Ankita Dutta, fellow with the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), one of IRSEA’s partners in the region, analyzes the visit of the French President, Emmanuel Macron, and the EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, to China. In the view of the Indian scholar, the visit showcases that different approaches to China are conducted by the EU member states, on one hand, and the EU per se, on the other.
The EU as a whole versus the EU member states’ approach towards China shows a paradox that will be hard to fix
President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China, along with the EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, comes after years of spiraling relations with Beijing over issues including blocked investment agreements, human rights violations, market access disagreements, and Beijing’s reluctance to condemn Russia over its actions in Ukraine. The joint visit was aimed at highlighting European unity towards China. However, the visit was anything but the expected show of unity, rather it highlighted that Europe’s policy towards Beijing is far from being comprehensive. This article assesses President Macron and the EU Commission President’s visit to China.
Assessment of Visit
The agenda of President Macron’s visit appeared to be the conflict in Ukraine; bilateral trade; working towards reducing its trade deficit with Beijing, which was approximately €39.6 billion in 2021; and larger EU relations with China. Ahead of his visit, France’s TotalEnergies and Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation finalised the purchase of imported Liquified Natural Gas using cross-border Chinese Yuan settlement through Shanghai Petroleum and Natural Gas Exchange-based transaction channels—thereby circumventing the US-dollar.
During the visit, multiple agreements were signed between France and China, including the sale of 160 Airbus planes as well as the opening of a new assembly line by Airbus in China so as to double its capacity in the second-largest aviation market in the world. French state utility EDF also renewed its agreement with China General Nuclear Power Group, which included the development, construction and operation of nuclear power plants along with a contract of building an off-shore wind farm with China’s Energy Investment Corporation. The joint statement signed by France and China also made reference to some of the critical issues in the partnership including 5G technology. Although Chinese companies are being left out of Europe’s core technology infrastructures on the ground of national security, France agreed to “continue the fair and non-discriminatory treatment of licence applications from Chinese companies”.
In contrast to President Macron’s push for advancing economic relations with China, Commission President Von der Leyen’s message to Beijing was very clear—that the EU wanted to “de-risk its trade relations” while agreeing that “decoupling was not a viable or desirable strategy”. In a speech before her visit, she outlined the EU’s clearest policy outlook on China where she stated that China was using its economic and market strength to undermine the international rules-based order to “make China less dependent on the world and the world more dependent on China”. She repeated the same message during her meeting with President Xi calling out unfair practices, unequal access to Chinese markets, and the fact that the EU was growing more vigilant with its dependencies on China especially in emerging technologies.
While the deliverables of the visit were limited to economic deals between France and China, two key issues took centre stage, where the differences in opinions and outlooks were starkly visible. The first is on Ukraine and Russia. One of the key goals both Macron and Von Der Leyen had expressed was to encourage China to increase its pressure on Russia over the conflict in Ukraine. While President Macron said that Beijing could play a “major role in finding a path to peace” in Ukraine—referring to its 12-point proposal—the European Commission President was less optimistic when she said that, “the way China will continue to react to Putin’s war will be a determining factor in the future of EU-China relations”. China has, so far, refused to criticise Russia while calling for ceasefire and peace talks. It has emerged to be the largest buyer of Russian hydrocarbons and President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow in March 2023 had focused on “further deepening their relationship”.
The outcome of the visit only included a brief mention of Ukraine in the joint statement that was signed by the French and the Chinese President, which stated that both sides would “support all efforts to restore peace in Ukraine”, without mentioning Russia at all. While the EU Commission President, in her statement at the end of her visit, said that the EU, “expect(s) that China will play its role and promote a just peace” and called on China to not “provide any military equipment, directly or indirectly, to Russia”, which will lead to increased tensions in the relations. In short, both leaders were unable to secure any concrete guarantees from Beijing on Ukraine and Russia apart from President Xi’s willingness to talk to President Zelensky “when conditions and time were right”, thereby, putting no time frame for the talks.
However, it was the issue of Taiwan that emerged to be an area of divergence between EU-China on the one hand and France and its allies on the other. President Von der Leyen made it clear that stability in the Taiwan Strait was of importance and any unilateral change in the status quo by force will not be acceptable. However, the Chinese readout of the meeting stressed that, “if anyone expects China to compromise and concede on the Taiwan question, they are having a pipe dream”, reiterating it to be China’s core interest.
However, President Macron’s statement was received unfavourably by French allies, where he stated that, “The question Europeans need to answer… is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction.” He further said that Taiwan as a crisis was “not ours” and that Europe should stay out of it and not become “America’s followers”. The statement not only contradicted the EU Commissioner’s statement on Taiwan, but it also raised questions about whether the French position was in line with that of the EU’s. Moreover, his comments came close to China beginning its military drills around Taiwan. However, President Macron clarified his comments stating that nothing has changed in French support for the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, mentioning the sailing of its Naval vessel in the region as French commitment towards Taiwan’s independence.
In hindsight, this is not the first time President Macron has given a statement that has raised consternation—reference here his 2019 comments on NATO’s brain death. As one reads between the lines, the underlying message is not so much about criticism of US policies, rather it is about the need for Europeans to boost their capabilities and capacities, and to define their own strategy and interest to play a proactive role in global geopolitics. However, the timing and the optics of the statement were not helpful.
In the past few years, Europe has grown sceptical of China’s geo-economic and geopolitical trajectory; they have called out Beijing on various issues ranging from its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, its actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, its assertive stand globally, as well as Chinese sanctions on several European entities and politicians. However, given the different national interests of its member states, it has been difficult for the EU to formulate a comprehensive and expansive policy towards China. This joint visit highlighted these dichotomies instead of projecting the message of speaking in a single voice. This is primarily because the visit pointed towards an assertive EU led by EU Commission President Von der Leyen, but not necessarily a united EU, as is visible in the approach adopted by President Macron.
The visit highlighted the difference in approaches in how the EU member states engage with China and how the EU as a whole engages with China. It was clear from the visit that, while constructive results on Ukraine were limited during President Macron as well as Chancellor Scholz’s visit to Beijing in November 2022, these visits have ensured China that the two biggest economic powers of the EU were as keen as ever to continue with their political and economic relations, irrespective of positions taken within the EU. This presents a major challenge for the European Union because each of the member states have their own unique relations with Beijing and to reach a common approach towards the country, the EU will have to balance the national interests of its member states—which ranges from hard line policies as is visible in Lithuania and other Baltic countries to conciliatory outlooks often adopted by member states such as Germany and France.
* This article was first published at https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/assertive-disunity/with the title "Assertive (dis)unity: Assessing Macron and Von Der Leyen’s visit to China". The article is hereby republished upon the consent of Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position or view of IRSEA.