Macron’s Beijing Trip Reinforces Sino-Franco Ties, Alienates U.S., Worries Europe

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron fled a protest-rattled Paris and traveled to Beijing for a high-profile visit with General Secretary Xi Jinping. One of Macron’s main stated objectives was to ensure that China plays a constructive role in global efforts to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine. He also intended to shore up economic and cultural ties with China, with help from an 80-person delegation, 53 of whom were business representatives. But his success in bolstering Sino-Franco ties came at the expense of French allies, many of whom criticized Macron for a hypocritical and poorly timed rapprochement. At The Financial Times, Leila Abboud, Sarah White, Henry Foy, and Demetri Sevastopulo described how Macron’s remarks sparked an international backlash:

French president Emmanuel Macron has come under fire for saying that Europe should distance itself from brewing tensions between the US and China over Taiwan, and forge its own strategic independence on everything from energy to defence. 

Diplomats and lawmakers in the US and in central and eastern Europe slammed Macron for being soft on Beijing and worryingly critical of the US, especially given that Washington has been a staunch backer of Europe as it deals with the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Analysts found the comments particularly ill-timed with China carrying out large-scale military drills in the straits of Taiwan in response to the Taiwanese president’s visit to the US last week.

[…] Two senior EU diplomats said Macron’s comments would hurt both Europe and Ukraine’s relationship with the US, and make it harder for the EU to forge a united position towards Beijing. 

“It is not a win for anybody,” said one of the diplomats. “Except Xi.” [Source]

Criticism against Macron was compounded by controversial remarks from an interview he gave at the end of his trip, in which he described Europe’s need for strategic autonomy in the context of the escalating U.S.-China rivalry. Reporters from Politico and two French outlets, Les Echos and France Inter, were among those present. Les Echos published a long Q&A version of the interview in French, and an hour and a half later Politico published its own version in both French and English, which was largely the authors’ analysis of Macron’s positions sprinkled with several quotes from the interview. Politico attached an editorial paragraph stating that “some parts of the interview in which the president spoke even more frankly about Taiwan and Europe’s strategic autonomy were cut out by the Elysée (the French presidency).” In a preface to his interview in Les Echos, Nicholas Barré provided a summary of Macron’s statements:

“For too long Europe has not built this strategic autonomy. Today, the ideological battle has been won,” claimed Emmanuel Macron in an interview with Les Echos. But we must now implement this strategy. “The trap for Europe would be that at the moment when it reaches a clarification of its strategic position, it gets caught in a world disruption and crises that are not our own.”

For the French President, strategic autonomy is crucial to preventing European states from becoming “vassals,” when Europe could instead be “the third pole” with respect to the United States and China. “We do not want to fall into a mindset of bloc confrontation,” added the Head of State, who also spoke out against “the extraterritoriality of the dollar.” “History is accelerating, and in parallel we need a simultaneous acceleration of the European war economy,” insisted the French President. [French]

An onslaught of negative reactions ensued, almost all of which referenced the Politico article. However, some French commentators argued that the Politico article took Macron’s quotes out of context, which had the effect of sensationalizing his position to further incite American audiences, and noted that Macron’s comments on Europe’s strategic autonomy were largely a continuation of his long-held position on the matter. Moreover, some of Macron’s quotes in Politico’s article did not appear in the longer version of the interview from Les Echos.

Reactions to Macron’s performance were especially heated due to China’s new round of military exercises around Taiwan, initiated shortly after Macron’s departure, in response to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s concurrent trip to the U.S. It did not help that Macron had appeared to abdicate responsibility for Taiwan’s defense in comments made to a reporter just days earlier: “I am neither Taiwan nor the United States of America. As a good stoic, I can only address what depends on me. […] We must not mix everything together.”

Xi rolled out the red carpet—literally and figuratively—for Macron’s arrival. Outside of their formal meetings, the two heads of state spent time strolling through a park, sipping tea, and listening to a musician play the guqin, a Chinese string instrument. Xi called Macron his “bosom friend.” In Guangzhou, Macron was greeted like a rock star by a swarm of enthusiastic students for a brief lecture and Q&A at Sun Yat-sen University, where he encouraged students to cultivate a “critical mind,” without which they would be “not totally free” and “simply an object of propaganda.” While Macron was eager to sway Xi through their personal connection, conversely Xi seemed to have successfully charmed Macron, who gushed, “[The] personal time Xi is devoting to the visit shows that France is not considered to be a country like any other.” Former French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a member of Macron’s delegation, agreed that Xi’s charm was having an effect: “Isn’t diplomacy, at one point or another, a bit of flattery?

