Tuesday, October 12, 2004

China and Chirac

French President Jacques Chirac visited ventures by his countrymen in the business hub of Shanghai Tuesday as he wrapped up a China trade mission that yielded big contracts but failed to cinch a hoped-for deal on a high-speed railway. The new contracts between French companies and Chinese partners are worth about euro 4 billion (US$5 billion), and include deals for trains from France's Alstom SA, water and waste treatment projects, gas stations and the sale of six new passenger jets by Airbus.

But the visit already has drawn disappointment back home after failing to produce any announcement on a major high-speed railway link planned between Beijing and Shanghai. Alstom's TGV trains are up against Japan's bullet train technology for that project. There also was no word on anticipated Chinese orders for Airbus's new A380 «superjumbo.» On Tuesday morning, Chirac visited the offices of French computer game maker Ubisoft and Shanghai's overhead light rail line, which uses Alstom trains and technology. He was due to fly to Hong Kong later Tuesday, where he was scheduled to meet the Chinese territory's Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

French companies are trying to close the gap with European rivals Britain and Germany in exploiting China's vast markets, although its investments this year are set to lag even further behind other European countries. By the end of 2003, France had invested US$6.1 billion (4.9 billion), compared with Germany's US$8.9 billion (7.2 billion) and Britain's US$11.4 billion (9.2 billion), Chinese trade ministry figures show. Seeking to give French business a leg-up, Chirac went out of his way to charm his hosts, quoting Chinese poetry and echoing Beijing's repeated calls for «mutual respect» in foreign relations.

In a speech at a Shanghai university on Monday, he pushed for stronger economic and political ties with China, saying the countries had an obligation to balance U.S. global influence. Discussion of human rights abuses has been avoided, with Chirac instead discreetly handing over a list of imprisoned dissidents _ played down by French officials as a routine gesture by a visiting European leader. Even the names upon it remained a secret. The French head of state also called for an end to the European Union's arms embargo against China _ imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on student protesters in Beijing _ describing it as «a measure motivated purely and simply by hostility.

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