Will President Macron's strategic framework embrace new opportunities for China-EU relations?

Gloria Sand
Does Macron's visit to Beijing indicate a solidified EU stance toward China-EU relations and more pragmatic approach, and perhaps a departure from US rhetoric?
Gloria Sand

French President Emmanuel Macron landed in China today. He will spend two days in Beijing and one in Guangzhou, where he is expected to meet members of the French community in China and Chinese who have helped strengthen bilateral relationships in areas such as trade, health, arts and education.

These connections will be pivotal in emphasizing the main goal of his mission, to remold the France-China strategic partnership and draw a common framework to achieve shared goals.

Tomorrow, Macron will visit the Great Hall of the People where he will meet President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Qiang and National People's Congress President Zhao Leji. After the meetings, Macron and Xi will sit together with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to discuss the China-EU relationship.

After German Chancellor Olaf Scholz's China visit in November 2022 and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez's visit last week, it seems that Beijing is ranking higher and higher on European diplomatic trips.

The French president seems determined to make constructive pragmatism his main priority. Accordingly, he emphasizes that China is not a country that can be isolated or marginalized, openly recognizing that it is too big and too powerful to be "lectured" about its own interests and intentions. Macron has also made it clear, despite never adopting language that could be deemed as challenging by Washington, that it would be suicidal for France to follow the United States in its anti-China crusade. Of course, the relationship with Washington remains crucial for Paris, but the one with Beijing should not be sacrificed because of that.

If Macron continues to persuade Europe to develop its own China strategy and mold it based on its own economic and strategic interests, convincing von del Leyen to travel with him could be a very smart move in showing China, and more importantly, the rest of the European Union, that they must learn to better coordinate themselves, in order to gain some relevance in the China-US arm-wrestling.

If Macron's position is clear, von del Leyen's mission in Beijing should be followed with more skepticism. The simple fact that she suddenly reconsidered France's invitation after returning from an official trip to Washington in mid-March is very surprising.

On March 30 she was invited by the Mercator Institute for China Studies and the European Policy Centre to discuss EU-China relations, and in this occasion she formally framed that "decoupling" is not an option for the EU, while "derisking" is. This change implies a clear departure from the American line. What Chinese leaders should try to understand during the next few days is whether this sudden move is authentic or not.

Several weak signals deserving more attention are emerging. The visits of Scholz, Sanchez, Macron and von del Leyen to Beijing will inevitably create a domino effect in Europe, pushing other EU leaders to create opportunities to meet Chinese leader in order not to be excluded from this new trend. Over the last few weeks, media seem to have progressively moderated their anti-China tones, portraying these trips as "risky opportunities" rather than "proof of EU weakness." Moving from "decoupling" to "derisking" is also a very promising start, although it is not clear, yet, how "derisking" will be spelled out.

It is hoped that Macron and von del Leyen will capitalize on their visit to China to start a conversation on this specific point with President Xi, rather than imagining to identify a new framework and passively imposing it on China.

The peace proposal for Ukraine could offer a useful occasion to test the water and better understand where the red lines are. However, the real issues at stake are economic cooperation in strategic sections and the revival of the negotiations for a comprehensive agreement on investment (CAI).

Von del Leyen is emphasizing "derisking," but she is also aware that Europe needs to secure itself abundant and reliable access to rare earth and semiconductors. Therefore, cooperation with China needs to be considered. And if the EU is worried about developing what they consider a potentially dangerous "economic dependence," there is nothing better than a formal agreement to clarify everyone's interests, and to protect them with clear and specific clauses.

Negotiating a common investment framework for the whole European Union would be ideal for two reasons. First, to guarantee the same opportunities and protection to all countries. Second, to prove to China that Europe is a united block.

The "European third way" is a utopia, and hopefully leaders of the Old Continent have eventually understood that. At the same time, joining the American battle does not serve the interests of Europe, while being too imposing on China can only create new tensions. It is therefore hoped that Macron's strategic pragmatism will prevail, both in Beijing and in Brussels.

(The author is an independent researcher based in Paris. The views are her own.)

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