Relations between France and China: Towards a Paris-Beijing Axis?

By Cabestan, Jean-Pierre | China: An International Journal, September 2006 | Go to article overview
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Relations between France and China: Towards a Paris-Beijing Axis?


Cabestan, Jean-Pierre, China: An International Journal


Toward a Franco-Chinese "Global Partnership"

After the foundation of the People's Republic of China, only a handful of neutral and Nordic Western European nations recognised the new Beijing regime. (1) Thus, General de Gaulle's decision in 1964 to set up diplomatic relations with the PRC heralded a change of policy among Western states--the recognition of the principle of reality--which later lead to China's entry into the United Nations (1971), Nixon's visit (1972) and the PRC's gradual integration into the world community.

Sino-Soviet Conflict and Sino-French Normalisation

The Sino-Soviet rift played an important role in this process. Beyond the blatant domestic political differences between France and China, de Gaulle and Mao Zedong felt that they shared a similar willingness to, at least partly, free their respective nations from the constraints of the bipolar world imposed by the Cold War context. Then, Mao made public his concept of "intermediary zones" (comprised of developed countries that can side with the Third World in order to isolate the two superpowers), an idea he developed ten years later in his Three World theory, a theory presented by Deng Xiaoping before the UN in 1974. Around the same time, France left the integrated NATO command (1966), while remaining a member of the Atlantic Alliance, and decided to improve its relations with the Soviet Union and large developing and often non-aligned nations such as Brazil, Mexico, etc.

In the 1970s and 80s, Sino-French relations developed steadily, as China went through major changes. Despite the East-West detente, Beijing's growing opposition to the Soviet Union created deeper affinities with the West and France, in particular after Deng Xiaoping launched the economic reforms and Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan (1979). France developed, as did other Western countries (e.g., the US and the UK), military relations with China and started selling small quantities of weapons and military equipment to buyers there.

After Tiananmen: An Unprecedented Sino-French Rapprochement

In 1989, the Tiananmen massacre and the suppression of the democratic movement in China put an end to this latter cooperation. France was then proactive in convincing the EU to impose an arms embargo on China. However, gradually, Western nations resumed their relations with the Beijing authorities. France was one of the first European countries to do so in the spring of 1991. (2)

Despite the development of military relations with Taiwan in the aftermath of Tiananmen (see below), France quickly renewed close cooperation with China on a number of international issues, in particular the settlement of the Cambodia question in 1991 (the Paris International Conference). The end of the Cold War in 1989, the collapse of the Soviet Union in late 1991, Deng's re-invigoration of the economic reforms in 1992 and the return to power of the neo-Gaullist Party in 1993 (i.e., Edouard Balladur's appointment as Premier), all favoured an unprecedented rapprochement between both countries. In January 1994, Paris promised in a written accord to Beijing "not to authorise any more French companies to participate in the armament of Taiwan" (bu bizhun Faguo qiye canyu wuzhuang Taiwan). However, it did not put an end to the French-Taiwanese military cooperation and long-term cooperation initiated by the sale to the island-state of six La Fayette Frigates and 60 fully equipped Mirage 2000-5 in the years 1990-2. (3)

Sino-French relations were back on track and Jacques Chirac's election in 1995 confirmed France's intention to develop a close partnership with China. In May 1997, on the occasion of Chirac's first visit to China as president, France established a "comprehensive (or global) partnership" (quanmian huoban guanxi or partenariat global in French) with China. This was the second country after Russia (which in 1996 concluded a "strategic partnership" with China), and the first Western nation to sign such an agreement with China.

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