Chinese President Xi Jinping arrived in the French Riviera on Sunday on the final leg of his European tour as his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron tries to forge a united European front to contend with China's global ambitions.
Xi arrived at the airport of the iconic resort city of Nice accompanied by his wife Peng Liyuan to be welcomed by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and an honor guard.
He goes first to the nearby principality of Monaco before face-to-face talks with Macron.
The Chinese president, who has made establishing China as a global player central to his government, arrived from Italy where the government signed up to Xi's landmark new "Silk Road" project, a massive undertaking to join Asia to Europe.
The project has raised eyebrows in Washington and the EU where critics say it will give China too much sway although Xi stresses it would be a two-way street of investment and trade.
On Monday, the two leaders head to Paris for the official state visit, marking 55 years since Charles de Gaulle established diplomatic relations with the Communist nation.
A series of cooperation deals on nuclear power, aerospace and clean energy initiatives, some involving lucrative contracts, are expected to be signed.
Xi's visit poses a particular challenge for Macron, who wants to deepen EU ties with China while also pushing back against Beijing's growing global clout.
Europe's distrust of Huawei, which is poised to become the dominant player in next-generation telecom networks worldwide, is emblematic of the increasingly rocky relationship.
"We have a lot to do together in terms of climate action, in terms of multilateralism, but we also have to defend our own interests," Macron said in Brussels on Thursday.
He has lauded the EU's "awakening" to the challenges posed by China, which the bloc now labels a "rival" despite being Europe's biggest trading partner.
"The reality is that the world has changed significantly -- China is not the country it once was, and we are dealing with a very major partner," a Macron aide said ahead of Xi's visit.
On Tuesday, Macron and Xi will be joined by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to explore "points of convergence" ahead of an EU-China summit in Brussels next month.
Two-way Silk Road?
Macron is expected to press his calls for increased "reciprocity" regarding market access to China, in particular Beijing's demands that foreign companies hand over vital technological know-how in order to invest in the country.
"If we're going to talk about a new Silk Road, then it must be one that goes in both directions," Finance Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told BFM television on Friday.
The US is pressuring European allies to not use the Huawei technology, saying it creates a security risk by potentially letting Beijing snoop on sensitive communications.
So far France has not ruled out using Huawei gear -- and Monaco has already signed a deal with the Chinese giant to roll out a 5G network as soon as this year.
Beijing has bristled at the suspicions, accusing Washington of trying to escalate President Donald Trump's trade battle with China.
"China is hoping that Europe can show more autonomy (on Huawei), which would be better for future cooperation," said Xu Tiebing, a professor of international relations at China's Communication University in Beijing.
'Reality very different'
Despite the many sources of friction, France's goal is to engage China as a closer partner as Washington makes a pointed withdrawal from global affairs under Trump's "America First" policy.
For example, Macron may seek more Chinese support of the French-backed G5 Sahel force fighting Islamic extremists in Western Africa.
China has been investing heavily in a diplomatic offensive across Africa, promising to help build infrastructure projects as part of the new Silk Road, officially called the Belt and Road Initiative.
Aides say Macron will press Xi to ensure such projects are fair and explore the participation of French companies amid allegations the deals could load African countries with unsustainable debt loads.
He is also expected to urge Xi to commit to the ambitious global bid to cut carbon emissions, though analysts note that China is still building dozens of coal-burning power plants.
France also plans to voice concerns about rights abuses against China's Uighur Muslim minority, including allegations of mass internments in the restive Xinjiang province.
"China talks about defending multilateralism and humanity's common future to anyone wanting to listen, but the reality is very different," said Emmanuel Dubois de Prisque, a China expert with the Thomas More Institute in Paris.