Macron’s China Trip Is a Fool’s Errand

French President Emmanuel Macron climbed the steps of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, on the edge of Tiananmen Square, trailed by an entourage of French business leaders, filmmakers, and musicians. The scene had all the trappings of a classic state visit, with Macron bearing gifts: a French photographer’s pictures of mid-20th-century China and a blue Sèvres porcelain vase decorated with golden fish, intended to represent the early trade in decorative arts between the two countries.

French President Emmanuel Macron climbed the steps of Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, on the edge of Tiananmen Square, trailed by an entourage of French business leaders, filmmakers, and musicians. The scene had all the trappings of a classic state visit, with Macron bearing gifts: a French photographer’s pictures of mid-20th-century China and a blue Sèvres porcelain vase decorated with golden fish, intended to represent the early trade in decorative arts between the two countries.

Macron, who is facing declining popularity and a fresh wave of protests against his pension reform across France—French unions called another day of national strikes to coincide with his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping—has gone to China to burnish his foreign-policy credentials once again. 

But this adventure goes way beyond the French president’s typical foreign-policy gambits. In the tradition of France’s Ancien Régime, he attended Xi’s court with an eye on cutting a deal. He may have met his match in the Chinese leader, who is playing for much bigger geopolitical stakes. Xi has been luring a wide range of world leaders into his orbit ever since China reopened from its long COVID-19 lockdown. And unlike the snub Macron received from Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin last year, when he came trying to broker peace in Ukraine, Xi is playing a more sophisticated game than Putin. But if Macron didn’t secure any firm pledges from Xi to help broker peace in Ukraine, he did ink a number of business and cultural deals to the benefit of France.

This whole trip has a little bit of a Back to the Future feel to me,” said Nadège Rolland, a Washington-based distinguished fellow in China studies at the National Bureau of Asian Research. At a time when many Western leaders are talking about diversifying their economic interests away from China, she said, “he’s using economic engagement and asking China to help with regards to Russia and Ukraine.” 

Indeed, the reason for all the pomp at the Great Hall of the People soon became clear. With more than 50 business leaders accompanying Macron, France signed a staggering number of deals on major construction projects including nuclear power stations and a water desalination plant, all while selling more aircraft, cosmetics, financial products, and pork to China. One benefit of those deals may be to mollify some of the anger at home, said Célia Belin, who runs the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, since they should create more French jobs.

The whole affair was a stark contrast not just to Britain’s 18th-century Macartney Mission, where London’s gift-bearing envoys hoping for trade with China were rudely rebuffed, but to the stance of some of Macron’s fellow Europeans today. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, was also in Beijing and met with Xi both alongside Macron and without him. She landed in Beijing fresh off a speech in Brussels critical of Chinese commercial practices and Xi’s cozy relationship with Putin. In remarks that she made standing alone, with an EU flag as a backdrop, she warned China not to provide any military equipment directly or indirectly to Russia because “arming the aggressor would be against international law and it would significantly harm our relationship.”

Macron meanwhile buoyantly tweeted in English, French, and Mandarin that he was “convinced that China has a major role to play in building peace” while on his way to a bilateral meeting with the Chinese leader. He had said much the same the day before, when he addressed a room packed with some of France’s 22,000 expatriates living in China on the first day of his three-day visit to the country. He even put a positive spin on Xi’s recent visit to Moscow, telling the French community in Beijing that “China, precisely on the strength of its close relationship with Russia, which has been reaffirmed again in recent days, can play a major role.” 

But Macron’s take on Xi’s position on Russia’s war has raised some eyebrows, coming so soon after Xi’s recent visit to Moscow, where he demonstrated unwavering support of Putin. Macron was acting “as if China was still reforming and opening up,” said François Godement, a senior advisor for Asia at Institut Montaigne, a think tank in Paris. “At this point, you cannot say that Xi Jinping is hiding his hand.”

Rolland, who previously served for two decades as an Asia analyst at the French defense ministry, said China is trying to drive a wedge in the trans-Atlantic alliance by criticizing Western sanctions on Russia and by using its Belt-and-Road deal-making to chart its own path through potentially stormy waters, including any potential future sanctions that China might face.

“Dictators have their own power and their own ambitions, and they won’t get mollified by a discussion with our dear president because their national interests and their personal interests are of a higher degree,” she said.

A senior official in the French presidential palace described the government’s attitude as “clear-eyed” about the geopolitical tensions caused by both Russia’s war in Ukraine and the strategic competition between China and the United States. “We are arriving at a time of very strong tensions in the international landscape,” he said, adding that France and the EU have their own interests to defend.

In that vein, the French president extended a last-minute invitation to von der Leyen to join him on his trip to China. This is not the first time that Macron has played the Europe card with China. In 2019, he invited von der Leyen’s predecessor, Jean-Claude Juncker, and then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel to meet with Xi in Paris. 

But von der Leyen is different, said Tara Varma, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. On the one hand, she may get some heat from European leaders for taking a Washington-style line on China. On the other hand, Varma said, von der Leyen is starting to look a bit like the answer to the famous question about “who do you call” in Brussels when there’s a crisis.

“I feel that the Biden administration wants to call her.”

Source link

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Previous post Finland Gives NATO a King in the North
Next post Take up ICT value chain, women urged