FRENCH PRESIDENT Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China in early April has caused a tsunami of consternation in strategic circles on both sides of the Atlantic. The visit was on the heels of Xi Jinping’s trip to Moscow where the Chinese leader was feted by Vladimir Putin, affirming the “no-limits” friendship between Moscow and Beijing. And it took place at a time when the US is attempting to decouple its economy from what it sees as a systemic rival.
Yet, Macron had a cosy tea party with Xi in Guangzhou and headed home with a big contract for Airbus, including building a second assembly line at its factory in China. Most controversially, the French president distanced himself from a potential conflict over Taiwan, stating that Europe should resist becoming America’s “vassal” and avoid being drawn into conflicts in which it has little skin in the game. Europe, according to Macron, should strive for the strategic autonomy that would allow it to best serve its own interests.
In the past, ‘strategic autonomy’ was a concept most often touted by the global south, a continuation of the non-aligned stance that was anathema to NATO-allied powers. But in recent years, EU policy circles have also been agog with the need to develop the capacity for independent decision-making, aka losing the leash that Washington keeps the region on. However, Europe’s dependence on the US for security, and its long habit of bowing to US diktats means that such sentiments have remained largely rhetorical, with little substance to back them.
Since touting strategic autonomy is somewhat like taking the red flag to the US’ bull, the preferred term within the EU is the more euphemistic, “reducing dependencies”. But lexical gymnastics are not enough for keeping the US from spluttering in outrage at Macron’s stance, which in fact only recalls past episodes of sporadic attempts by Paris to stand up to Washington. From Charles de Gaulle’s recognition of ‘Red’ China in 1964 to Jacques Chirac’s opposition to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the French have often risked being derided as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” by their annoyed American “allies”.
But other than raising the blood pressure on the other side of the Atlantic, what, if any, concrete takeaways are there for global geopolitics from Macron’s latest utterings?
First, there is really no such actor as Europe on the world stage. This was clear even during Macron’s China visit, in which he was accompanied by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, ostensibly to show off a united European stance. Yet, the two leaders appeared to be dancing to different music. The latter’s known closeness to the US makes her a hardliner within the EU on China, something Beijing is keenly aware of, enabling it to play a clever game of divide and rule.
In China, Macron was met on the airport tarmac by the foreign minister, while von der Leyen got the ecology minister at the regular passenger exit. The French president had a red carpet state banquet with President Xi while the European Commission president’s China visit highlight was a news conference at the EU delegation headquarters. As an article in Politico put it, “While state media trumpeted the Sino-French relationship, Chinese social media demonized von der Leyen as an American puppet.”
The fact is that there are substantive differences between von der Leyen and many major EU governments, not only France, on how to handle China relations. Eastern member states tend to be keener on toeing the US line, including on China, because of their overwhelming need for American support against Russia, which they see as an existential threat. But France, Germany, and even Spain have differing interests. And in the end, Beijing knows that the real strategic and economic heft remains in bilateral relations with EU member states rather than with the European Union (EU) as an independent player.
Second, it is difficult to disagree with Macron’s calls for strategic independence from Washington DC. The US and Europe do not have the same aims when it comes to China. The US is existentially worried about losing its No 1 status in the world. China’s rise as a rival for that position is more threatening to the US than Europe. The latter has not held a preeminent global position in a century. Therefore, there isn’t the same commitment to maintaining supremacy, because there isn’t the same supremacy. The EU does not have an existential dog in the US-China fight.
The EU is an unwieldy, 27-headed hydra. For it to develop a unified policy of strategic autonomy, such as on China, and emerge from the smothering embrace of the security-providing US is still impossible
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Moreover, China was the largest source of EU imports and the third-largest buyer of EU goods in 2022, according to Eurostat, which highlights Beijing’s economic hold over Europe. This is particularly relevant when economic growth in the EU is vulnerable to the ongoing war in Ukraine. With high energy prices, spiralling cost of living, and rising unemployment, most European nations simply cannot afford to close their doors to China.
The best-known bilateral relationship between China and a European nation is that of Germany. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz made a controversial trip to Beijing last November, becoming the first leader among the G7 nations to visit China since the Covid pandemic started. China has been Germany’s most important trading partner since 2016, with German carmakers at the forefront of that relationship. Volkswagen, for example, relies on the Chinese market for at least half of its profits. And in the first half of 2022, the German economy’s stakes in China continued to increase with a record 10 billion euros in new investments.
But even nations like Spain, which have not traditionally had a significant independent relationship with China, preferring to operate within the wider EU policy framework, are seeing a growing closeness in bilateral ties. Only a few days before Macron’s visit, Pedro Sánchez, Spain’s prime minister, had made his first trip to China.
China remains Spain’s largest trading partner outside of the EU. And Chinese investments in Spain have steadily increased, moving beyond traditional sectors like agriculture and real estate, into more strategic areas like infrastructure. An example is the Chinese company COSCO’s stakes in ports in Bilbao and Valencia. In 2022, China replaced Germany as Spain’s top supplier as the source of almost 11 per cent of its imports.
Ultimately, the EU is an unwieldy, 27-headed hydra. And so, for it to develop a unified policy of strategic autonomy and emerge from the smothering embrace of the security-providing US is nigh impossible. The reimagining of itself without the US as an older fraternal figure is very challenging for the European Union and there is no consensus about what this would even look like, despite Macron’s statements.
The French president does not speak for Europe, but the fact is that neither does von der Leyen. For China, this incoherence can only be good news.
About The Author
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has spent the last two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Her most recent book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She is a contributor to Open
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