Chirac mixes business and diplomacy on China visit

Updated: 2006-10-25 16:34

French President Jacques Chirac leads an elite business contingent to China on Wednesday, hoping to seize a greater share of the world's fourth largest economy on a 4-day state visit. [More Photos on Chirac visit]

Arriving on possibly the last major foreign trip of his mandate, Chirac hopes to capitalize on a decade of steadily warming ties with a final flourish of deals including sales of railway equipment and breakthroughs on banking and energy. [Chirac taps China's French connections]

France's President Jacques Chirac enters a car after arriving at Beijing airport October 25, 2006. French President Chirac leads an elite business contingent to China on Wednesday, hoping to seize a greater share of the world's fourth largest economy on a 4-day state visit. [Reuters] 

"The Chinese love Chirac. He is the only Western head of state who really took a gamble on China politically and economically," said a senior French diplomat ahead of the trip.

Although the two countries are expected to sign up to 18 official accords, French officials played down the prospect of a spectacular tally of deals on Chirac's fourth trip to China amid fierce US competition for several big contracts.

Chirac arrived in Beijing accompanied by some 30 banking, energy and manufacturing chiefs.

His itinerary includes talks with President Hu Jintao on the economy, trade and global tension over nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran.

Chirac will stress the importance of international unity on United Nations moves to sanction Pyongyang for conducting a nuclear test to avoid sending a damaging signal to Iran over that country's nuclear ambitions, French diplomats said.

North Korea's nuclear test on October 9 drew UN sanctions backed by China.

China, however, has drawn back from calls from Washington to cut fuel and aid to North Korea and to try to persuade its leader Kim Jong-il back to disarmament talks.

On Tuesday China reiterated calls for more diplomacy.


Behind the scenes, Chinese authorities are also putting out feelers to assess the future of European political integration after the collapse of an EU referendum blocked by French voters last year and the prospects for French elections next April.

Chirac, 73, has not yet said if he will run for a third term next April, but his visit to China is widely seen as a swan song designed to brush up his legacy abroad as he strives to inject fresh vigor into the final stretch of his mandate at home.

"What the Chinese are interested in is what happens after Chirac regarding their interests," a diplomat said.

On the economic front, Chirac will press a bid by French state-controlled Areva, which is vying with US Westinghouse for an UF$8 billion deal to build nuclear reactors.

A source close to the talks said China may prefer to opt for the construction of one plant along with the transfer of technology allowing it to build another three -- a sensitive economic issue that has clouded two years of talks so far.

Chirac's visit is also seen as a last-ditch opportunity for France's Societe Generale to snatch a US$3 billion banking deal from US rival Citigroup, whose consortium is reported to be ahead in negotiations to buy debt-ridden Guangdong Bank.

Heavy engineering firm Alstom is likely to net a deal to sell locomotives to China without making immediate progress on a bid to build a high-speed line, officials said.

French-based Airbus, meanwhile, is awaiting final approval for plans to build its first offshore assembly plant in the eastern city Tianjin and hopes to sell more planes to China.

During his visit Chirac will inaugurate construction of a second Peugeot Citroen car factory in the central industrial city of Wuhan before a sight-seeing trip to Xi'an.