Macron in China: a visit paved with good intentions
In the first week of April, French President Emmanuel Macron paid a three-day state visit to China. By all accounts, the trip went well with Chinese authorities sparring no expenses to make their guest feel welcome. Macron secured many deals for French companies, had ample opportunity to exchange directly with Xi Jinping, and was even treated to an afternoon tea at the former residence of the Chinese leader’s father in Guangzhou. For Chinese diplomats and state media, the main takeaway from the visit was that the two leaders and, by extension, their countries enjoy an amicable and cordial relationship.
However, French and European assessments of the trip have been far less charitable. The deals secured by Macron, as well as the – lack of – Chinese commitments concerning the war in Ukraine, left many French observers unimpressed. In addition, despite Macron’s intent to project European unity, notably via the inclusion of Commission head Ursula von der Leyen to his delegation, several European partners were frustrated by the French leader’s ambiguous statements during and following the visit. A state visit that could have brought some much-needed clarity to EU-China relations has instead underlined persistent disagreements between member states.
Several European leaders preceded Macron in China following the lifting of the country’s strict zero-Covid restrictions at the end of last year. In particular, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with Xi Jinping shortly after the Chinese leader secured a historic third term in November 2022. At the time, the timing of Scholz’s visit had raised eyebrows from European partners, including France. Nevertheless, the head of the European Council Charles Michel and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez both followed suit in the months preceding the French state visit.
More so than his European counterparts, Macron appeared keen to strengthen the EU’s voice concerning China. He invited Commission head Ursula von der Leyen to join his delegation and placed peace in Ukraine at the top of his visit’s agenda. And throughout his visit, his calls to avoid economic decoupling in favor of “de-risk[ing]” echoed the Commission’s rhetoric. However, it was also apparent that both European leaders were at times singing from different hymn sheets. On his first day in Beijing, Macron told a gathering of the French expat community that China could play a “major role” in ending the war in Ukraine.
By contrast, just before leaving for Beijing, Ursula von der Leyen gave a remarkably dour assessment of EU-China relations in a speech in Brussels. She accompanied her rejection of decoupling in favor of “de-risking” with an explicit warning that “the Chinese Communist Party's clear goal is a systemic change of the international order with China at its center”. She also called out Xi Jinping’s enabling of Moscow’s “atrocious and illegal invasion of Ukraine”, as well as China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The rhetorical differences did not go unnoticed in Beijing. While the French leader was treated to a state banquet and a military reception, Chinese officials hosted a simple reception for the EU official. Chinese diplomats attacked Von der Leyen’s positions as “wishful thinking” and state media employees highlighted the difference in treatment between her and Macron. And Xi Jinping himself warned the head of the Commission that her institution should “avoid misinterpretation or misjudgment” for the sake of “the fundamental and long-term interests of the EU”.
The quest for strategic autonomy
In an interview he gave on the plane from Beijing to Guangzhou, Macron spoke at length about his intention to reinforce Europe’s “strategic autonomy” and to turn the EU into a “third superpower”. In that context, he was especially worried that the development of Europe’s industrial and military capabilities might be interrupted by being “caught up in crises that are not ours”. In the same interview, Macron went on to warn against the risk of “an acceleration concerning Taiwan” and pleaded for Europe to move at its own pace, independently of “the US tempo and a Chinese overreaction”.
The French leader’s statements did not match Ursula von der Leyen’s press conference the previous day, in which she had asserted that “stability in the Taiwan Strait is of paramount importance [to the EU]”. By contrast, their Chinese interlocutor was very clear, with Xi Jinping warning that it was illusory for “anyone [to count] on China to make concessions … over Taiwan”. As Macron’s plane was leaving the Chinese airspace, Beijing launched a simulated “Taiwan encirclement” exercise.
The other major objective of the visit was to secure some measure of Chinese support concerning the war in Ukraine. Europeans were aghast when Xi traveled to Moscow to meet Vladimir Putin in March and are increasingly worried that Beijing might start providing arms to Russia. However, Macron failed to convince Xi to roll back its partnership with Russia, with the Chinese leader only agreeing to call his Ukrainian counterpart “when the conditions are right”. And in response to Von der Leyen’s more overt warnings that China providing military equipment to Russia would "significantly harm" its relationship with the EU, Chinese officials replied that "the Ukrainian crisis is not a problem between China and the EU.”
Mixed reactions across the Atlantic
Given the meager concessions offered by Beijing, Macron’s calls for a renewed emphasis on strategic autonomy were met with skepticism from many of his European partners. Germany’s Defense Minister Boris Pistorius called the French leader’s comments about Europe being in danger of becoming a “vassal” of the United States “unfortunate.” And, on her own tour around China last week, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said that the EU “cannot be indifferent” to tensions between China and Taiwan.
Beyond Berlin, in a joint press conference with Macron in Amsterdam, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called on Europeans “to speak with one voice” and asserted that “the relationship with the United States is essential”. The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the lower house of the Czech Parliament Marek Ženíšek was less diplomat and called the French leader’s comments about Taiwan “shameful and wrong”. And an anonymous French diplomat told Reuters that “the Baltics, Nordics, Eastern Europeans” were not on the same page as Macron.
Nevertheless, the French President’s calls for more European strategic autonomy also have their supporters. Following the state visit, head of the European Council Charles Michel told French television that “quite a few [European leaders] really think like Emmanuel Macron.” And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán explicitly backed his French counterpart by calling for the EU to “think through whether the American foreign policy interests coincide with the European ones”.
The United States has for its part kept a low profile. Following Macron’s controversial interview, the White House said it remained "confident" in the two countries’ bilateral relationship. Several conservative voices were more vindictive, with Republican Senator Marco Rubio questioning US support for Europe in Ukraine, Republican chairman of the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party calling the comments “a massive propaganda win” for China, and former President Donald Trump accusing Macron of “kissing Xi’s ass”.
President Macron’s visit to China and his subsequent comments about Taiwan and Europe’s relationship with Beijing and Washington have brought the EU’s internal foreign policy divergences to the fore. At the very least, his renewed call for strategic autonomy has put the issue back at the center of the European policy debate and might yet lead to the strengthening of Europe’s industrial and military capabilities. Given the downward trajectory of the China-US relation, the EU is running out of time to chart a course that preserves the transatlantic alliance without irreparably damaging relations with the world’s other superpower.
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