French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen just visited China. You can bet Joe Biden and his national security team are gnashing their teeth over Macron’s Gaullist diplomacy.
So are many Europeans. It’s not just the predictably fruitless attempt to persuade the Chinese to help negotiate an end to the war. It’s also Macron’s touting of French strategic autonomy, in tune with Xi Jinping’s longstanding aim to drive a wedge between Europe and the US.
Macron allowed Xi to get away with saying nothing consequential on Ukraine—no criticism of Russia, no commitment to a peace process, not even a promise to make a phone call to Zelensky—while simply repeating the mantra about how awful use of nuclear weapons would be and how essential is humanitarian aid to war victims.
Washington must be particularly chagrined that Macron would give Beijing the gift of promising to stay out of the tensions over Taiwan. Macron had the audacity, moreover, to speak for Europe when he said “the great risk” Europe faces is that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy.”
In an interview, he was quite specific: “The question Europeans need to answer … is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction.” That unqualified support of the One China principle was surely music to Xi’s ears.
A different view from the EU’s leader
Fortunately, von der Leyen is not on the same page as Macron—not on world order, not on Taiwan and Ukraine, not on human rights. Prior to the trip, she issued a blunt statement about China’s efforts to establish a “new world order.” As reported by the Wall Street Journal:
“Citing China’s backing for Russia in the Ukraine war, its Belt and Road global infrastructure initiative and its assertiveness in multilateral bodies, Ms. von der Leyen said the Chinese Communist Party’s ‘clear goal is a systemic change of the international order with China at its center.’”
And in that new order, “individual rights are subordinated to national sovereignty. Where security and economy take prominence over political and civil rights.”
She’s on the mark: Xi Jinping’s “Global Security Initiative,” announced several months ago, proposes a development model in which regime security, internal controls, and divorce from Western commercial and financial institutions are central to a country’s stability and prosperity. The model would seem to be China’s answer to Joe Biden’s democracy-vs.-autocracy framework, which Xi explicitly rejected when they held their summit meeting last November.
On Taiwan, von der Leyen again departed from Macron’s hands-off statement. She told Xi: “The threat of, or the use of, force to change the status quo is unacceptable, and it is important that the tensions that might occur should be resolved through dialogue.”
Neither her declaration nor Macron’s stance kept China from carrying out a three-day military exercise near Taiwan, evidently in retaliation for Kevin McCarthy’s hosting of Taiwan’s president.
As for the war in Ukraine, von der Leyen took a much tougher and more principled stance than Macron. In the same speech I mentioned, she was critical of China’s peace plan, saying that any proposal “which would in effect consolidate Russian annexations” of Ukrainian territory—and that is precisely what China’s proposal does—“is simply not a viable plan.”
“How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations,” she added. That was not at all Macron’s message to Xi, probably because he and the many business executives who accompanied him are more concerned about trade and the EU’s trade deficit with China (topping $400 billion) than about human rights. Reportedly, Macron said nothing about Xinjiang or Hong Kong.
A clear gain for China
In short, the Chinese have plenty of reasons to believe their lavish attention to Macron paid off. They drew him to their side on the war and Taiwan without giving anything of substance in return.
From China’s standpoint, the EU visit marks another diplomatic win over weak links in the US chain of partners—such as Saudi Arabia, whose normalization of ties with Iran was brokered by China, and Brazil, which has agreed with China to use their own currencies rather than the dollar in trade. Now Beijing can add France to the list.
But we should not exaggerate China’s diplomatic achievements, as some observers are doing. It has had plenty of setbacks. Its Belt and Road Initiative has increasingly made China a merchant of debt, for lender and borrower alike; its hoped-for investment treaty with Europe is a dead letter; its attempt to disrupt US security alliances in Europe and Asia has failed; and its abuses of human rights have been widely condemned.
So, while the French fared poorly in China, let’s also point out when China has fared poorly, in Europe and elsewhere.
Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.