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For the third time in his presidency, Emmanuel Macron has just concluded a bilateral visit with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. After three years of the Covid-19 pandemic that cut China off from the rest of the world, Macron’s trip had two main objectives: to advance Franco-Chinese convergences on peace in Ukraine in the hope that his Chinese counterpart would find an interest in working as a mediating voice with Moscow and to strengthen trade and investment relations under the presence of major French companies.
While the two men exchanged frank handshakes, Xi Jinping remained adamant on strategic issues. The Chinese President did not break Beijing’s benevolence towards Moscow. He stuck to his principled statements on chemical weapons and the use of nuclear weapons. He also quietly called for a “resumption of peace talks as soon as possible“. Nor did the French President get the Chinese President to condemn Vladimir Putin’s decision to install nuclear warheads in Belarus. This backdrop reflects a geopolitical reality: Moscow is an important partner for Beijing in its quest for a new world order where the authoritarian system is given primacy over democracy.
Macron has essentially caused nothing but incomprehension among France’s allies. After his comments on the “brain death of NATO” at the end of 2019, then his attempts at strategic dialogue with Russia, in defiance of any consultation of his European allies, the French President is once again irritating: his plea for a European “strategic autonomy” and his statements on Taiwan have aroused concern in Taipei and shocked Washington. These latest statements come after the People’s Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party, launched large-scale exercises off Taiwanese territory to protest against the visit to California of its President, Tsai Ing-wen, who was received on April 5 by the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy.
Central and Eastern European countries see this as a dangerous move to distance the US from European security. Swedes, Poles, and also the Baltic states fear that this is a new French strategy to bring Europe back under the control of Paris. They are the first to advocate restraint towards China and see the transatlantic relationship as much more strategic than the issue of European sovereignty, especially as it is the Americans who are most invested in military support for Ukraine.
Macron’s record in China is hardly positive. While Ukraine was announced as the main topic of his visit, a massive delegation of French business leaders returned with new contracts, including Airbus’ decision to build a second assembly line in Tianjin. In turn, President Marcon’s remarks on Taiwan were welcomed by the Chinese propaganda media. The Global Times and China Daily, two newspapers close to the Chinese government, praised the fruitful meeting and Macron’s vision of cross-strait relations. In reality, the visit only highlighted the discrepancy between European analysis and the French President’s personal reasoning: the 27 members of the European Union have indeed progressively hardened their position towards Beijing following the pandemic, and since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It remains to be seen whether this milestone victory for China will lead the European Commission to follow the French President’s vision in the long term. If it proves to be true, effective European neutrality will be achieved and China will be the big winner.