Emmanuel Macron in China
French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to China last week in a trip closely and warily followed by his Western partners. They watched to see if Macron, accompanied by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and a delegation of French business leaders, would hew to Europe’s united stance on Russia and the continent’s growing concern about economic dependence on Beijing at a time of increased Sino-American tension. En route back to Paris, Macron spoke with the media. His remarks on Europe’s relationship with China and the United States sparked a torrent of criticism.
GMF experts comment below:
Heather A. Conley, GMF President
There was nothing new in what Macron said during and after his visit to Beijing. It was his clarity and the setting that jarred Washington.
Since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, French policy has been, in effect, a version of the Fleetwood Mac hit, “Go Your Own Way”. For those who forget, the French reintegrated into NATO’s military command structure only in 2009; their force de frappe (nuclear capabilities) continues to stand alone.
But going your own way does not shelter you from the impact of global events. Whether or not you stand apart from the United States, the French and European economies would be severely impacted if China forcibly absorbs Taiwan. Access to advanced semiconductors and the nearly $5 trillion in trade that passes through the South China Sea would be limited, as would the security of French overseas territories in the Pacific.
The irony is that Macron does not want to be seen as following American policy on Taiwan or China, but he wants European policy to follow French interests. But the more Paris goes its own way on policy toward China or Russia, the less likely it is that Europe will follow Macron’s lead during these turbulent and insecure times.
The most powerful and telling Macron quote from his trip reveals why France goes its own way: The “personal time Xi is devoting to the visit shows that France is not considered to be a country like any other". France cannot perceive itself as a country like any other. But during this visit, Macron demonstrated that France is quite like a few countries that seek economic gain from China at the cost of its security and leadership. Next up: Brazil.
Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, GMF Senior Vice President, Geostrategy
There is nothing new in Macron’s comments. There is, in fact, a consistency in what he says. He has repeatedly defended the need for Europe to define an exit strategy from its “in-betweenness” in the competition between the United States and China. Macron is seeking European “strategic autonomy”, or an EU capacity to define and defend its interests and values. He believes it is the only way to avoid European strategic irrelevance and has even offered his own definition of the concept: “Strategic autonomy means having convergent views with the United States, but whether on Ukraine, the relationship with China or sanctions, we have a European strategy.”
France seeks this convergence with the United States when possible but prioritizes a European strategy when interests diverge, especially when American policy does not take European interests into account. Washington has offered several recent examples of this with the Inflation Reduction Act, the establishment of AUKUS, and the CHIPS Act. However, Macron’s comments expose the hard reality that Europeans have insufficiently defined their geopolitical strategy and are consequently tempted to follow US policies without thinking of the potential ramifications for themselves. Macron is also thinking ahead to the 2024 US elections and the potential need for Europe to prepare for a tougher relationship with Washington.
France does not seek equidistance between Beijing and Washington. China is a major topic in Franco-American conversations and strategic dialogues, be it bilaterally, at the G7, or even during NATO consultations on cybersecurity, Russia, and space. The way Macron framed his remarks on Taiwan, however, was ill-timed amid ongoing Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Strait. France’s (and Europe’s) objective is to prevent military escalation in the strait. France supports the status quo, which he reaffirmed before traveling in a conversation with US President Joe Biden, and maintains exchanges and cooperation with Taiwan. Macron also made it clear to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his trip that the Taiwan issue should be handled through dialogue. GMF’s Transatlantic Trends 2022 survey showed support for this approach. There was no appetite among American or European publics for military action. Respondents supported diplomatic initiatives and sanctions.
There is certainly no lack of French interest in Taiwan. France is the only EU country that regularly patrols the South China Sea and, in particular, the Taiwan Strait. France and Europe are engaged in a de-risking rather than a decoupling from China. It’s not about breaking ties with the world's second-largest economy. Washington should also realize the cost of that. Despite the tensions between the United States and China, Sino-American trade has reached record levels ($690 billion in 2022, with increasing imports and exports). The challenge is finding the right balance between trade and geopolitics.
Macron should speak less and spend more time doing behind-the-scenes diplomacy and consulting with his EU partners. Speaking in the name of Europe without prior consultation and pitching concepts to test reactions, or to spark debates, is unhelpful and unsettling for allies. The “Macron method” is dysfunctional and overshadows the substance of recent developments in EU policies. Europe has, in fact, reinforced its economic and geopolitical toolbox in the last five years with the European Chips Act, net-zero strategy, Critical Raw Materials Act, investment screening mechanisms, and the European Peace Facility. These are steps that matter for Europe’s future and that of the transatlantic relationship.