French President Emmanuel Macron ended his state visit to China on Friday by having tea with his counterpart Xi Jinping in Guangzhou, the industrial megacity at the heart of China’s export-led economy.
The choice of Guangzhou, where Xi’s father was a senior official, conveyed the Chinese leader’s personal touch toward Macron. But it also signaled the French interest in maintaining economic and trade interests with China, despite Western anger over Xi’s support for Vladimir Putin and the failure to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Macron, who was accompanied to China by dozens of French businessmen, was joined on part of his three-day visit by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a gesture of common European purpose toward Beijing. However, any sense of unity was undermined by arrangements that lavished the French leader with a banquet, military parade, and other trappings of a state visit, while von der Leyen was excluded from many lavish events.
John Delory, a China expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, said the visit reflects “both ends of the European spectrum, in terms of how messages are sent to China.”
Xi’s strategy is: Macron is coming with his hands outstretched so they embrace him. [von der Leyen] It demonstrates the most difficult European position, and they are trying to push it away from the sidelines.
Noah Barkin, an analyst at the Rhodium Group, said Macron missed an opportunity to use Europe’s collective economic clout to get more Chinese in the meetings. He said any hopes in Paris that the trip would foster a sense of a united front in Europe’s policy toward China had proved miserable.
“Macron seems to have thought that by bringing von der Leyen with him he was sending a message of EU unity, even if the two were sending different messages when they were in Beijing,” he said. “It seems that Macron misplayed his hand.”
In a remarkably hawkish speech last week before the visit, von der Leyen Xi warned that China’s interactions with Putin’s war “will be a determining factor in EU-China relations.” She also noted a “deliberate hardening” of China’s strategic stance, adding that Beijing had become “more repressive at home and more assertive abroad”.
While stressing her repeated goal of “de-risking” trade with China, rather than US-style “decoupling”, von der Leyen pledged greater vigilance in protecting European interests and ensuring a more level playing field for EU companies willing to trade with nation.
In China, it struck a downbeat note about economic relations, warning of “unfair practices” that put European companies at a significant disadvantage.
Meanwhile, Macron has sought to dismiss any sense of an “inevitable spiral” of tensions with Beijing.
Zsuzsa Anna Firenze, author Europe, China and the Limits of Normative Powerhe said while von der Leyen was “firm” in her attempt to hold Xi accountable for his support of Putin, European leaders ultimately failed to present a united front.
China is clear and strong on its red lines. “We don’t have that power when we talk to China about our own issues,” Firenzi said.
Beijing has long preferred dealing with member states. . . And to thwart European decisions and the European Union as a whole.
The difference in the ceremony for Macron and the more subdued reception for von der Leyen, who went on a business trip to Beijing, partly reflected the fact that the French president was on a state visit to the country.
In a joint statement, the two governments agreed to “improve market access” for each other’s enterprises.
France will also handle Chinese companies’ license applications in the field of digital economy and 5G “fairly and without discrimination.” The impact of this pledge remains unclear given that France has already imposed restrictions on Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei.
The two sides agreed to consider 2024 the “Chinese-French Year of Culture and Tourism” with partnerships between various French and Chinese cultural sites. France hopes to attract big-spending Chinese tourists since the easing of pandemic travel restrictions.
The differences in the ceremony or the statement did not reinforce the unity the European Union had hoped to show at a time when it is under intense pressure from the United States to steer a tougher course on relations with China.
Mikko Hootari, director of the Mercator Institute for Chinese Studies in Berlin, said it was expected that Beijing would exploit the differences in diplomatic style that resulted from the divergence of European roles, and that it was therefore important not to overestimate it. this side.
But Huutari added that there are fundamental differences between the Commission president and major EU capitals on how to handle EU-China relations.
“Berlin, Paris and other capitals will still need to buy into the ‘risk-free’ approach outlined by von der Leyen and its implications,” he said.
On Ukraine, Macron has said he is counting on Xi to “bring Russia to its senses” about the war, and French diplomats have said earlier they hoped discussions with Xi would help lay the groundwork for future peace talks, should Ukraine and Russia begin. they.
But Xi has not changed his language on the conflict, has not indicated that he will use his influence over Putin, and has not committed to speaking to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“China hasn’t budged in its support of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine since the beginning of the war, so recent visits by European leaders are unlikely to move things,” said Sue Kim, a former CIA analyst now with LMI. American Consulting.
Macron’s long-term approach may have an advantage, Delory of Yonsei said. He said that in the wake of Beijing’s mediation of the talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the West should not prevent China from “providing the environment” for the talks between Ukraine and Russia.
“[The French] They have their own economic interests in their relations with China and are not convinced of the separation theory. And in the event that China plays a role in the future, it would be nice to have a lobbying relationship there.
Additional reporting by Laila Abboud in Paris
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