In what is widely considered to be somewhat of a fence-mending tour, French President Nicolas Sarkozy starts a three-day visit to China today, ahead of Friday's opening ceremony for the World Expo in Shanghai, where he is due to inaugurate France's pavilion.
The president is also expected to seek support for United Nations sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, as well as promote his vision of an overhaul of the global monetary system - making it less dependent on the US dollar - in his meetings with China leaders, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.
Chinese analysts say Sarkozy's visit could lay the groundwork for normalizing bilateral relations, but they don't expect China to compromise on core issues as it pursues a sound relationship with European Union members.
Ties became strained in 2008, as protesters disrupted the Beijing Olympic torch relay through Paris and Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama. The meeting drew the ire of China and prompted Chinese leaders to postpone the 11th China- EU summit.
Sarkozy also implied that he might not attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games, but he ended up attending.
The president will kick off his visit in Xi'an, northwest Shaanxi Province. He plans to meet with Hu today, top legislator Wu Bangguo tomorrow and Wen on Friday.
He will also open the French Pavilion and attend the opening ceremony of the World Expo in Shanghai with his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, who normally does not travel with him during foreign trips.
Economic Minister Christine Lagarde and other ministers will accompany Sarkozy, and he is likely to present his proposal for a diversified global monetary system that has the potential to weaken the dollar's dominant status.
The diversified monetary system is also a major point Sarkozy plans to raise at the G8 and G20 summits to be held in France next year. But a presidential adviser told Reuters that neither country this week will address the monetary question in terms of specific currencies.
A new round of UN sanctions against Iran is expected to make the agenda, though. Sarkozy is among the global leaders backing the sanctions, but China has maintained calls for dialogue in lieu of more sanctions. Iran is China's third-largest supplier of crude oil, following Saudi Arabia and Angola.
The visit marks Sarkozy's fourth visit to China.
"The upcoming visit will create a good atmosphere for the future economic and cultural cooperation between the two nations and lay the groundwork for normalizing relations between them," said Chen Zhimin, vice director of the Center for European Studies at Fudan University. "Sarkozy is not utterly against China, and he had largely inherited the foreign policy of former president Jacques Chirac after taking office in 2007. In fact, many of his unfriendly actions, including meeting with the Dalai Lama, were prompted by … pressure from all political forces in France."
Feng Zhongping, dean of the Center for European Studies at the China Institutes of Contem-porary International Relations, told the Global Times that the meetings between leaders of the two countries are a good start for warming relations, but a tangible outcome is unlikely.
That's different than during his last visit, when Sarkozy struck billions of dollars' worth of deals with China, including the building of two reactors in Guangdong Province and an order for 160 Airbus planes worth $20 billion.
A staff member of the French Chamber of Commerce, who declined to be named, said Tuesday that the business sector in France is looking forward to the upcoming meetings.
The employee said they are hoping the friendly gesture by Sarkozy brings more tangible benefits and business opportunities in the future, as relations between the two countries begin to thaw.
China's foreign ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said last week that the "China-France relationship is facing new development opportunities. And China is willing to work with France to promote the sound and stable development of bilateral relations."
Yang Guozheng, a professor in the French department at Peking University, told the Global Times that in seeking relations with France, "Harmony should always be a priority, but there are some areas in which China won't bend."
"China is unlikely to compromise on core issues," he said.
Sarkozy's visit comes at a time when China is engaged in "expo diplomacy," a concept first raised by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in early March during the annual gathering of China's top leadership.
"The World Expo is a good platform and opportunity for leaders of all countries, including President Sarkozy, to showcase their countries' achievements in all aspects and improve their relations with China," Chen said.
The 2010 World Expo will run from Saturday through October 31 under the motto "Better City - Better Life."
China said that more than 190 countries and regions, as well as more than 50 international organizations, have registered to participate in the Shanghai World Expo, and about 70 million visitors are expected to attend the event.