Macron in China: notes on limits of influence

BEIJING (Reuters) - On a state visit to China this week, French President Emmanuel Macron got plaudits for giving his host a horse -- but also experienced the limits faced by Western leaders in dealing with the new superpower on the block.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech at the Daming Palace in Xian, Shaanxi province, China, January 8, 2018. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/File Photo

Macron was in Beijing to reset trade relations and address European fears that China’s trillion dollar modern day Silk Route will be a one way road for Chinese commodities and goods.

Discussions about China’s human rights record? Not so much.

China frequently says it does not believe the issue of human rights should be politicized. President Xi Jinping’s administration has tightened control over civil society, citing a need for more security and stability and activists say a sweeping crackdown on dissent has left dozens jailed.

Macron, despite pressure from campaign groups, decided not to be drawn into what he called “loud speaker diplomacy” and cautioned against the dangers of telling others how to behave.

He was not totally silent, however, touring a contemporary art gallery in central Beijing, a late addition to itinerary and resisted, according to his entourage, by Chinese officials.

Asked if the gallery visit was a subtle nod to those artists whose freedom of expression is curbed in China, Macron only said:

“Coming here to see these artists is also a way to witness contemporary Chinese expression and sensibility expressing itself freely, openly, without ignoring what exists elsewhere.”

Like others from the West, the French president knows the limits of what one can do and say on a China visit.

So, on to France’s clout as a business partner with Beijing.

There were no eye-catching trade deals, and China appeared only mildly interested in French industrial might.

Macron toured a Beijing aerospace facility where China and France are co-developing an observation satellite that will help measure climate change.

It was billed as the centre-piece of the final day for a leader whose country prides itself on its world-leading industries, including aerospace.

But no sooner had Macron passed through a decontamination airlock and stepped into a giant hall, he was reminded of China’s exploration ambitions, receiving an extensive overview of Beijing’s plans to explore the Moon and Mars.

“Is there any embedded technology from (French engineering firm) Thales in there?” Macron asked his hosts as he peered over an intricate diagram.

A blunt answer came back: No. This was 100 percent Chinese technology.

Finally, he was shown the Franco-Chinese satellite dubbed CFOSat before passing by a simulator for China’s future manned space station, a smaller sister of the International Space Station.

France will provide all the medical instruments for the Chinese space station program, the head of the French space agency, Jean-Yves Le Gall, told the president.

“It allows us to keep a foot in the door,” he whispered in Macron’s ear.

Reporting by Michel Rose; Writing by Richard Lough Editing by Jeremy Gaunt