France-China Relations: Trade, Investment, and Recent Developments (Updated)
French President Emmanuel Macron visited China from April 5 to 7, 2023, along with the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. During their respective visits, both leaders met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and discussed the direction of their regions’ relationship with China, mutual areas of cooperation, and significant international and regional issues. We analyze the current state of France-China trade and investment relations in light of this visit and track some of the key outcomes.
UPDATE (April 13, 2023): Further details from the meeting between Xi Jinping and French representatives revealed that Xi praised the positive impact of the economic ties between China and France and warned against breaking the bond between the two countries. He also expressed China’s willingness to coordinate macro policies with Europe and maintain the security and stability of the industrial and supply chains. The signing of 18 cooperation agreements by representatives of 36 French and Chinese companies across various fields demonstrates a renewed positive sentiment between the two parties. Analysts suggest that the meeting succeeded in emphasizing the benefits of engaging with China rather than isolating it from Europe and its industry.
UPDATE (April 10, 2023): A series of new agreements and a joint commitment to deepen ties between China and France were signed during French President Macron’s visit to Beijing. Among others, China and France committed to helping settle the Ukraine conflict through dialogue and called the international society to address the “spillover effects of the Ukraine crisis in food, energy, finance, transportation, and other fields” and to reduce the “negative impact on the world, especially on developing countries”.
French President Emmanuel Macron is on an official visit to China from April 5 to 7, 2023, along with the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. During their respective visits, both leaders will hold a joint meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
On April 3, during a routine press conference, China’s foreign spokesperson Mao Ning announced that President Xi would engage in discussions with President Macron to establish the direction of their countries’ relationship, expand cooperation between China and France as well as between China and the European Union across multiple domains, and conduct extensive discussions on significant international and regional issues.
In addition, Macron is likely to hold meetings with other important Chinese officials and is set to travel to Guangzhou in Guangdong Province where he will meet with a group of students.
During his presidency, Macron made two official visits to China, in 2018 and 2019. His upcoming third visit is of particular significance, given the current tensions between the West and Russia in the context of international geopolitics, as well as the bilateral relations between China and the European Union.
Leading up to these crucial meetings, we review the progress made in France-China trade, investment, and diplomacy in recent years, along with the latest developments.
The changing dynamics of France-China relations
France and China share a long and complex history dating back to the 17th century. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, France had a colonial and trade presence in China. The relationship deteriorated in the mid-20th century after France recognized Taiwan, leading to the suspension of diplomatic ties.
In 1964, France resumed diplomatic relations with China, and since then, both countries have engaged in frequent high-level exchanges, signed several agreements, and deepened their partnership. Despite this, the relationship has faced challenges due to differences in political systems and values.
One significant development in the relationship was the establishment of the Franco-Chinese strategic partnership in 2004, aimed at promoting collaboration in areas such as trade, investment, culture, and education. This partnership has strengthened ties between the two countries and led to increased cooperation in various fields.
In 2015, both countries signed the China-France Joint Statement on Climate Change, emphasizing their commitment to addressing global warming and promoting sustainable development. This joint statement played a pivotal role in the negotiations leading to the Paris Agreement on climate change later that year.
Significant developments under Macron’s presidency
Since assuming office in 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron has prioritized strengthening economic and cultural ties between France and China. Macron has emphasized the importance of France’s relationship with China, considering it to be “crucial” for the country’s economic growth and global influence.
During his first official visit to China in January 2018, Macron signed several agreements with Chinese leaders on nuclear energy, agriculture, and tourism. The French president also advocated for increased cooperation between Europe and China and urged China to take concrete steps to address trade imbalances and market access issues.
Despite facing some challenges, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and France’s early position on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, economic ties between the two countries continue to strengthen.
In 2019, China became the largest source of foreign investment in France, and the two countries have signed agreements on issues such as green finance, intellectual property rights, and civil aviation.
Macron’s 2023 visit and the revival of EU-China relations
During his meeting with his Chinese counterpart on April 6, Macron reportedly emphasized the need for the West to engage with China to prevent further tensions and divisions among global powers. Xi has attempted to position China as a potential mediator in the Ukranian conflict and hopes that Moscow and Kyiv can hold peace negotiations soon. The French president stressed to Xi the importance of ending the crisis and bringing everyone back to the negotiating table. The fact that China brokered a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia in March, in particular, has strengthened its reputation as a diplomatic player.
Additionally, during Macron’s latest meeting with Xi Jinping, several cooperation agreements were signed between France and China in the energy sector, specifically in nuclear and wind energy, according to a statement by Elysee. The statement added that French state utility EDF and Chinese utility CGN, which are both significant players in nuclear energy, have agreed to renew their long-standing partnership. Lastly, EDF and China Energy Investment Corporation signed agreements for offshore wind energy.
