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France's Sarkozy in China to repair ties, push gently on Iran

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is on a three-day visit to China aimed at mending relations and seeking Chinese support for tough new sanctions on Iran. It will require some delicate diplomacy.

The French and Chinese leaders in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

The French and Chinese leaders in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing

Tourism kicked off Nicolas Sarkozy's China visit with an excursion Wednesday to the ancient capital of Xian, home to the famous terracotta warriors.

But, amid various photo ops at historical sites and Sarkozy's presence at the opening of the World Expo in Shanghai later during the visit, the French leader is using his diplomatic skills to mend fences after two years of tension with Beijing, while also trying to convince the emerging power to back new UN sanctions on Iran.

His words of reconciliation began on day one of the trip.

"China has become an absolutely indispensable actor on the world stage," Sarkozy told China's state Xinhua news agency in an interview published Wednesday. "Today, there is not one major issue that we can handle without you."

His efforts appear to have been fruitful. France and China pledged to draw a line under past tensions over Tibet and breathe new life into their relationship by working together on issues from global monetary policy to Iran.

Sarkozy and his wife arriving at a dinner party in Beijing

Ties appear to have been mended amid the diplomatic niceties

Sarkozy and his host Hu Jintao signalled after talks that they had moved past a two year-old row over Tibet that plunged relations between France and China into the deep freeze.

"President Sarkozy's visit to China has opened a new page in Sino-French relations," Hu said in a joint media appearance with the French leader.

Sarkozy, who is in China with a high-profile entourage, including his economics and foreign affairs ministers and wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, met Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, where the two held the private talks. In addition to the question of diplomatic ties, these included discussion about Iran and possible new UN sanctions due to its nuclear program.

After the meeting, Sarkozy said China hoped to use dialogue to solve the problem, but France felt that if dialogue didn't work, sanctions would be necessary.

Troubled time

France's ties with China had been strained since 2008 for a number of reasons. In March of that year, relations soured after Sarkozy expressed shock at Beijing's crackdown in Tibet after protests there led to violence.

One month later, the Olympic torch was jostled in Paris on its way to the Beijing Games, incensing the Chinese leadership. Then in December, Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama, further alienating Beijing.

Sarkozy meeting the Dalai Lama in 2008

Sarkozy's 2008 meeting with the Dalai Lama left a bitter taste in many Chinese mouths

"Now (Sarkozy) wants to signal that China is not the adversary," Jean-Vincent Brisset, Asia researcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris, told Deutsche Welle.

"France needs a China that is not hostile to it, but Beijing feels that French policy toward it has been too inconsistent over the years. That's partly why it has chosen to be so hard on France," he added.

"After all, the German and British leaders met with the Dalai Lama, too."

This is Sarkozy's second state visit to China, and his fourth since his election in 2007.

Relations between the two had already begun to defrost somewhat after French Prime Minister Francois Fillon went to China last December.

Besides Iran, Chinese and French officials are expected to sign agreements covering the environment, sustainable development, economic cooperation and promotion of small business.

Sarkozy is also expected to present his ideas around the sensitive issue of the currency, which has in the past had China at loggerheads with the United States. Sarkozy has indicated he is interested in diversifying the global monetary system which would reflect a more complex world.

It will be a main topic at the G20 and G8 meetings which France will host next year.

China has been receptive to such ideas and has challenged the status quo of the dollar being the world's favored currency.

Iran impasse?

While mending ties appears to have been accomplished, Iran is likely to be a tougher issue, seeing that France is an enthusiastic supporter of a fourth round of beefed-up UN sanctions against Iran over its disputed nuclear program.

China, also a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is still interested in pursuing dialogue with Iran, and resistant to further sanctions.

Iran flag and UN symbol

The UN wants a fourth round of sanctions against Iran to really bite

Many in the West suspect Iran wants to build nuclear weapons; Iran insists the program is for civilian use only.

The impasse is unlikely to be solved by a thick layering on of compliments, according to Eberhard Sandschneider, China expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, who points to Beijing's strong economic ties with the Islamic republic. Last year, Beijing became Tehran's biggest trading partner and China depends on oil and gas-rich Iran for 11 percent of its energy needs.

"It's not going to be about Mr. Sarkozy convincing China with all his French charm if China doesn't see its own interests being served," Sandschneider told Deutsche Welle.

"The Chinese administration is going to weigh its interests and if it sees that it will gain more working with the West than in vetoing new sanctions, it will do that. But only then."

While France doesn't have much of a stick to use to convince Beijing to come on its side, the secret could be in emphasizing that a nuclear-armed Iran would not be in China's interests, especially if it leads to a destabilization of the region, all the way to China's western border.

"China has to consider, if it puts its economic interests with Iran under stress, where will it find replacement. That is surely one crucial part of these negotiations," Sandschneider said.

But Sarkozy is already armed with a friendly reminder, something of a carrot, according to his office.

"If oil were on the sanctions list, which is not at all certain right now, the Chinese know that oil-producing states would be ready to compensate for everything that would no longer be coming from Iran," a government spokesman told France's Le Figaro newspaper.

Author: Kyle James

Editor: Susan Houlton

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