France, China and the BRI: The challenge of conditional engagement « in Stephen Minas and Vassilis Ntousas (eds.), The European Union and China’s Belt and Road: Impact, Engagement and Competition, Routledge Studies in European Foreign Policy series, Routledge, London, 2021, pp. 153-169
Moving away from its traditional low-profile attitude, China has gradually shifted to a muscular foreign policy in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis and the resulting change in the global balance of power.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the latest expression of the country’s rising assertiveness and willingness to play a more central role on the global stage. In response to this rising assertiveness, the last few years have seen a clear shift in France’s approach to China away from what may have been called naivety and towards more firmness. As for China’s BRI, although French authorities are favorable to its overall objective of connectivity enhancement, they refuse to endorse the project in its entirety. Following a logic of conditional engagement, they insist on compliance of BRI-related connectivity projects with the provisions of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change as well as with the G20 operational guidelines for sustainable financing. Moreover, French authorities tend to favor punctual cooperation in third markets. Interestingly, this tougher French stance has not led to any pushback from Beijing so far; far to the contrary, there are even signs that mild pressure has paid off, with China gradually integrating some widely agreed principles. However, whether these commitments will become reality remains to be seen. In this respect, the signals sent by China during the recent Covid-19 pandemic, with a more confrontational attitude, do not bode well for the future of the relationship.