Growing trade relations between France and China
France and China are significant players in global trade and represent essential export markets for each other, with trade volumes reaching a record high in 2021. According to data from the Huajing Industry Research Institute, the total value of goods imported and exported between China and France in 2022 was US$81.33 billion, reflecting a 4.4 percent decline from the same period in 2021, with a decrease of US$3.84 billion.
As of February 2023, the trade balance between France and China showed a negative balance of US$582 million, with France importing US$3.25 billion worth of goods from China, and only exporting US$2.67 billion in return. When compared to February 2022, China’s exports to France decreased by 14.5 percent, from US$3.12 billion to US$2.67 billion.
On the other hand, China’s imports from France increased by US$731 million or 29.1 percent, moving from US$2.52 billion to US$3.25 billion. This growth is indicative of China’s wider economic recovery and market reopening, suggesting a potential change in the France-China trade relationship.
In February 2023, China’s leading exports to France consisted of laboratory reagents (US$163 million), telephones (US$163 million), computers (US$147 million), passenger and cargo ships (US$145 million), and seats (US$123 million).
|Top 5 Products Exported from China to France in February 2023|
|Product category||Amount (million US$)|
|Passengers and Cargo ships||145|
|Source: United Nations COMTRADE|
On the other hand, France’s main exports to China in the same period were beauty products (US$334 million), packaged medications (US$197 million), trunks and cases (US$191 million), wheat (US$171 million), and gas turbines (US$135 million).
|Top 5 Products Exported from France to China in February 2023|
|Product category||Amount (million US$)|
|Trunks and cases||191|
|Source: United Nations COMTRADE|
This data highlights the significant trade exchange between the two countries, particularly in the areas of technological products and consumer goods.
Strategic areas of bilateral investment
The bilateral investment relationship between China and France has been a vital component of their economic partnership. In 2015, during Xi Jinping’s visit to France, the two countries signed more than 50 agreements in various sectors, including nuclear energy, aerospace, and finance. Similarly, during Macron’s 2018 trip to Beijing, he announced France would sign contracts worth €13 billion (US$14.23 billion) with China, covering areas such as agriculture, energy, and aeronautics. These agreements demonstrated the growing interest of French companies in the Chinese market and highlighted the potential for increased cooperation between the two countries.
The Chinese ambassador to France urged Paris to remove barriers to Chinese investment and announced that a range of agreements would be finalized during Macron’s latest trip to China. Ambassador Lu Shaye disclosed that China and France would broaden their economic cooperation in several areas, such as aerospace, nuclear energy, and agriculture, and explore opportunities for collaboration in green energy and technology.
France and China have a strong partnership in the automotive industry. China is the world’s largest automotive market and has become a key partner for French car manufacturers seeking to expand their business. At the same time, French automakers bring advanced technology and expertise to the Chinese market.
Several significant investments have been made in the automotive sector between France and China in recent years. In 2019, Dongfeng Motor Group, a major Chinese automobile manufacturer, announced that it would increase its stake in PSA Group, the French maker of Peugeot, Citroen, and DS vehicles, to 12.2 percent. This investment has helped both companies expand their presence in the global automotive market.
Renault also signed an agreement with China’s Dongfeng Motor in 2015 to create a joint venture to produce electric vehicles (EVs) in China. The joint venture, called eGT New Energy Automotive, has set up a factory in Shiyan, China, with a production capacity of 120,000 electric vehicles per year. This partnership has enabled Renault to access the fast-growing Chinese market for EVs.
In 2019, Chinese automaker Geely acquired a 9.7 percent stake in Renault, becoming the third-largest shareholder in the company after the French government and Nissan.
These investments and partnerships underscore the growing importance of the automotive industry in both France and China and the potential for mutual benefit through collaboration in this field.
Infrastructure has been one of the most significant areas of cooperation between France and China. French companies have been involved in several major infrastructure projects in China, including the construction of high-speed rail lines and metro systems, such as the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed rail line and the Shanghai metro system.
In addition, Chinese companies have invested heavily in French infrastructure projects. In 2015, a consortium led by China’s State Grid Corporation acquired a 49.9 percent stake in French power grid operator Réseau de Transport d’Electricité (RTE). The acquisition marked the largest-ever Chinese investment in France and highlighted the importance of French infrastructure for Chinese companies.
Furthermore, the two countries have held discussions on developing infrastructure projects together. In 2018, during Xi Jinping’s visit to France, the two countries agreed to explore joint projects in third-party markets, particularly in Africa.
France and China have also been collaborating in the aerospace industry. In 2015, Airbus, a European aircraft manufacturer based in France, signed a deal with China to build an assembly plant in the country, making it the first Airbus facility in Asia. This partnership has allowed Airbus to expand its presence in the Chinese market and benefit from China’s growing demand for commercial aircraft.
