Sunday, June 16, 2024

France-China Relations: Trade, Investment, and Recent Developments

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France and China remain key trade and investment partners, as highlighted by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to France, indicative of deepening diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties. 


In recent years, the relationship between China and France has undergone significant developments, marked by high-level meetings, cooperation agreements, and shared commitments on global issues.

Here’s a chronological overview of key events shaping the trajectory of Sino-French relations:

  • In April 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Beijing proved pivotal, signifying a turning point in Sino-French relations. The visit saw the signing of new agreements and a joint commitment to deepen ties. Notably, both countries pledged to assist in resolving the Ukraine conflict through dialogue and urged the international community to address its spillover effects across various sectors.
  • Following this meeting, further details emerged, highlighting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recognition of the positive impact of economic ties between the two nations. The signing of 18 cooperation agreements by representatives of French and Chinese companies showed a renewed positive sentiment and emphasized the benefits of engagement.
  • One year later, in May 2024, during his first visit to Europe in five years, Xi convened with Macron in Hautes-Pyrénées, France. Their discussions encompassed a wide range of global concerns, reaffirming mutual commitments to strengthening relations not only between China and France but also with the European Union (EU). Xi emphasized China’s dedication to national cohesion and cross-cultural exchanges with France, while Macron stressed the importance of upholding Europe’s strategic independence while fostering closer ties with China.

These recent developments signify a concerted effort to enhance cooperation and foster stability in global affairs, reflecting the growing importance of Sino-French relations on the world stage.

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 key 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 signed agreements covering a wide range of sectors, such as green finance, intellectual property rights, and civil aviation.

Macron’s 2023 visit and the revival of EU-China relations

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During his meeting with his Chinese counterpart on April 6, 2023, Macron reportedly emphasized the need for the West to engage with China to prevent further tensions and divisions among global powers.

Several cooperation agreements were signed between France and China in the energy sector, specifically in nuclear and wind energy. The French state utility firm EDF and Chinese utility firm CGN, which are both significant players in nuclear energy, agreed to renew their long-standing partnership. Lastly, EDF and China Energy Investment Corporation signed agreements for offshore wind energy.

Xi’s 2024 visit to France

Xi’s decision to begin his first visit to Europe in five years with a stop in France held significant symbolic and strategic value.

The talks between Xi and Macron culminated in a series of significant agreements and discussions, highlighting the breadth and depth of cooperation between China and France.

Firstly, around 20 bilateral cooperation documents were signed across various sectors, including green development, aviation, agrifood, commerce, and people-to-people exchanges. The range of agreements points to the commitment of both nations to strengthen ties and foster collaboration in key areas of mutual interest.

Macron reiterated the strategic partnership between China and France, emphasizing the role it plays in addressing global challenges and promoting multilateralism on the world stage.

Economically, Xi expressed China’s readiness to maintain strategic communication with France and respect each other’s core interests. Discussions centered on enhancing economic ties, with China expressing its willingness to import more high-quality products from France and encouraging French investment in China.

Cultural exchanges also featured prominently in the discussions, with efforts to accelerate people-to-people exchanges, including the organization of successful events like the China-France Year of Culture and Tourism. China also extended the short-stay visa-exemption policy for citizens from various European countries, including France.

Finally, the issuance of four joint statements on various topics, including the situation in the Middle East, AI and global governance, biodiversity and oceans, and agricultural exchanges and cooperation, reflected shared priorities and areas of collaboration between China and France.

In Sino-French trade and investment there is so much more than meets the eye of the common observer. The vast spectrum of industries covered by French entrepreneurs of small and medium-sized companies in China is impressive: from wine – with which they made their eternal splash in the Chinese market since the early 80s – to clean technology machinery and applications. A common trait to French investors is the cohesive way of approaching the market: their mentality is such, that when they decide to enter China’s market they do so with a structured approach which makes it easy to work with, regardless of complex projects they want to deliver. Riccardo Benussi, Partner at the Munich-Milan Office, Dezan Shira & Associates

Growing trade relations between France and China

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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 China’s MOFCOM, over the six decades since the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations, bilateral trade has surged almost 800 times, reaching US$78.9 billion in 2023. China has emerged as France’s top trading partner beyond the EU, while France maintains its pivotal position as a significant trading ally for China within the EU.

