China's Xi Jinping has given French President Emmanuel Macron an unusually lavish welcome on a state visit, which some analysts see as a sign of Beijing's growing offensive to woo key allies within the European Union to counter the United States.
The two leaders visited southern China together on Friday, where Macron was due to drink Chinese tea with Xi in a former residence of his father in the city of Guangzhou, capital of the economic and manufacturing powerhouse of Guangdong province.
Such forays by Xi with visiting leaders are rare. Diplomats say it underlines the importance Beijing attaches to this relationship with a key member of the EU as it looks for support against what Xi has called "all-round containment, encirclement and suppression" by the U.S.
"All Chinese foreign policy offensives have the U.S.-China relationship in the background...so to work with any country, especially mid or big powers, like France, is something they'll try to do to counter the U.S." said Zhao Suisheng, a professor of China studies and foreign policy at the University of Denver.
Noah Barkin, an analyst with the Rhodium Group, said China's chief objective was to prevent Europe from aligning more closely with the United States.
"In this sense, Macron is perhaps Beijing's most important partner in Europe," he said. Macron is often considered by diplomats to be an important driver of key policies within the EU.
Macron travelled to China with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, both pressuring China on Ukraine, but failing to wrest any public shifts in position from Xi.
Still, Macron was given the full red carpet treatment.
Von der Leyen, who described China as "repressive" in a critical speech before her trip, cut a sometimes forlorn figure in Beijing, with a low-key greeting at the airport and not being invited to some state functions with Xi and Macron.
China's state-backed Global Times newspaper said in an editorial on Thursday: "It is clear to everyone that being a strategic vassal of Washington is a dead end. Making the China-France relationship a bridge for China-Europe cooperation is beneficial to both sides and to the world."
Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former French prime minister who has travelled extensively to China, told Reuters on the sidelines of a deal-signing ceremony in the Great Hall of the People that some of Xi's charm was having an effect.
"Isn't diplomacy, at one point or another, a bit of flattery?" he said. "There's always a bit of that in human relations. Each side plays with that."
In Washington, China's diplomatic engagement with France is being viewed with a degree of scepticism.
Beyond Ukraine, China would relish a realignment that draws it closer to Europe economically as relations with the United States fray, but such a shift is unlikely at this point, said people familiar with the U.S. government's thinking.
Washington is taking a wait-and-see approach to the European engagements with Beijing over Ukraine, according to the people, who declined to be named. On Thursday, Macron urged Beijing to talk sense to Russia over the war in Ukraine while von der Leyen said Xi expressed willingness to speak to Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Xi did not mention a possible conversation with Zelenskiy in China's official reports of his comments after the meetings.
Barkin, the analyst, said Macron did not appear to be getting much out of the trip.
"Macron seemed to believe he could charm Xi into shifting his approach on the war," he said. "He gave Xi a series of gifts - denouncing decoupling as a trap, bringing a huge business delegation along, and reaffirming his support for strategic autonomy - without getting much of anything in return."
China's wooing of Macron is part of a flurry of diplomatic moves this year as it attempts to wriggle out of containment by the United States amid differences over Taiwan, the Ukraine war and U.S. led restrictions on technology exports.
China upped its diplomatic spending by 12.2 percent this year, and leaders and senior officials from Singapore, Malaysia, Spain and Japan have visited over the past few weeks.
China helped broker a surprise detente between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March, with Beijing casting itself as a Middle East peacemaker motivated by its desire to shape a multi-polar world.
China-EU engagement will continue in the coming weeks with foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Germany's foreign minister due in Beijing.
"China and Europe can still be partners," said Wang Yiwei, director of Center for European Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. "Rather than systemic rivals or competitors."