In addition, Safran, a French aerospace and defense company, has been working with Chinese companies to develop aircraft engines. In 2018, Safran and Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) announced the creation of a joint venture to build a new engine for China’s C919 commercial airliner.
Energy has proved to be another key sector of bilateral investment and cooperation between the two countries. In addition to the acquisition of a stake in French power grid operator RTE by China’s State Grid Corporation, Chinese companies have also invested in French nuclear energy. In 2014, the state-owned entity (SOE) China General Nuclear Power Corp (CGN) bought a 33.5 percent stake in the planned Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in the UK, which is being developed by French utility EDF.
France, in turn, has been involved in several renewable energy projects in China. In 2019, French energy company, Total, signed an agreement with China’s State Power Investment Corporation to develop a solar power plant in Inner Mongolia, which is expected to be one of the largest solar projects in the world.
Moreover, the two countries have also been cooperating in the research and development of clean energy technologies. In 2019, France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and China’s National Energy Administration (NEA) inked another agreement to collaborate on research in the field of renewable energy.
In recent years, Chinese consumers have become a driving force behind the growth of the global luxury goods market. This has led to increased investment and cooperation between Chinese and French companies in this sector.
One notable example is the acquisition of a majority stake in the French luxury fashion house Balmain by Chinese investment group Fosun International in 2018. This acquisition was valued at approximately €500 million (US$560 million) and was seen as a major step for Fosun International in its efforts to expand its presence in the global luxury goods market.
Another case is the partnership between Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and French luxury goods group Kering. In 2019, the two companies joined forces in the fight against the sale of counterfeit goods online. This collaboration is significant as it demonstrates the growing importance of the Chinese market to French luxury goods companies and their willingness to work with Chinese companies to protect their brands.
Furthermore, the major French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH has been increasing its presence in China through various investments and partnerships. In 2018, LVMH partnered with Chinese e-commerce platform Secoo to expand its online retail presence in China. LVMH has also announced plans to open a new luxury goods production plant in China, demonstrating its commitment to the Chinese market.
France-China trade and investment treaties
To strengthen their economic and trade ties, China and France have signed various bilateral trade and investment treaties over the years. One of the most significant agreements was signed in 1964, promoting the exchange of goods and services between the two countries without discrimination.
The Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) of 1984 further protected investments made by Chinese and French companies in each other’s territories, which increased cross-border investments. In 2014, a comprehensive strategic partnership agreement was signed, which set a target of increasing bilateral trade to 100 billion euros by 2015. This goal was successfully achieved.
In 2018, after three years of negotiations, China and France signed a new agreement covering areas like intellectual property protection, market access, and regulatory cooperation. This was a significant milestone in China’s efforts to expand its economic ties with Europe, and it was expected to significantly boost trade and investment between the two countries.
China and France have also collaborated on multilateral trade initiatives, such as the World Trade Organization and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum. They have both promoted a fair and transparent trading system.
Future France-China relations
French President Emmanuel Macron is presently in China on a three-day state visit. The trip comes four years after his last visit to China. Macron is accompanied by a hefty French business delegation composed of CEOs from the energy, transport, and aviation sectors. The French president reportedly hopes to secure some form of Chinese support for a peace process in the ongoing Ukrainian crisis.
The stakes for improving ties between France and China are high, including leveraging China’s position as a top EU trading partner. Macron’s visit aims to present a common European front towards China amid growing friction on several fronts, including trade and economics.
Also, French officials are pressing for a more level playing field for European business and trade in China, while Beijing is keen to resurrect an EU investment deal put on hold three years ago.
Overall, the evolving trade and economic ties between France and China demonstrate the increasing importance of their relationship. While there are certainly challenges to be overcome, the trajectory of France-China relations remains positive, with both countries looking to deepen their cooperation and engagement in the years to come.
Dezan Shira & Associates’ Presence in Europe
Europe has significant trade and investment dealings with Asia – China, ASEAN, and India are all among the bloc’s top trade partners. With Asia emerging as a growth engine of the world economy and an area of certainty amid global volatility, there is a wealth of opportunities for European investors in the region. Incorporated in Munich in January of 2021, Dezan Shira & Associates’ European office under Riccardo Benussi serves as the first point of contact for European companies wishing to do business in Asia. Meanwhile, our Europe-based team in both the Munich and Milan offices works with a variety of partners to connect European businesses with developing Asian economies. To set up a call with our Europe-based team, please get in touch with email@example.com.
（This article was originally published on April 5, 2023, and last updated on April 13, 2023.）
China Briefing is written and produced by Dezan Shira & Associates. The practice assists foreign investors into China and has done so since 1992 through offices in Beijing, Tianjin, Dalian, Qingdao, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Zhongshan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. Please contact the firm for assistance in China at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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