Meanwhile, France’s bilateral sectoral deficit with China has expanded significantly, rising from EUR 1.1 billion in 2022 to EUR 2.92 billion (US$314.72 billion) in 2023. This indicates that France is importing more goods and services from China than it is exporting to the country. The increase in the trade deficit suggests a growing reliance on Chinese products within the French market.

On the other hand, China’s total imports from France reached US$37.33 billion during 2023, according to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade. This growth is indicative of China’s wider economic recovery and market reopening, suggesting a potential change in the France-China trade relationship.

In 2023, China’s leading exports to France consisted of electrical, electronic equipment (US$9.08 billion), machinery, energy components, boilers (US$6.97 billion), furniture, lighting signs, prefabricated buildings (US$2.59 billion), commodities not specified according to kind (US$2.08 billion), and vehicles other than railway, tramway (US$1.9 billion).

Top 5 Products Exported from China to France in 2023
Product category Value (US$) Billion
Electrical, electronic equipment 9.08
Machinery, nuclear reactors, boilers 6.97
Furniture, lighting signs, prefabricated buildings 2.59
Commodities not specified according to kind 2.08
Vehicles other than railway, tramway 1.9
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 2023
Product category Value (US$) Million
Beauty products 334
Packaged medicaments 197
Trunks and cases 191
Wheat 171
Gas turbines 135
Source: United Nations COMTRADE

Strategic areas of bilateral investment

French direct investment in China saw a remarkable surge of 585.8 percent year-on-year in the first two months of 2024, indicating a strong interest among French companies in the Chinese market. This surge underscores China’s attractiveness as a destination for investment, particularly amidst ongoing efforts to open up its economy and improve conditions for foreign investors.

Conversely, China’s investment presence in France is also gaining momentum. In recent years, China has become a significant source of foreign investment in France, contributing across various sectors, such as technology, infrastructure, and luxury goods. Chinese companies are increasingly drawn to the French market due to its strategic location within the EU and its skilled workforce. France’s proactive measures to attract foreign investment further support this trend, facilitating business operations and fostering innovation.

As of 2023, combined investment from both sides has surpassed US$26 billion, positioning China and France as leaders in cooperation among EU member states, with more than 2,000 French firms currently active in China.

In the same year, France’s direct investments in China rose by 77 percent to reach US$1.34 billion, as reported by MOFCOM.

Automotive

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.

Infrastructure

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’s visit to France, the two countries agreed to explore joint projects in third markets, particularly in Africa. Subsequently, discussions on this continued during reciprocal visits by Macron and Xi in 2023 and 2024, reflecting the ongoing commitment to explore opportunities for mutually beneficial infrastructure development initiatives in various regions.

Aerospace

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.

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In April 2023, Airbus has signed agreements with Chinese partners to establish a second production line at its Tianjin site, enhancing the final assembly capacity for its A320 family aircraft. This move aligns with Airbus’s goal of producing 75 A320 jets monthly globally by 2026. The agreements also include orders for 160 Airbus commercial aircrafts and cooperation with China National Aviation Fuel Group.

In November of the same year, Dedienne Aerospace opened up a factory in Shanghai specializing in producing new-generation aircraft engine brackets for China’s domestically developed C919 jet. The facility is expected to produce 100 aeroengine brackets annually for the next three years, exclusively for the Chinese market, with plans for further expansion to become one of the company’s major global factories, catering primarily to the Asian market.

Energy

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 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.

