China rolls out red carpet for France's Chirac
BEIJING, Oct 26 (Reuters) China treated French President Jacques Chirac to a lavish ceremonial welcome today at the formal start of a state visit capping a decade of improving ties with one of Beijing's strongest Western allies.
Chirac arrived in the Chinese capital yesterday to be briefed by French business leaders at the start of a four-day visit seen as the last major foreign trip of his mandate, and during which he is expected to sign a number of business deals.
Chirac was welcomed by Chinese President Hu Jintao and a full military parade at Tiananmen Square, site of a bloody crackdown on protesters in 1989 that led to a European arms export ban which Chirac now wants lifted.
The two leaders reviewed a column of troops at the square, festooned with red flags of China and a single French flag, before a military march past.
Chirac's vocal, though so far unsuccessful, support for an end to the EU ban earned him tributes in China's official press at the start of the visit, his fourth to China since he was first elected president in 1995.
Chirac, whose term in office ends next May, was also due to meet Premier Wen Jiabao and other top officials on a day set aside for diplomacy and economic and cultural deals as well as a question forum with local students.
French and Chinese negotiators held talks late into Wednesday evening on the possible sale of Airbus aircraft to China, as well as the completion of plans to build an assembly site for single-aisle Airbus jets in Tianjin, eastern China.
Political talks between the two permanent UN Security Council members were expected to focus on the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and China and instability in Lebanon.
Chirac has welcomed China's recent decision to increase its peacekeeping presence in Lebanon to 1,000 extra troops as a sign of its increasing global engagement.
French diplomats said Chirac would stress the importance of international unity on UN moves to sanction North Korea in talks with Hu today.
Paris believes it is important to send a clear message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, in part to avoid sending misleading signals to Iran over its own nuclear ambitions.
North Korea's nuclear test on October 9 drew UN sanctions backed by China, the reclusive state's long-time supporter.
Beijing fears any over-reaction could risk North Korea's collapse, creating instability and a wave of refugees into China.
Diplomats said Chirac would raise rights issues including Western concerns over foreign media curbs in China, though it was unclear whether he would do so directly with Hu.
China rejects Western efforts to link rights with trade, which has improved sharply with France since Paris angered China by selling frigates and warplanes to Taiwan in the early 1990s.
After Beijing, Chirac's visit will take him to the inland city of Wuhan, where French car firm Peugeot Citroen plans a second factory, and the imperial heritage site of Xian.
REUTERS LL BST0915