President Emmanuel Macron of France has responded to China’s "panda diplomacy" by offering counterpart Xi Jinping a horse of the elite Republic Guard.
The offer of Vesuvius, an eight-year old brown gelding from the presidential cavalry corps, came as Mr Macron embarked on a three-day visit to China with his wife Brigitte.
The French First Lady in November became the godmother of a baby panda lent by Beijing to a zoo near Paris.
The choice of the horse was an "unprecedented diplomatic gesture" according to the French presidency; it came after the Chinese president heaped praise on the 104 horsemen who escorted him during his last visit to Paris in 2014.
"It mattered a lot for the president, even if it was very complicated to import a horse for sanitary reasons. It’s a symbol of French excellence," said an Elysee official. The horse, which was flown in a special plane, is currently stuck in quarantine.
It came with a special harness and sword from Mr Macron.
France has become accustomed to its young new leader’s attention to symbols and historical references.
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He wowed US president Donald Trump by inviting him to attend France’s Bastille Day military parade down the Champs-Elysées last July to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the US entry into World War One.
Before that, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin was treated to the pomp of Versailles, the palace of Sun King Louis XIV.
Xing Hua, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, told The Telegraph there was nothing "strange" about the gift.
"The horse is an animal which means running, rolling ahead ceaselessly. I think the president sees China as a country which develops rapidly like a horse," he said. By comparison, Mr Macron’s political movement, En Marche, refers more to a stroll than a trot.
Perhaps controversially, Mr Hua also pointed out that President Macron’s Chinese name is Ma-Ke-Long, which means "horse vanquishes dragon".
That didn’t stop Lu Kang, foreign ministry spokesperson, saying: "China expresses its thanks and appreciation for the friendly act by the French side."
Mr Macron kicked off his visit in the northern city of Xian where he called on China and Europe to work together on Beijing’s "Belt and Road" initiative – a $1 trillion investment project aiming to build a modern-day "Silk Road" – as Theresa May prepares to visit Beijing to forge closer economic ties for the UK.
He is then due to head back to Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping.
Belt and Road aims to link Asia, Africa and much of Europe with massive infrastructure projects.
It has been seen as a major part of Mr Xi’s drive to position China at the heart of a new world order, but some have expressed concerns it signifies China’s expansionist ambitions.
Mr Macron, who is travelling with 60 French business executives, said France and Europe should join the new initiative.
But he warned: "They cannot be the roads of a new hegemony that will put the countries that they traverse in a vassal state. Multilateralism means balanced cooperation."
Mr Macron also called on Europe and China, the world’s top polluter, to team up on curbing climate change in the face of the US decision to withdraw from the Paris accord.
"China kept its word," he said, referring to its respect of the COP 21 accord. "You demonstrate your immense sense of responsibility."
Cooperation will "show the world that the French and Chinese are capable of making our planet great and beautiful again", he said in Chinese.
UK chancellor Phillip Hammond last year pitched Britain as a “natural partner” for the scheme, as he sought new opportunities for post-Brexit trade. Mrs May is expected to visit Beijing later this month for a long-delayed trip aimed at boosting trade ties between China and the UK.
Additional reporting by Christine Wei