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ABOARD COTAM UNITÉ (FRANCE’S AIR FORCE ONE) — Europe must reduce its dependency on the United States and avoid getting dragged into a confrontation between China and the U.S. over Taiwan, French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview on his plane back from a three-day state visit to China.
Speaking with POLITICO and two French journalists after spending around six hours with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his trip, Macron emphasized his pet theory of “strategic autonomy” for Europe, presumably led by France, to become a “third superpower.”
He said “the great risk” Europe faces is that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy,” while flying from Beijing to Guangzhou, in southern China, aboard COTAM Unité, France’s Air Force One.
Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party have enthusiastically endorsed Macron’s concept of strategic autonomy and Chinese officials constantly refer to it in their dealings with European countries. Party leaders and theorists in Beijing are convinced the West is in decline and China is on the ascendant and that weakening the transatlantic relationship will help accelerate this trend.
“The paradox would be that, overcome with panic, we believe we are just America’s followers,” Macron said in the interview. “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 U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction,” he said.
Just hours after his flight left Guangzhou headed back to Paris, China launched large military exercises around the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which China claims as its territory but the U.S. has promised to arm and defend.
Those exercises were a response to Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen’s 10-day diplomatic tour of Central American countries that included a meeting with Republican U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy while she transited in California. People familiar with Macron’s thinking said he was happy Beijing had at least waited until he was out of Chinese airspace before launching the simulated “Taiwan encirclement” exercise.
Beijing has repeatedly threatened to invade in recent years and has a policy of isolating the democratic island by forcing other countries to recognize it as part of “one China.”
Macron and Xi discussed Taiwan “intensely,” according to French officials accompanying the president, who appears to have taken a more conciliatory approach than the U.S. or even the European Union.
“Stability in the Taiwan Strait is of paramount importance,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who accompanied Macron for part of his visit, said she told Xi during their meeting in Beijing last Thursday. “The threat [of] the use of force to change the status quo is unacceptable.”
Xi responded by saying anyone who thought they could influence Beijing on Taiwan was deluded.
Macron appears to agree with that assessment.
“Europeans cannot resolve the crisis in Ukraine; how can we credibly say on Taiwan, ‘watch out, if you do something wrong we will be there’? If you really want to increase tensions that’s the way to do it,” he said.
“Europe is more willing to accept a world in which China becomes a regional hegemon,” said Yanmei Xie, a geopolitics analyst at Gavekal Dragonomics. “Some of its leaders even believe such a world order may be more advantageous to Europe.”
In his trilateral meeting with Macron and von der Leyen last Thursday in Beijing, Xi Jinping went off script on only two topics — Ukraine and Taiwan — according to someone who was present in the room.
“Xi was visibly annoyed for being held responsible for the Ukraine conflict and he downplayed his recent visit to Moscow,” this person said. “He was clearly enraged by the U.S. and very upset over Taiwan, by the Taiwanese president’s transit through the U.S. and [the fact that] foreign policy issues were being raised by Europeans.”
In this meeting, Macron and von der Leyen took similar lines on Taiwan, this person said. But Macron subsequently spent more than four hours with the Chinese leader, much of it with only translators present, and his tone was far more conciliatory than von der Leyen’s when speaking with journalists.
Macron also argued that Europe had increased its dependency on the U.S. for weapons and energy and must now focus on boosting European defense industries.
He also suggested Europe should reduce its dependence on the “extraterritoriality of the U.S. dollar,” a key policy objective of both Moscow and Beijing.
“If the tensions between the two superpowers heat up … we won’t have the time nor the resources to finance our strategic autonomy and we will become vassals,” he said.
Russia, China, Iran and other countries have been hit by U.S. sanctions in recent years that are based on denying access to the dominant dollar-denominated global financial system. Some in Europe have complained about “weaponization” of the dollar by Washington, which forces European companies to give up business and cut ties with third countries or face crippling secondary sanctions.
While sitting in the stateroom of his A330 aircraft in a hoodie with the words “French Tech” emblazoned on the chest, Macron claimed to have already “won the ideological battle on strategic autonomy” for Europe.
He did not address the question of ongoing U.S. security guarantees for the Continent, which relies heavily on American defense assistance amid the first major land war in Europe since World War II.
As one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the only nuclear power in the EU, France is in a unique position militarily. However, the country has contributed far less to the defense of Ukraine against Russia’s invasion than many other countries.
As is common in France and many other European countries, the French President’s office, known as the Elysée Palace, insisted on checking and “proofreading” all the president’s quotes to be published in this article as a condition of granting the interview. This violates POLITICO’s editorial standards and policy, but we agreed to the terms in order to speak directly with the French president. POLITICO insisted that it cannot deceive its readers and would not publish anything the president did not say. The quotes in this article were all actually said by the president, but 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.