Europe Is Disastrously Split on China
Over the past two weeks, Chinese Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping has been holding court for visiting European dignitaries. In late March, Spanish President Pedro Sánchez was the first European statesman to meet the Chinese leader after his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. French President Emmanuel Macron followed last week together with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The only winner from these visits is Xi. Not only did he not make any concession on any issue vital to European interests, from Russia’s war to economic relations, his European visitors treated Xi to a display of European and transatlantic disunity serving the Chinese leader a major strategic objective on a silver platter and leaving Europe’s China policy in disarray.
It was not supposed to be this way. The plan of European leaders was a good one in theory. They wanted to take advantage of reopening after the end of China’s “zero COVID” regime and personally press important concerns with Xi, in particular Russia’s war. Macron had invited von der Leyen to join him in Beijing to celebrate European unity and met her for a preparatory lunch in Paris before the trip. The French president clearly seemed to want to signal that he is a more committed European than German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had embarked on a solo trip to Beijing in November 2022, after rejecting Macron’s offer to go together. Von der Leyen had done her part to signal a determined European approach.
On March 30 in Brussels, she gave the boldest speech of any senior European decision-maker yet on how to deal with Xi’s China. The very fact that the EU Commission president chose to invite Berlin-based Merics, Europe’s leading think tank on China that had been put under sanctions by the Chinese party state in 2021, sent a clear message to Beijing. The speech itself was even clearer. Von der Leyen depicts a China that is “more repressive at home and more assertive abroad” where security and control trump all other concerns and that is quick to use political and economic coercion trying to exploit the very dependencies of other countries on China that it systematically seeks to encourage. She described a country that Xi prepares for a long-term violent “struggle” with the United States and that has the “clear goal” of “systemic change of the international order with China at its center.”
To prove her point, von der Leyen added that the recent “show of friendship in Moscow” says “a thousand words about this new vision for an international order.” No other European leader had ever presented such an accurate dissection of Xi’s agenda. As a European response, von der Leyen outlined an ambitious “derisking” strategy that puts economic security at the center of the relationship with Beijing and includes an instrument for outbound investment screening in technologically sensitive areas. Just as in 2019 when it introduced the notion of China as a “systemic rival” the EU Commission had again pushed the boundaries of Europe’s China policy. But straight away the China’s EU Ambassador Fu Cong voiced doubts whether most member states were ready for von der Leyen’s agenda. For him, it sounded like “two people quarrelling with each other,” he told the New York Times, meaning “Europe has not formulated a coherent policy toward China.”
Both Sánchez and Macron worked very hard during their China trips to prove Fu right. In a speech at the Boao Forum, China’s version of Davos, the Spanish president praised China for its belief in “a strong, transparent, and rules-based multilateral system,” directly contradicting what von der Leyen had said about Beijing’s vision for international order.
Given France’s status as a permanent member of the United Nations and Europe’s second-most important economic power, Macron could have offset these remarks by clearly aligning himself von den der Leyen’s derisking agenda. The French president instead chose to do his utmost to pull the rug from under von der Leyen’s feet during their joint visit in Beijing. Instead of derisking, Macron firmly stuck to illusions of reciprocity in economic relations with China, as if he learned nothing from the previous instances that he had pursued this approach only to find Beijing did not deliver. On Russia, Macron did not manage to extract any commitments that substantively go beyond the statement against the use of nuclear weapons that Scholz got from Xi in November. That is not surprising given Xi’s determination to stand by Putin’s side to keep Russia as an ally in the struggle against the United States.
But it is not that Macron tried very hard to signal that Beijing’s support for Russia’s war violates a European “core interest” to use a favorite Communist Party state term. Macron brought a 50-strong business delegation, four times the size of Scholz’s delegation in November for which he was criticized. Macron’s delegation included a member of the board of directors of Huawei France and former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who is the French equivalent to Gerhard Schröder selling out to both Russian and Chinese interests. That is anything but a signal that because of the support for Russia’s war it is no longer business as usual in EU-China relations.
