The Austrian Chancellor Metternich once said “Quand Paris s’enrhume, l’Europe prend froid” (“When Paris sneezes, Europe catches cold”). With the French President Emmanuel Macron all set to visit Beijing in early April, can France lead the rapprochement between the European Union and China?
“Une voix européenne”
Set to be accompanied by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the French President plans to “carry a European voice” on his state visit to China, the details of which were revealed by L’Élysée on Friday. On top of his list is the agenda to end the Ukraine War. Macron has called China’s engagement in resolving the Russia-Ukraine conflict that came in the form of a 12 point plan a “good thing“. Beijing’s position paper urges all parties to support Russia and Ukraine in negotiating a way out of the conflict while upholding the UN Charter and values such as respect for territorial sovereignty, abandoning Cold War mentality, non-interference in internal affairs among others.
The French President has further urged China not to militarily aid Moscow, an accusation made by the Western powers that Beijing has consistently denied. He plans to push China to use its influence over Russia so as to prevent the latter from using chemical or nuclear weapons. Macron noted that the War would only come to an end if “Russian aggression was halted, troops withdrawn, and the territorial sovereignty of Ukraine and its people was respected”. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has also expressed a similar willingness and is ready to visit China in April. Luxembourg too resonates the opinion of engaging closely with Beijing.
Both Chinese and Western media reports note that this “competition to book flights to China” among EU leaders stems from their realisation that they “cannot lose China” owing to the latter’s increasing international significance. While many have voiced support for engaging with Beijing, not all are on the same boat.
A House Divided
The European Council meeting earlier this week, which remained focussed on Germany’s tussle with EU leaders on its decision to end the use of traditional combustion engine cars, did discuss China albeit in an inconclusive manner. While France, Germany, Spain and Luxembourg have signalled their intentions to engage with Beijing; Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, Poland have expressed concerns over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent high profile visit to Moscow which is being seen as “cementing of a dangerous alliance”. The concern is not just suspected military aid to Moscow but also the growing threat of a war between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan where Europe finds itself caught in the middle. Apprehensions too remain over increasing economic reliance on China.
While there has been no consensus on how the EU as a bloc must shape its China policy, Macron has clarified– although France values EU’s coordination, it follows an “independent foreign policy” thus highlighting that he would push to negotiate with China, with or without his regional allies.
Paris et Pékin
Beijing is not only France’s 7th largest customer and 2nd largest supplier (with a 9% market share in France) but also presents an opportunity for the French President who idealises Former leader General Charles de Gaulle to challenge what the French call hyperpuissance or unchallenged “hyperpower” of the United States. For Macron, relating himself to General de Gaulle is equivalent to “claiming to own a piece of the true cross”. Afterall, it was the General who defied Western allies to establish ambassadorial relations with Beijing in 1964, a period of simmering Cold War tensions that brought Paris seething criticism. Though Macron has no serious qualms with Washington, he does seek a voice that crafts his role as a major leader on the international stage.
On the domestic front, Monsieur le Président finds himself in trouble. The highly unpopular Pension Reform Bill that raises retirement age from 62 to 64 was passed without a Parliamentary vote, resulting in nationwide protests. Opponents suggest other measures such as increasing taxes for the rich and the corporates, a move refuted by Macron for the possibile harm it might bring to the financial system. Amidst a scenario where things have gotten as serious as nationwide halts in services and a no-confidence motion against the President, enhanced ties that bring more investments from China can help, an opportunity Macron will try hard to clinch. But the political environment certainly makes things difficult.
Worsening ties and a Confident China
The “Balloongate” controversy was yet to cool off when a new crisis in Sino-US relations erupted in the form of calls to ban the TikTok app over alleged illegal data collection which many in the US Congress suspect land in the Chinese Communist Party’s records. Parallely can be seen a change in Chinese attitudes towards Washington.
Amidst the recent session of the National People’s Congress, President Xi criticised “Washington-led attempts” to “contain, encircle and suppress” China which pose “serious challenges to Beijing’s development” (“以美国为首的西方国家对我实施了全方位的遏制、围堵、打压，给我国发展带来前所未有的严峻挑战。”), a rare moment when the Chinese leadership has clearly named the United States in its criticism.
A policy shift too seems to be on the cards. Xi’s new 24 Character Foreign Policy, which Dr. Hemant Adlakha believes, marks “China’s new foreign policy mantra in the ‘New Era’ ” acting as its “ideological map to attain national rejuvenation by 2049”, has replaced Deng Xiaoping’s 24 Character Strategy focussed on never seeking leadership and assuming a low profile. The characters “沉着冷静；保持定力；稳中求进；积极作为；团结一致；敢于斗争 ” which translate as “Be calm; Keep determined; Seek progress and stability; Be proactive and go for achievements; Unite under the Communist Party; Dare to fight” clearly demonstrate a more pronounced international role that China envisages for itself.
China’s confidence is further elevated by its success in brokering peace between staunch rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran. With the handshake that brought the Sunni Arab Kingdom and the Shiite Persian theocracy together, Beijing has not only garnered accolades from nations across the region but has also succeeded in pulling American allies such as Riyadh to its side to some extent. Xi’s Moscow visit shows how he is determined to craft Beijing as an alternative negotiator to Washington, no matter how much criticism comes his way.
How much can France influence the EU?
As the political climate between US and China heatens, those trying to balance between the two would find the alley narrowing. But considering the stakes, Macron will try. The question however arises, how much of an influence could France exert on the EU?
Being the only Permanent seat holder of the United Nations Security Council post-Brexit, France certainly has a heavy weightage when it comes to policy making in the European Union. Macron too is a leader with a vision. His “grand plan” includes uniting the regional body as a strong political, economic and social bloc by shedding off the influence of the United States. However, there have being many tussles and Paris has found itself at loggerheads with many in the bloc including Turkey and Germany.
Macron has also raised eyebrows over his stance on Russia. After attempts to charm Putin failed, the French President assumed an ambiguous position which included criticising the war but not commiting to defend Ukraine. As expected, it did not fare well with the allies in Europe.
The air has finally cleared and a “defeat Russia but don’t crush it” stance has appeared. Monsieur le Président certainly wants to chart a pragmatic path that inflicts minimum harm and that’s what would be a priority when he lands in Beijing to talk about the war. Would he receive the support of EU allies? Seems difficult, given his past misjudgements and the regional organisation’s recent tussles with Beijing ranging from trade negotiations to the issue of human rights violation.
How successful Macron gets in making EU negotiate with China also depends on how successful Beijing gets in getting Moscow on board, which after all is more difficult than dealing with Tehran and Riyadh. While Russia seems agreeable to China’s plan of ending the war, Putin has bigger ambitions and far lower stakes in launching an all-out war with Washington and allies than Beijing does. The deepening “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for new era” between China and Russia remains unclear and so is how much dependence on Beijing would dictate any change in Putin’s plans. Even if China’s actions embolden Russia as claimed, Beijing knows it is in its favour to tone down Moscow’s belligerence considering the economic costs and military harm that Washington is capable of lashing. Macron too is unsure about how tightly he would like to embrace China. For now, better ties is what he eyes. The question arises – If Paris sneezes in favour of resetting ties with Beijing, would the rest of Europe catch the cold? Only time will tell.