At the invitations of state leaders of Italy, Monaco and France, Chinese President Xi Jinping is paying state visits to these three European nations from March 21 to 26.
With the United States turning to be more conservative and protectionist, the present international order is volatile and changeable. Under these circumstances, strengthening ties between China and Europe is in line with the interest of both sides. Due to the increasing political trust and mutual understanding, China-EU relations have witnessed sound growth momentums during the past years. In terms of commercial exchange, China’s trade volume with the U.S. was US$580 billion in 2018. However, if we regard the 28-member European Union (EU) as an integrated market, its total trade volume with China surpassed US$680 billion last year, about US$100 billion more than that of the United States.
These are also the first outbound state visits made by the Chinese president in 2019. Why did China choose the three European countries as the first destinations?
Italy is a nation boasting ancient civilization and long history. As the original place of the Renaissance, Italy is best known for its achievements in literature, painting, sculpture, music, philosophy and many scientific fields. The country has exercised a dominant influence on subsequent European and even global development for centuries with poets, artists and philosophers such as Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Galieo and many other famous names.
The old Silk Road more than 2,000 years ago connected China with Italy closely, setting up a communication bridge between the East and the West. In the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), Italian explorer and writer Marco Polo traveled in China for 18 years and recorded his Chinese experience in a book known as “The Travels of Marco Polo.” In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Italian priest Matteo Ricci first arrived in Macao in 1582. He became the first European to enter the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1601 at the invitation of Emperor Wanli.
Several days before his Italian visit, President Xi wrote a letter in reply to the principal and eight students of Convitto Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele II, a famous boarding school in Rome, encouraging Italian students to be “Marco Polo in the new era” and make contributions to cultural exchanges between the two great countries. The Italian school has been teaching science-related courses in Chinese since 2009. Moreover, China and Italy signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to jointly advance the construction of the Belt and Road during Xi’s state visit to the country March 23, becoming the first of the Group of Seven industrial nations to publicly support the initiative.
Monaco is a European nation with only 2 square kilometers of territory and about 40,000 residents. In spite of its tiny size, China attaches the same importance to the country as it does to bigger countries. During the past 20 years, trade volume between China and Monaco has increased by 11 times.
Xi’s visit to Monaco is the first to the country by a Chinese head of state, which bears historical significance for developing bilateral relations. Prince Albert II, the present reigning monarch of Monaco, has visited China 10 times during the past years. As a sports enthusiast, he attended the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2014 Nanjing Youth Olympics.
France is not only a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, but also one of the most important nations in the European Union. With the pending exit of Britain from the bloc, the position of France will be more prominent in the future. France was also the first major Western country to set up formal diplomatic relations with China. This year marks the 55th anniversary of Sino-French diplomatic ties. In January 1964, then French President Charles de Gaulle took the lead in Western countries to establish diplomatic relationship with China.
Both China and France are supporters of multilateralism and have achieved many results in cooperation on global issues such as climate change and global governance. Keeping close ties with China is also crucial for France. The ongoing yellow vest protest, the largest in the country since 1968, has not only shaken the political foundation of Emmanuel Macron’s administration, but also shown the complexity of the French reform. Meanwhile, the U.S. unilateralism and Brexit mean that France cannot solely rely on its traditional allies any more. If France takes the chance to further improve relations with China, it will surely reap more tangible benefits and help Macron tide over difficulties.
(The author is editor-in-chief of the Shenzhen Daily with a Ph.D. from the Journalism and Communication School of Wuhan University.)