But it is on Taiwan policy where Macron chose to cause the most damage. When asked in Beijing on the meeting between the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen and U.S. House majority leader Kevin McCarthy, Macron coined the heroic formula: “I am neither Taiwan nor the U.S. As a good stoic, I can only deal with what depends on me. One does not have to mix up everything.” That was his only major statement on stability in the Taiwan Strait on the ground in China. It flew in the face of von der Leyen’s statement in Beijing vis-à-vis Xi that “stability in the Taiwan Strait is of paramount importance” and that “threat of use of force to change the status quo is unacceptable.” But Macron was not done yet. Just after the farewell fireworks Macron received before taking off, the People’s Liberation Army started a series of aggressive drills of “sharpening the sword” by encircling Taiwan as a reaction to the meeting between Ing-wen and McCarthy. On the plane ride back, Macron gave an interview to Politico Europe and Les Echos that amounted to a carte blanche for Xi on Taiwan. Macron described Taiwan as a “crisis that is not ours” that Europeans should stay out of and not be “America’s followers.”
The will of the majority of the Taiwanese people, expressed in democratic elections, not be ruled by Beijing does not feature in his thinking. Despite Xi having made clear his determination to control Taiwan with ever more aggressive acts, Macron seemed to make the United States solely responsible for the ratcheting up of tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Macron seems to foolishly presume that Europe can insulate itself from a war between China, Taiwan, and the United States, and therefore does not need to even try to deter Beijing from using force. But a Europe that cannot even deal with a much smaller war without U.S. help on its doorstep has no way of escaping the much larger consequences of a U.S.-China war. He undermines French credibility by going against key G7 statements on Taiwan (most recently in August 2022) that France signed.
Perhaps most disconcerting is that Macron seems to lack any positive definition of the French national interest and strategic objectives on stability in the Taiwan Strait beyond not simply following the United States. His much-trumpeted approach of France as “puissance d’équilibres,” or “balancing power,” seems to be one of exclusively balancing against the United States. The irony is that Macron is right that Europe needs to chart its own course on China based on its own interests and invest in its own capabilities to achieve what he calls “European sovereignty.” But by presenting his approach as a purely anti‑U.S. agenda, he discredited the “European sovereignty” approach even further in the eyes of many, especially in Central and Eastern Europe who were already skeptical before. A divided Europe only benefits Europe’s enemies.
That is why it is now crucial for Europe to shift to damage control mode. However self-defeating and provocative Macron’s remarks were, there is no point for other European leaders to add fuel to the fire of public debate. Rather, they should calmly restate the key principles on Taiwan outlined in G7 statements also signed by the EU. At the same time, they should push the debate back to engaging with von der Leyen’s derisking agenda. A majority of EU members is open to spelling out a “derisking not decoupling” agenda with China. Germany plays a key role on these fronts. In November, Scholz was clear in the press conference on both Taiwan and human rights including Xinjiang not being an internal Chinese matter. According to a German diplomat, Scholz delivered an “incredibly clear” message to Xi about the consequences of using force against Taiwan for the bilateral economic relationship. Scholz and his foreign minister Baerbock need to try to get the rest of Europe quietly behind such an agenda of deterrence against Beijing over Taiwan. Scholz himself has used the term “derisking” vis-à-vis China although he does not seem to want to move as decisively as von der Leyen on some fronts.
Building a coherent EU China policy on “derisking” got much harder after Macron’s dismal China trip. But it is the only way for Europe to assert, in Macron’s term, its “sovereignty.” Baerbock should find ways to publicly back this “derisking” agenda as well as the G7 and EU position on Taiwan during her trip to Beijing. But let us not hold our breath this will impress Xi very much. As long as he can count on Macron as his best ally against a sovereign Europe asserting its interests vis-á-vis an aggressive Beijing, he will simply sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.
This commentary was originally published in Foreign Policy on April 12, 2023.