Chinese premier visits Airbus as France waits for contracts

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao toured the assembly plant of the giant Airbus A380 on his arrival Sunday in France for an official visit that kicked off with the signing of a protocol opening the way to business projects worth billions of dollars.

Starting his trip, unusually, in this southwestern city, Wen underscored the business-first accent of his first official visit to France, which has courted China hard and now hopes for a concrete show of friendship, replete with contracts.

The accord Wen signed makes no solid commitments but provides a framework for a range of projects from aircraft sales to subcontracting, including, notably, an eventual assembly plant in China, officials here said.

Accompanied by Airbus chief Gustav Humbert and the head of the A380 program, Charles Champion, Wen toured the giant aircraft's assembly plant. He then visited the headquarters of satellite maker EADS-Astrium before heading to Paris.

"The Chinese prime minister saw for himself the importance and power" of Airbus, said Transport Minister Dominique Perben, among French officials who accompanied Wen on his tour.

There were expectations that an order for A320s, the mid-sized passenger jet, could be announced in Paris on Monday.

The European plane maker is looking to China to balance last month's purchase of 70 Boeing jets with a sizable one for Airbus, which is controlled by European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., or EADS. The official China Daily reported Thursday that a major order for A320s was expected during Wen's visit.

In the coming years, the rapidly expanding China will need some 2,700 aircraft, Airbus officials say, and Airbus is looking to capture 50 percent of the market.

Airbus sold five of its superjumbos to China Southern Airlines Co. earlier this year.

Wen also will visit Marseille and the resort towns of Nice and Cannes, but more for business than pleasure, during his French stay which ends Wednesday.

He flew to the French capital after his Toulouse tour Sunday and was to meet with President Jacques Chirac on Monday, as well as Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who was hosting a formal dinner.

France is hoping to cash in on China's growing needs in a variety of sectors. The French president visited China last year, after a January visit to France by Chinese President Hu Jintao. The two countries launched a "strategic global partnership" and celebrated each other in a year devoted to each other's culture.

France has worked to lift the EU arms embargo imposed on China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, when Chinese troops killed hundreds of protesting students and workers. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei has called the embargo an "anachronism that does not reflect the true state of relations between China and the international community."

However, human rights issues are expected to be brought up, too.

Wen's agenda includes time out Monday for cultural encounters at the elegant Orsay Museum and elsewhere in subsequent days. But the accent is on business.

Tuesday takes Wen to the south of France for visits to Eurocopter and the site of an experimental fusion reactor to be built in Cadarache, near Marseille.

Before leaving Wednesday from Nice for Bratislava, Slovakia, Wen is to take in a visit of Alenia Space, Alcatel's satellite systems arm, in Cannes. Meetings and dinners with local officials also were planned, AP reported. V.A.

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