During Macron’s visit to China in 2023, the China National Nuclear Corporation and Electricité de France Group signed an MoU to promote low-carbon development. This agreement reflects joint efforts to tackle climate change. Additionally, Chairman Yu Jianfeng of China National Nuclear Corporation and CEO Raymond of Electricité de France Group discussed cooperation and future prospects, emphasizing shared interests in clean energy and international markets, showcasing a mutual commitment to energy transformation and climate action.

In March 2024, TotalEnergies and China Petroleum and Chemical Corporation (SINOPEC) entered into a Heads of Agreement (HoA) to establish a joint Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) production unit at a SINOPEC refinery in China. This collaboration aims to address the growing demand for sustainable aviation fuels and promote environmental responsibility in the aviation industry. The planned unit, to be jointly owned by SINOPEC and TotalEnergies, will have the capacity to produce 230,000 tons of SAF annually, utilizing local waste and residues from the circular economy, such as cooking oils and animal fats.

Luxury goods

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.

Sino-French investment protection, tax, and trade treaties

To strengthen their economic and trade ties, China and France have signed various bilateral treaties regarding trade, investment, and tax over the years.

Bilateral investment protection

  • 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.

Double tax

  • On the tax front, China and France signed the first Double Taxation Agreement (DTA) in 1984 and an updated one in 2013.
  • The 2013 DTA entered into force in early 2015 with several key revisions aimed at enhancing cooperation while addressing emerging challenges. It offered reduced withholding income tax rates, particularly on dividends, and clarified provisions regarding capital gains and permanent establishment, providing a more conducive environment for cross-border business activities between the two nations.

Under the DTA, withholding tax rates are outlined as follows:

  • Dividends: Rates differ depending on ownership and income source, ranging between 0, 5 percent and 10 percent. Notably, the lowest rate (i.e. 0 percent) applies if the dividends are derived from a sovereign wealth fund specified in the treaty.
  • Interest: Typically set at 10 percent;
  • Royalties: Rates vary from 6 percent to 10 percent, contingent on the type of royalties paid.

Trade

China and France have collaborated on multilateral trade initiatives, such as via the World Trade Organization and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum. Both countries seek a fair and transparent trading system.

Future France-China relations

The relationship between China and France has grown significantly over the past six decades, marked by increasing cooperation across various fields. Despite occasional differences, both nations have recognized the importance of collaboration, particularly in addressing global challenges like climate change and promoting African development.

Macron’s recent remarks underscore the extensive opportunities for cooperation, spanning from climate action to peacekeeping efforts. France’s commitment to maintaining strategic autonomy reflects its determination to shape its own policies.

Looking ahead, the future of China-France relations holds promise for continued growth and collaboration. By focusing on shared interests and fostering mutual understanding, both nations can contribute positively to global stability and prosperity.

Meanwhile, 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.

While there are certainly challenges to overcome, the trajectory of France-China relations remains very positive.

As the EU navigates its de-risking strategy, France emphasizes its opposition to decoupling from China while highlighting the importance of minimizing supply chain risks. French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire’s recent discussions in Beijing underscored the significance of maintaining cooperation with China, emphasizing the need for better access to Chinese markets and a balanced approach for foreign investors. Despite concerns about supply chain vulnerabilities, both countries reaffirmed their commitment to collaboration in various sectors, including climate change, aerospace development, and lunar research. These efforts reflect a nuanced approach to China-France relations within the broader context of the EU’s economic strategy, balancing economic interests with risk mitigation measures.

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 riccardo.benussi@dezshira.com.

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Dezan Shira & Associates assists foreign investors into China and has done so since 1992 through offices in Beijing, Tianjin, Dalian, Qingdao, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Ningbo, Suzhou, Guangzhou, Dongguan, Haikou, Zhongshan, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong. We also have offices in Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore, United States, Germany, Italy, India, and Dubai (UAE) and partner firms assisting foreign investors in The Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Australia. For assistance in China, please contact the firm at china@dezshira.com or visit our website at www.dezshira.com.

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