Macron endorses China's Silk Road but warns against 'hegemony'

BEIJING, AFP -- French President Emmanuel Macron urged Europe Monday to take part in China's massive Silk Road infrastructure project but warned against "hegemony", saying both sides should share the benefits.

Macron, on the first day of a state visit, also called on Europe and China to team up on curbing climate change in the face of the US decision to withdraw from the Paris accord.

"Our destinies are linked," he said in a keynote speech on the future of Sino-French relations during a visit to the northern city of Xian, the starting point of the ancient Silk Road.

"The future needs France, Europe and China," Macron said, adding he would travel to China "at least once a year".

Macron started his three-day visit in Xian as a gesture to Chinese President Xi Jinping's huge New Silk Road project, an initiative to connect Asia and Europe by road, rail and sea.

The $1 trillion infrastructure programme is billed as a modern revival of the ancient Silk Road that once carried fabrics, spices and a wealth of other goods in both directions.

Known in China as "One Belt, One Road", the plan will see gleaming new road and rail networks built through Central Asia and beyond, and new maritime routes stretching through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.

The project has spurred both interest and anxiety in many countries, with some in Europe seeing it as an example of Chinese expansionism.

Macron said Europe should join the new silk road initiative but added a warning.

"They cannot be the roads of a new hegemony that will put the countries that they traverse in a vassal state," he said.

"Multilateralism means balanced cooperation."

The ancient Silk Roads were never purely Chinese, he said. "These roads are to be shared and they cannot be one way."

The United States and Europeans often accuse China of restricting access to its vast market even though they have opened up to Chinese imports.

France has a 30-billion-euro ($36 billion) trade deficit with China.

- Climate battle -

Macron's first official visit to Asia marks a new stage in his diplomacy, which has so far been concentrated on Europe and Africa.

He plans to seek a "strategic partnership" with Beijing on issues including terrorism.

In a French version of panda diplomacy, Macron has brought Xi a gift: a retired Republican Guard horse that is currently in quarantine in China.

On climate change, Macron said he would talk to Xi about "relaunching the climate battle" by preparing an increase in their engagements to combat global warming at the COP 24 talks in Poland later this year.

He praised China, the world's top polluter, for committing to the Paris accord after US President Donald Trump gave notification of America's withdrawal.

"China kept its word," he said. "You demonstrate your immense sense of responsibility."

Cooperation will "show the world that the French and Chinese are capable of making our planet great and beautiful again", he said in Chinese.

After Xian, Macron travelled to Beijing along with his delegation which includes some 60 business executives and representatives of institutions.

Macron and his wife Brigitte met Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan on Monday night. On Tuesday he will visit the Forbidden City, meet top Chinese officials and oversee the signing of business deals.

Human Rights Watch has urged Macron to call publicly for human rights improvements in China during his meeting with Xi, but the French president's office said the matter would be addressed privately.