French President Emmanuel Macron, leading a large delegation, and accompanied by European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, arrived in China last week on April 5 for his three-day state visit. There, he held talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, Premier Li Qiang, as well as NPC chief Zhao Leki. I’ve been writing on how multi-alignment and non-alignment are emerging trends within the Global South. The French leader’s latest trip to Beijing indicates that such a trend could emerge within Europe itself - but there are challenges.
France and China have signed various cooperation deals in the energy field, particularly wind and nuclear energy, according to an Elysee palace’s statement. On April 6, Airbus chief executive, Guillaume Faury, who took part in Macron’s delegation, agreed to build a second assembly line at its Chinese factory. The agreement was announced in spite of intense American pressure on Europe to isolate Beijing. This is a reminder that China’s markets are still critical for European businesses. In spite of her “hawkish” rhetoric, even Leyen herself recently dismissed any notion of “decoupling” Europe’s economy from the Asian giant.
These trade developments were accompanied by Chinese courtship and have potential geopolitical implications. As part of its “strategic autonomy” concept, Paris has been pushing a non-confrontation approach regarding Beijing to “de-risk” relations with it. Macron’s strategic thinking is far more ambitious than that, though.
Last year, for the first time in over a decade, Paris took over the Council of European Union's presidency (January - June 2022). This period was marked by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen calling for the creation of a European Defence Union. During the first half of 2022, Leyen also announced the “Summit on Defence”, under the French Presidency. In post-Brexit EU, France is the only nuclear power and boasts of possessing the most combat-ready armed forces in the bloc. According to Swasti Rao (Associate Fellow at the Europe and Eurasia Center), the French President has repeatedly stressed that the Strategic Compass is “the closest thing the EU has to a military doctrine and akin to NATO’s Strategic Concept” to set EU’s alliance goals. She adds that setting up a system for European collective defense is a long-standing Macron’s ambition.
Such goals face the hard fact of a de-industrialized Europe. As I wrote before, even though Washington has been waging a subsidy war against the continent, and actually benefits from Europe’s industry and energy crises, it has become an overextended and overburdened superpower. Thus, it could actually benefit from a NATOized and militarized Europe. This would allow Washington to pivot to the Pacific - that however, could backfire, with a stronger Europe pursuing strategic autonomy. In this context, China’s courtship of continental Europe’s only nuclear power makes a lot of sense. The problem, from Europe’s point of view, is that the Ukrainian conflict has made it even more dependent on Washington, and the American economic and industrial policies against the continent make any European plans of re-arming and re-industrializing itself almost impossible for now.
There have been rising tensions between the political West and China, in what has been described as a New Cold War. This was clearly exemplified by the recent balloon hysteria. There is a so-called chip war going on, and the US-led economic warfare against Beijing in fact endangers the world’s microchip industry itself and increases the risk of butterfly effects, the Asian Great Power being a key part of the globalized world. Washington has also been pushing for further sanctions against China. This is the overall context, and so it is no wonder that Beijing’s reception of France’s approach has been warm.
“I’m very glad we share many identical or similar views on Sino-French, Sino-EU, international and regional issues,” Xi Jinping told the French leader last week. Macron, in turn, told him that Paris promotes “European strategic autonomy,” doesn’t like “bloc confrontation” and believes in doing its own thing. “France does not pick sides,” he added. This pragmatic non-aligned stance is of course challenged by many European leaders - and by Washington.
During talks with Macron, Xi Jinping remarked that Beijing regards Europe as “an independent pole in a multipolar world”, according to China’s foreign ministry’s website. The Chinese leader added that Beijing “supports Europe in achieving strategic autonomy, upholds that the China-Europe relationship is not targeted at, subjugated to, or controlled by any third party, and believes that Europe will take an independent approach to developing its relations with China.” He also urged the EU to “stand against hegemonism, unilateralism and attempts to decouple economies or sever supply chains.”
Some Western observers have accused Beijing of trying to split the transatlantic alliance. In fact, that alliance’s strength has long been shaken by its own contradictions. The very coalition to support Ukraine has been facing fissures since at least the end of 2022, partly driven by domestic problems as well as American-European disagreements and there have been talks of a slow and quiet European abandonment of Kiev since at least August. Macron himself has warned US President Joe Biden that the latter’s aggressive subsidies policies could “fragment the West”. France has also clashed with NATO and the United States in a number of issues.
Facing severe domestic problems and protests over a controversial pension reform, it remains to be seen whether or not the French leader will be able to push some of his bold goals, which also would depend on a lot of intra-European political articulation.