Chinese President Xi Jinping (L Front) holds a welcoming ceremony for French President Francois Hollande (R Front) in Beijing, capital of China, April 25, 2013. [Xinhua]
French President François Hollande is scheduled to make his first state visit to China. The visit also marks Chinese PresidentXi Jinping's most important Western guest so far since taking office last month.
There is reason to believe Hollande's visit will be a landmark event for Sino-French and Sino-European relations, which in turn reflects the long-term rapport between China and the West.
France is in the midst of its worst economic crisis in history. Public debt has reached 1.8 trillion euros, accounting for around 90 percent of its GDP; the unemployment rate now exceeds 10 percent, and economic growth is a paltry 0.1 percent – all signs that suggest the Hexagon is on the verge of recession.
But despite the gloom, France is still one of the five countries in the United Nations Security Council, one of the two pillars in the European Union (another being Germany). Nuclear capable France possesses advanced science and technology, and its influence is also reflected in its strong political and military presence in Africa.
As a member state of the G7 and a major initiator of G20, France traditionally plays a bigger role in international affairs than its comprehensive national strength would suggest.
In 2003, France led the opposition in the United Nations to protest the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2011, France took the lead in the Libya crisis intervention, leading to the breakdown of the Gaddafi regime. Earlier this year, France sent troops to Mali.
Through such efforts France proves that it is a country too important to neglect. Consequently, Hollande's first visit to China deserves serious attention.
Sino-French relations have been eventful with series of existing problems. The challenge lies in how to find common ground to strengthen the bilateral relationship while supporting mutual interests.
It is fair to say China does not know enough about France. The lack of understanding of France's China policies then poses a big challenge on our efforts to put forward a stable and healthy Sino-French relationship.
Xi and Hollande: Unfamiliar partners
The two countries' new presidents, Xi Jinping and François Hollande, do not know each other. Amid speculation, what is certain is that Hollande has never come to China before – the only leader in major Western countries who never visited China, an extremely rare occurrence.
French personnel close to Hollande said the president was not particularly interested in China and Asia, partly owning to his earlier educational and work experience in the U.S.
But Hollande has shown two friendly gestures to China after taking office: appointing Paul Jean-Ortiz, a celebrated "China Hand" as his diplomatic adviser and choosing China's Ambassador to France Kong Quan as the first foreign diplomat that he would meet.
The French government's positive stance toward China was naturally welcomed by China.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius visited Beijing in July, two months after Hollande's successful bid for presidency. In March this year, Martine Aubry, former French Socialist Party (Parti Socialiste) leader and current Mayor of Lille, visited Beijing as Fabius' special envoy. Not long ago, Fabius visited China again to lay out the so-called red carpet for Hollande's China visit.
Both parties have made full preparations for the meeting. The two countries have enough political wisdom to achieve mutual interest in spite of disputes that include an arms embargo against China, recognition of China's market economy and discriminatory regulation on China's investments in France.
Meanwhile among the general public, people are more concerned about how the two new leaders would find common ground in the bilateral relationship, which still needs consolidating to result in a win-win result.