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Au Contraire, Macron

Au Contraire, Macron

Contrary to the aims of diplomacy, Xi Jinping's visit to Europe this week seemed carefully calibrated to snub his hosts.

Dalibor Roháč

Xi Jinping’s state visit to France this week was a perfect reflection of Europe’s conventional wisdom about China: It treats China simultaneously as “a partner for cooperation, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival.” Accordingly, Europe must employ delicate balancing acts and tact in pushing against China’s economic and trade practices, as well as against its backing for Russia in its war against Ukraine. 

At the same time, Europe is far from ready for a meaningful economic “decoupling” from China. While mutual trade fell for largely technical reasons between 2022 and 2023, the two economies remain intertwined. A number of European companies have even been ramping up their investment and production in China. There is also the lingering notion that, for all its flaws, China remains an important stakeholder in the international system, and that addressing truly global challenges such as climate will be impossible without Beijing on board.

But what if reality is far less complicated than that? China’s “no-limits” partnership with Russia is making the former a co-belligerent by proxy in a major land war on European soil—one that most Europeans, including President Emmanuel Macron, see as a direct threat to the Continent’s security. 

Xi’s promise in Paris to “refrain from selling any arms" to Russia and "to strictly control the exportation of double-usage goods" rings more than a bit hollow in the light of China’s actual behavior so far throughout the war. This has entailed massive deliveries of drone and missile components and other dual-use technologies, geospatial intelligence, purchases of sanctioned Russian oil—not to mention, turning a blind eye to munition exports from North Korea to Russia, which Beijing could stop in a heartbeat.

Even the design of Xi’s trip to Europe seemed calibrated to signal his disdain. Xi snubbed Brussels and thus forced the Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, to herself make the trip to Paris to assist in a trilateral meeting at the Elysée. In contrast, by adding stops in Belgrade and Budapest, two capitals that have played less than constructive roles in European politics and in maintaining regional stability, China’s dictator is putting his disregard for his French hosts and their partners and allies on full display.  

By playing along, President Macron is undoing some of the successes of his earlier charm offensive in Eastern Europe. Since the the beginning of the war, the French leader has has used much tougher rhetoric toward Russiathan before, though not always matched by deeds, whether in terms of military assistance to Kyiv or in terms of France’s military build-up.

For a number of Eastern European governments, such as Lithuania or the Czech Republic, distrust of Beijing has become integral to their own positioning on the global stage. Supportive gestures towards Taiwan and restrictions on Chinese technology have also bought these countries a significant amount of goodwill and access in Washington, which they see as the main guarantor of their own security. French displays of goodwill toward China will not come across as reassuring in Prague or Vilnius. 

To be fair, the Lithuanian and Czech strategy is itself not without risks. While it is commonly assumed that U.S. foreign policy will be defined by America’s geopolitical competition with China, the debate over Ukraine assistance has demonstrated just how ephemeral the geopolitical commitments of many U.S. politicians are, including of the former U.S. president. Trump likes to talk tough about China but his policies were oftentimes much softer. As my American Enterprise Institute colleague Derek Scissors notes, it is entirely conceivable that Trump will seek yet another “deal” with “his friend” Xi, rather than follow a consistent strategy to weaken China. If Trump is threatening to impose a 60 percent tariff now, “why didn’t he in 2018? Why not as a response to COVID? If a 60 percent tariff is needed, what does that say about Trump’s tariff when he signed a trade deal with China they almost immediately broke?”

Even among the highest intellectual echelons of Trump-era policymaking regarding China, one can now hear qualifications to the idea that the United States ought to jump to Taiwan’s defenses. As Elbridge Colby tweeted recently, “Americans are war-weary and more skeptical of military interventions. Taiwan matters a great deal to Americans. But it’s not existential and it’s remote to most.” 

It is thus perfectly imaginable, from the perspective of Macron and other China doves in Europe, that taking America’s side more decisively may be a losing proposition. The EU would absorb the cost of its “decoupling” and other disruptions without any guarantee of ever capitalizing on its putative benefits, especially if the next administration ends up being as mercurial as the one that ran the U.S. government between 2016 and 2021.

For this reason alone, it is hard to lambast Macron’s controversial statement last year about the risk of Europe’s being dragged like a “vassal” into a conflict that is “not its own.” Of course, Europeans should not blindly follow Washington’s lead on China or on other matters. Their China policy should reflect their interests, particularly at a time of great uncertainty over the role that the United States will play on the global stage. 

Nevertheless, Europe’s own interests are much clearer than the awkward, convoluted balancing between “competition,” “rivalry,” and “partnership” seems to suggest. With its role in Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, China is effectively waging a proxy war against Europe. Instead of rolling out sanctions against Chinese entities directly involved in the “no limits” partnership, the negotiations in Paris seemed pre-occupied with dissuading the Chinese from restrictions on imports of … cognac. 

It is simply not the case that Europe has no leverage over the Chinese. Beijing does need the EU look the other way in the case of its hostile takeover of Taiwan or in other prospective conflicts with the United States. The current situation suggests that Xi is simply taking for granted that Europe will remain too divided and too weak to matter in such situations. But that’s hardly a win for the notion of Europe’s strategic autonomy.

The point is not Europe’s belligerence toward China for its own sake or to please Washington—or even for the sake of higher causes such as human rights and Beijing’s treatment of minorities. Rather, the EU is failing a far more basic test of standing up for its own, narrow interests. 

The problem, of course, extends to economic questions. Europeans are not victims without agency in the story of the impending demise of Europe’s automobile industry at the hands of Chinese EVs. The looming threat is a direct result of prioritizing other matters—specifically, decarbonization—at the expense of relatively straightforward geopolitical considerations. Change the policy by abandoning the hyper-ambitious emissions targets that are unlikely to make a dent in global climate change without other large global actors playing along, and China’s glut of EVs might start looking more like a liability than an asset.

Europe has its issues—from slow economic growth and complacent politics, to an insufficient defense industrial base, to questions about the future strength of America’s security umbrella. But the largest of its problems is a lack of self-confidence and the willingness to act from a position of strength, especially on matters that are vitally important to the Continent’s future. Unless that changes, not only through rhetoric but also through concrete policies, Xi’s arrogance and his support for Europe’s adversaries will only escalate. 

Dalibor Rohac is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor with American Purpose

Image: A French flag on the exterior of a building. (Unsplash: Lisadelarte)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyChinaEastern EuropeEuropeUkraineUnited States