Accompanying Macron was Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission. Her presence, requested by the Élysée, was meant to demonstrate a united European front. It was also meant to convey some thornier messages to Xi, particularly regarding Europe’s growing resolve to “de-risk” from China, which von der Leyen articulated in a speech the week prior. Some analysts expected the duo to play good cop/bad cop, while others argued that their performance was not closely coordinated enough to merit such a description. The relative lack of pomp and facetime with Xi for von der Leyen was seen by some as an embarrassing rebuke, while others insisted that she knew what she was getting into and successfully delivered the message to a resistant recipient. 

Perhaps as expected, there were no major victories for team Europe. The joint declaration published at the end of Macron’s trip demonstrated “limited gains, at the cost of European and transatlantic coherence,” wrote Mathieu Duchâtel, a French policy analyst at the Institut Montaigne. At the bilateral level, France and China agreed to strengthen cooperation in aviation, aerospace, nuclear energy, and combating climate change. France also secured numerous economic deals for Airbus, L’Oreal, EDF, and other companies. Finbarr Bermingham from the South China Morning Post noted that there was little progress on China’s plan to broker peace between Russia and Ukraine:

France will work with China on thorny issues ranging from 5G technology to military engagement after President Emmanuel Macron signed a sweeping 51-point joint declaration on his last day in the country.

[…] It did not contain a concrete commitment from Beijing to use its influence over Russia to end its 14-month war against Ukraine – a key Macron request – even as it pledged to “support all efforts to restore peace in Ukraine”.

Instead, the statement reiterated Xi’s oft-stated opposition to nuclear war. The two sides said they opposed “armed attacks on nuclear power plants”, mentioning the Zaporizhzhia facility in Ukraine that has been occupied by Russian forces.

[…T]he document reflected Macron’s desire to secure more of the giant Chinese market for France’s firms at a time when voices elsewhere in the European Union and particularly in the United States are calling for more mindful trading ties that roll back dependencies on China. [Source]

Many European commentators struggled to discern what was driving French policy, given Macron’s coziness with Xi, and a strong backlash ensued. In Germany, media outlets and Francophile editors criticized Macron’s visit. Reinhard Butiköfer, a member of the European Parliament who chairs its China delegation, described Macron’s China visit as a “complete disaster,” and Macron’s “pipe dream” of EU strategic autonomy and becoming a “third superpower” as “beyond the pale.” The Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China stated that “Macron doesn’t speak for Europe.”

With Sino-U.S. tensions escalating, American media and political actors were appalled by Macron’s comments. The New York Times declared, “French Diplomacy Undercuts U.S. Efforts to Rein China In,” and U.S. Republican lawmakers publicly called out Macron. On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal published a scathing editorial against the French president

Emmanuel Macron fancies himself a Charles de Gaulle for the 21st century, which includes distancing Europe from the U.S. But the French President picked a terrible moment this weekend for a Gaullist afflatus following his meeting with Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping.

[…] Mr. Macron wants the U.S. to ride to Europe’s rescue against Russian aggression but apparently take a vow of neutrality against Chinese aggression in the Pacific. Thanks a lot, mate. His unhelpful comments will undermine U.S. and Japanese deterrence against China in the Western Pacific while encouraging U.S. politicians who want to reduce U.S. commitments in Europe to better resist China.

[…] If President Biden is awake, he ought to call Mr. Macron and ask if he’s trying to re-elect Donald Trump. [Source]

Worried about the international uproar, French government officials took to Twitter to try to control the damage by defending the president’s statements. In France, a Le Monde editorial described it as “a difficult but useful dialogue” and “necessary to re-engage the relationship with Beijing,” but the newspaper diluted its position in a subsequent editorial calling Macron’s statements “problematic.” France Inter agreed with Macron on substance, but said that given the timing, “he clearly would have been better off staying quiet.” One French lawmaker called Macron’s performance “incomprehensible,” and another dubbed it “pathetic.” Several prominent French analysts expressed strong criticism. In an interview with Franceinfo, lead China researcher at the French Institute of International Relations Marc Julienne described Macron’s visit as “a failure on the diplomatic scene, costly in terms of image”:

Q: Didn’t the French president also try to embody a “third way” between the United States and China?

A: There is much talk about this third way, indeed. But this can be interpreted as an equidistance of France between the United States and China and this position lacks clarity. Emmanuel Macron spends a lot of time marking his non-alignment with the United States. It’s a good thing, but it’s easier to tell them the truth, because they are our allies. The problem is that the French president does not do the same with China. We must be just as frank, even severe, with Beijing. Issues of contention should not be swept under the rug. [French]

Reactions in China were very different. The relatively positive view of Macron among Chinese analysts and the general public was reinforced by his performance in Beijing. Chinese state media provided extensive and largely positive coverage of his trip, with the Global Times using his call for European strategic autonomy to bash the U.S. On Chinese social media, netizens approved of Macron’s desire to strengthen ties with China and made humorous comparisons about his warm reception from the Chinese public versus his hostile reception from French protesters at home:

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