cooperation. This inclusive approach towards China represents a significant shift, particularly following the cancellation of the Franco-Australian submarine deal amidst pressures from AUKUS. 

  • France’s strategic commitment to the Indo-Pacific was highlighted in 2018 when President Emmanuel Macron articulated Paris’ stake in the region, leading to proactive engagements such as deploying an aircraft carrier strike group led by the nuclear-powered surface vessel Charles de Gaulle. These initiatives, including joint naval drills and navigation through contentious waters like the Taiwan Strait, underscore France’s proactive role in shaping regional security demands of the Indo-Pacific. 

  • The Indo-Pacific strategy of France is intricately linked with its evolving relationship with China. While navigating the complex dynamics between the US and China, France seeks to engage with China in areas of mutual interest while upholding its strategic autonomy. Key elements of France’s approach include building strategic partnerships with middle-power regional actors such as India and Japan, fostering cooperation within the QUAD framework. The alignment of Paris’ Indo-Pacific vision with that of India and Japan serves as a cornerstone of its regional outreach strategy. The Franco-Japanese partnership, spanning areas like maritime security, climate change, infrastructure development, and healthcare has found increasing synergy in the Indo-Pacific. Ongoing discussions aim to establish a Paris-Delhi-Tokyo trilateral reflecting shared concerns regarding China’s influence and activities in the region. 


The India Factor in Sino-French Relationship

  • President Macron’s visit to India as the Chief Guest for Republic Day 2024 indicates strengthened bilateral relations between the two nations. Given the regional competition between India and China in South Asia, France attempts to achieve a delicate balance in relations with both countries. In September 2020, France, India, and Australia initiated a trilateral dialogue aimed at enhancing cooperation for a “peaceful, secure, prosperous and rules-based Indo-Pacific.” This collaboration includes joint production of defence equipment like helicopters and submarines for India’s armed forces and other friendly nations, expanding ties in defence production, nuclear energy, space research, and utilising artificial intelligence for public services such as climate change, health, and agriculture. France being India’s second-largest arms supplier in terms of fighter jets over four decades, plays a significant role in defence cooperation. 


Challenges and Opportunities

  • The Sino-French partnership grapples with several issues. The primary hindrance is the issue of significant trade imbalance, with China representing France's one of the largest trade deficits of almost USD 17.4 billion in 2023. Additionally, there is a growing dependency on China for green energy equipment, raising concerns about diversification in energy resources. China supplies four-fifths of the European Union’s solar panel needs and over 90% of its demand for rare earth permanent magnets and battery-grade lithium. Apart from this, tensions emerge regarding investments in Africa, where France fears that China’s development initiatives might overshadow its efforts. In fact, in 2019, French President Macron warned of risks to the sovereignty of African countries from China’s increasing economic presence.

  • While China is seen as a competitor in Africa, the competition between the two nations is also evident in the Indo-Pacific region and the Asian subcontinent. France holds sway in areas like Polynesia and New Caledonia and Chinese inroads in these areas is seen as a significant challenge.


Navigating Complexity Towards Cooperation

  • As the world undergoes transformative shifts, the focus on engagement with China emerges as a central theme in global discussions. France, along with other countries, recognizes the necessity of maintaining ties with China despite challenges. French policymakers emphasise the importance of engaging with China through skillful negotiation and effective diplomacy. They advocate for a relationship based on mutual trust and cooperation, acknowledging China’s significant role in the global strategic landscape. This strategic stance reflects France’s commitment to navigating complex international dynamics while fostering constructive relations with China.

Image Credit: Global Times


Aachal completed her graduation in Political Science from Banaras Hindu University. Currently she is pursuing her master's in Political Science from IGNOU. Her areas of interest revolve around international relations, foreign policy dynamics, defence and security. She has previously interned with the Council for Social Development and the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.

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