The French president was accompanied by Ursula von der Leyen, who failed in her role of European unity-imposing overseer
French President Emmanuel Macron has wrapped up a three-day visit to China, accompanied partly by European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen, who went home a day earlier.
The dual visit came at a time when EU nations, worried about a growing Sino-Russian partnership, are looking for ways to strengthen their own diplomatic engagement with Beijing.
Von der Leyen’s presence on the trip was widely seen as a “check” on Macron, there to ensure he complied with “European unity” on the matter of the EU’s relationship with China. Before the visit, she gave a hawkish address warning China against supporting Russia in the Ukraine conflict and slamming Beijing for becoming “more repressive at home and more assertive abroad.”
While she urged the bloc to reduce “dependencies” on China, she also opposed full “decoupling” of economies, as called for by the US. Enduring trade relations were made abundantly clear by the fact that Macron was accompanied by a 50-strong delegation of business leaders who came to Beijing to sign deals.
It is unusual that Macron, an advocate of the EU’s so-called “strategic autonomy” in negotiating with other actors on the world stage, and von der Leyen, an ardent atlanticist who is reportedly in the wings to be the next NATO secretary general, were both in China together.
Despite their somewhat conflicting agendas, their visit was a net positive for Beijing and a net negative for US attempts to force the EU to fully take its side in its own geopolitical crusade against Beijing. The US looks upon all attempts by the EU to engage with China with disdain, and does its best to undermine it where possible.
Likewise, when it comes to the Ukraine conflict, China’s effort to open talks by presenting its 12-step peace plan was immediately dismissed by Washington, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accusing Beijing of providing “diplomatic cover” for what he called Russia’s attempts to “freeze the war.” However, Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow has apparently shown EU leaders, who would prefer the war to end rather than drag on indefinitely, the potential consequences of “losing China” – and now Macron is urging Xi to mediate a return to the negotiating table by “bringing Russia to its senses.”
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In other words, many EU leaders, bar the overzealous and fanatical ones in states such as Lithuania, now realize that they must pursue a diplomatic effort to “keep China on board,” which in turn illustrates the tactical shrewdness of Xi Jinping in preserving his partnership with Moscow without explicitly endorsing the Ukraine conflict. This has given China geopolitical leverage.
It should also be noted that China has never sought to oppose Europe, but its principal objective has been to try and keep Europe out of the American camp at all costs. The EU, after all, collectively represents the largest export market China has in the developed world and is therefore critical to China’s growth and development.
Of course, on the other hand, the US has long been pushing very aggressively to undermine China’s prospects in the EU. It has been waging a public opinion war against Beijing, using its own state-sponsored think-tanks, and pushing issues such as human rights to create negative sentiment and to block engagement, such as on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), which was proposed back in 2013 and is still pending ratification a decade later. Similarly, the US uses bilateral and unilateral diplomacy to undermine China’s relationships with specific European countries in a bid to wreck its attempts to engage with the bloc as a whole.
For example, the US explicitly supported Lithuania in undermining the ‘One China’ principle by opening a “Taiwan representative office.” It also forced the Netherlands to agree to new export controls on sending advanced lithography machines (used for making computer chips) to China. Similarly, because the EU could never agree to a comprehensive ban of Huawei’s application in 5G networks in 2020, the US simply resorted to bilaterally approaching countries one by one, making them agree to the ban until those states that were not on board, such as Germany, were effectively isolated and could not drive the EU agenda.
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Ultimately, the EU is a bloc which can only operate by consensus between all of its member states, but if the US can undermine that consensus, it can throw a spanner in the works and break the entire machine. This is why it is so difficult for Europe to truly create an “autonomous” foreign policy capable of serving coherent “European interests.” This means when nations such as France and Germany declare their desire for engagement with China, they of course have influence, but the overall effect is never truly consistent. The bloc is being subjected to a constant tug of war in its foreign policy direction, which ultimately shows that Europe remains more of a passenger, rather than a player, in the world of US-China competition.
However, despite the traditional dominance of the US over Europe, Beijing is by no means out of the game, because as much as the US can play divide and conquer against EU countries, so can China – and the outcome of the visit demonstrates that very well. Having given von der Leyen and her message of “unity” a noticeably cooler reception, the Chinese hosted a cordial tea ceremony for Macron, after signing a joint communique that spoke at length about improving trade, economic and cultural ties, but made barely any mention of the main political sticking point between China and the EU – Beijing’s good relations with Moscow and Xi’s refusal to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine crisis.
For China, this is a clear win. For France, this is a win in terms of enduring business and economic relations with China, but a loss in that all of Macron’s attempt to change Xi’s mind on Putin and Ukraine were comprehensively stonewalled.
For von der Leyen, whose mission in Beijing was purely political, it was a complete failure. Not only did her message fall on deaf ears, the wooing of France continued unabated under her nose. But perhaps most importantly, the result of this visit dealt a blow to US agenda, showing that positive relations between China and the EU are worth working towards and Washington’s attempts to drive wedges between them are, so far, futile.