By Orçun Göktürk*
European leaders are travelling to Beijing, one after the other. On the heels of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited China on April 5-7. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is expected to follow later this month.
French President Macron arrived in Beijing on Wednesday, April 5, at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping and began a three-day visit. Macron arrived in China shortly before European Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen, as the two European leaders aim to stabilize economic ties with China and find common ground on the Ukraine crisis, which has plunged the EU into a security dilemma not seen since the World War II.
Xi-Macron meeting alarms the U.S.
Political relations between Europe and China have recently been on a downward trend. Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, described the EU-China Summit in April last year as a “dialogue of the deaf”. Von der Leyen, before her visit to China, emphasized that “we need to reconsider the comprehensive investment agreement with China” and became the voice of the pro-Atlantic camp within the EU.
But the EU is not one voice. For this reason, Foreign Policy (FP), known to be close to US foreign policy elites, published an analysis titled “Macron’s China trip is a fool’s errand.”(1)
The US effort to reconsolidate the EU within the Atlantic bloc, believing that it has seized an important opportunity in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, has been replaced with ‘pessimistic’ views in the American media after Macron’s visit. “Feeling the heat at home, the French president heads to China to ink some lucrative deals and pay lip service to Xi’s pledges of peace,” the FP analysis added as a comment under the headline.
Macron’s pose with Xi Jinping, who was just confirmed for a third term as President at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, and more importantly Macron’s statement that “We cannot cut the EU off from China” have been greeted with unease in the United States. Contrary to Western interpretations, what brought Macron to Beijing is more than the French leader’s domestic political turmoil over inflation and the pension law.
The EU’s Atlantic dilemma
The main problem the European Union (EU) faces in the increasingly multipolar structure of the international system is whether to “drown in the Atlantic system? Or to become the vanguard of the new order?”. In November last year, ahead of his high-level visit to Beijing, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, “At the last congress of the Chinese Communist Party, the commitment to Marxism-Leninism has increased even more than before. If China changes, our relations with China will also change.”(2) However, there was no structural change in German-Chinese relations. The German leader even stated that the main purpose of his visit was “to remind China of its responsibility as a member of the UNSC towards Putin and Russia for threatening nuclear weapons,” but there was no mention of this in the joint statement with Xi. In fact, Scholz stood next to Xi and said, “We support the One China Policy. We hope to further develop our economic cooperation,” Scholz said, as did Macron.
The EU is not unified
“Contradiction is universal, absolute, and exists in the whole process of the development of things and persists in all processes from beginning to end.”(3) The words of Mao, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, in 1966, are reflected in the current EU leadership. While the Ukraine crisis seems to have silenced the forces within the EU that are willing to increase cooperation with Russia and Eurasian forces at least since February last year, the future of Europe will of course be decided by Europeans, not Atlantic’s.
China’s Great Power Diplomacy
Under the leadership of President Xi, China continues to put forward new proposals to improve relations with the EU as part of its foreign policy strategy called “Great Power Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics”. Meanwhile, EU leaders are trying to seize new opportunities for engagement. Macron, who initially reacted to the US’s betrayal of France after the “AUKUS Treaty” by summoning the US Ambassador to Washington, was later “softened” by Biden’s phone call. Nevertheless, Macron went to Beijing in spite of the US, which puts even its closest ally on the back burner when it comes to its own interests. And this after Xi’s visit to Moscow, where criticism of Xi’s third term has been rampant in the Western media almost every day, and where Xi kicked off his new term with a toast to Putin.
Chinese media highlights Macron
In the Chinese media, France and Macron were the main protagonists and the EU was relegated to the background. Ursula von der Leyen’s had stated “How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward”. This statement brought along the comments that “the solution of the Ukraine crisis is more important for the EU than relations with China”. In the Chinese media, von der Leyen was widely commented as being the “bad cop”, and on Weibo, China’s famous social media platform, evaluations that described her as an “American puppet” were the most liked posts. Even on a social media platform affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Defense, it was commented that “Macron’s visit will give a new impetus to China-EU relations. However, the fact that he brought Ursula von der Leyen with him shows that his sincerity is a bit lacking.”(4) It was stated that the Chinese authorities did clearly not welcome Leyen.
‘Atlantic is conflictive, Asia is peaceful’
The People’s Daily, the CPC’s premier media outlet with a circulation of nearly 2 million copies, also published an editorial following Leyen’s remarks: “Compared to the confrontational approach of the US-led Atlantic front, China plays an important role in global governance and always strives for peace. The EU needs to be part of this effort. It is time for the EU to rethink whether to choose the dangerous path or peaceful development.”(5)
However, an editorial in Le Monde on April 8 stated, “The visit by President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen did not produce concrete results. But it was necessary to re-engage the relationship with Beijing, and doing so within a European framework was important.”(6) This comment showed the limits of the EU’s strategy of “China’s controlled pressure on Russia”, which was presented as the EU’s main objective.
The future of the EU
In his book “World Order”, Henry Kissinger writes that the EU had three available options, with anyone other than “the EU pursuing policies closer to the US” would not be in the interest of the Atlantic system. (7) As for the other options, Kissinger named “a more independent EU” or “the EU approaching Eurasian forces through Russia”. He wrote the last one seemed less realistic, at least after the Ukraine crisis. But Russia is the EU’s neighbor, not the US’s, and the EU is in many ways bound to Russia, China and emerging Asian countries.
Macron crossed the red lines of the US
Macron’s visit makes clear the policy of an “Independent EU” that is moving away from the Atlantic, which Kissinger said would be “disastrous for the US”. The interview (8) Macron gave to Politico and Les Echos on the plane on his return to China made this clear. His important statements on “Europe must resist the pressure to follow the US”, “the inviolability of the US dollar”, “the strategic autonomy of the EU” and “siding with China on Taiwan policy” are historic. Emphasizing that “the ‘great risk’ facing Europe is that it gets caught up in crises that are not ours and that this prevents it from building its strategic autonomy”, Macron said: “It would be a paradox if we panic and believe that we are following America. The question Europeans must answer is, is it in our interest to precipitate a crisis in Taiwan? No.” Macron crossed US red lines.
Macron also reignited the “European army” debate by stating that Europe’s dependence on the US for weapons and energy has increased and that Europe should now focus on strengthening its defense industries. Macron’s remarks came a few hours after his plane took off from China, where China had begun a major military exercise around Taiwan. The US was clearly isolated by one of its biggest allies in the Taiwan card it is trying to use against China. Macron’s statements are very important for the EU to take an independent line and prevent a possible World War.
EU leaders line up in the Big Hall Putin and Xi’s hand is strengthened
In the last 6 months, the efforts of the German and French leaders, the two great powers of the EU, to persuade Xi, who has an “unshakable friendship” with Russia, to make concessions to Putin on Ukraine was just another dream of the Atlanticists. The reality is that the EU’s relations with China are of primary importance despite the Ukraine issue. Since 2021, China has dethroned the US as the EU’s largest trading partner, and today, more than yesterday, it has shown itself to be a role that the EU needs.
More importantly, by going to Xi Jinping, Germany, France and the EU leadership ultimately strengthened Putin’s hand. This is exactly what Europeans need to understand: Putin and Russia are the main interlocutors, the problem is NATO expansion and some EU politicians are in capitulation to Atlantic policies.
*Participant of International Master of Public Administration, future leaders program, Tsinghua University, Beijing / China.
(7) Kissinger, H. (2015). World Order. Chapter Two, “The Future of Europe”. Penguin Books.