Macron tests out a new approach to China

Briefly: French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen visited China last week (5-7 April). The trip was intended to recalibrate relations with China and encourage it to take a more active role in ending the Russo-Ukraine War.

While the idea was to show a united European front, the result was anything but. Chinese President Xi Jinping rolled out the red carpet for Macron, greeting him with military parades, lavish state dinners and hours of conversation.

As for von der Leyen, who had just delivered an assertive speech on China, Beijing rolled out very little beyond a social media campaign portraying her as an American puppet.

So who got what?

  • President Xi didn’t really budge on French or EU concerns (such as China’s own permissive approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine)
  • But Macron did budge on China’s concerns, promptly calling for a Europe less beholden to the US, and less “caught up” in Taiwan tensions

So one former French PM essentially summed it up as a win for Xi: “flattery works”.

Intrigue’s take: This trip was Macron’s latest attempt at a conciliatory approach to relations with the West’s rivals, distinguishing France from Washington’s more confrontational stance. And there’s nothing wrong with this in theory.

But in practice, Macron’s approach has already failed once: he had Putin on speed-dial before the Russo-Ukraine War, yet Putin invaded anyway. And now this same approach with China seems only to have emboldened Beijing, while alienating France’s oldest ally and Europe’s main security guarantor (the US).

So sure, give the softer approach a try. But it’ll always beg the question: who’s playing who?

Also worth noting:

  • Unlike Macron’s visit, von der Leyen’s parallel trip was not a formal state visit. This partly explains the difference in welcome.
  • Hours after Macron’s departure, China began three-day military drills to simulate an invasion and encirclement of Taiwan.
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