April 10, 2023
On November 4, 2022, Chancellor Scholz paid an eleven-hour visit to Beijing with a group of top German business executives. He was the first Western leader visit to China since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and the first major political leader to meet Xi Jinping after the Chinese Communist Party Congress.[i] At the end of March 2023, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón visited China. He was followed by President Macron and the President of the European Commission von der Leyen last week.
At the end of World War II Europe was devastated. On April 3, 1948, President Truman signed the Economic Recovery Act of 1948 which later became known as the Marshall Plan after the US Secretary of State George Marshall who had issued a call for a comprehensive program to rebuild Europe. The plan was designed to revive the European economy and diminish the appeal of communist parties. Initially, it was viewed with mixed feelings.
In France, for example, since all Frenchmen still believed that their country was a Great Power, this was a difficult position to be in. Germany had humiliated France in 1940. The United States was, in the eyes of many Frenchmen, humiliating France now simply by being in a so much more powerful position than France itself. “The United States… is infatuated with its own weight,” wrote the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.[ii]
Despite such sentiment, the French government became increasingly intertwined with Washington. Because not only the French economy had to be rebuilt, but the links with Washington were also essential in security terms with Soviet troops just across the Rhine. Thus, in March 1948, the French government signed the Brussels Pact with Britain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. A year later, on April 4, 1949, The North Atlantic Treaty was signed creating NATO.
But France under President Charles De Gaulle remained unhappy with what it considered an unequal partnership with the UK and the US within NATO.
In February 1960, France became a nuclear power when it exploded a nuclear device in the Sahara Desert.
In 1966, President de Gaulle withdrew French forces from NATO’s command and expelled the Alliance’s headquarters from Paris and Fontainebleau in protest at what he saw as US hegemony in Europe. France, after its military withdrawal, championed the idea of more independent European defense, particularly the idea that the European Community with twelve members at the time should take on such a role as it developed a common foreign and security policy.
In 1995, France upgraded its links with the alliance taking up its seat on the Military Committee and participating fully in formal defense ministers’ meetings. But such participation stopped short of France rejoining the alliance’s integrated military structure.
Finally, in 2007, President Sarkozy announced that he was considering returning to NATO’s military command. He confirmed the decision in a speech in Paris on March 11. But the broad foreign and security policy outlook that France is a major European power entitled to a good measure of independence within the Western alliance has remained to this day, the last example being President Macron’s visit to China.
During the Cold War, France like other members of NATO enjoyed the security umbrella of NATO and US defense support to Europe as well as unprecedented prosperity. The end of the Cold War enhanced Europeans’ sense of security. But Russia’s invasion was a shock upending the European security architecture. This new confrontation with Russia once again united Europe largely but not fully with the US and led to a commitment by European members of NATO to raise their contribution to the common defense.
However, Washington’s increasingly challenging attitude toward Beijing and the prospect of decoupling with China was too much for European countries except NATO members who are in lockstep with Washington on the question of Ukraine. This is why, despite rising tensions between Washington and Beijing the leaders of Germany, Spain, and France traveled to China to ensure a stable and mutually advantageous relationship not only on security issues but also trade and cooperation in the field of technology.
China was Germany’s biggest trading partner in 2022 for the seventh year in a row. According to France Diplomacy, China is France’s 7th largest customer (France has a 1.4% market share in China) and the second largest supplier (China has a 9% market share in France). China-France trade is significantly imbalanced: China represents France’s largest bilateral trade deficit (€29.2 billion in 2018), ahead of Germany.[iii]
A BBC analysis of the visit by Tessa Wong was titled “Macron and von der Leyen: Europe’s good cop and bad cop meet Xi Jinping”. It seems that what earned von der Leyen the title “bad cop” was her strongly-worded speech criticizing President Xi for maintaining his friendship with Mr. Putin. In a reference to China’s 12-point peace plan, she had stressed that any plan consolidating Russian annexations was “simply not viable”.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued lengthy readouts after Mr. Macron’s and Ms. Von der Leyen’s meetings with President Xi Jinping. The following are two quotes attributed to the “bad cop”:
“Decoupling from China is neither in the EU’s interests nor the EU’s strategic choice. The EU sets its China policy independently. It would like to restart the High-Level Economic and Trade Dialogue and advance steady and balanced growth of economic and trade ties with China for mutual benefit.
“The EU totally disapproves of decoupling and severing supply chains, and hopes to strengthen exchanges and dialogue with China, restart the three dialogue mechanisms at an early date, and carry out more mutually beneficial cooperation.”
On April 5, 2023, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang met in Beijing with French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Catherine Colonna, who was accompanying French President Emmanuel Macron. The Chinese readout of the meeting attributed the following to Ms. Colonna:
“Colonna said that France-China relations are of vital importance. France views its relations with China from a strategic and long-term perspective… France adheres to its independent decision-making and the tradition of friendly and cooperative policy toward China… France does not agree with decoupling, stays committed to dialogue and engagement, and stands ready to work with China to uphold fair and just international rules.”
What is noteworthy is Ms. Colonna’s reference to “fair and just international rules” but not the “rules-based international order” as advocated by Washington.[iv]
These readouts once again underlined Chinese views on “a multi-polar world and greater democracy in international relations”; China and the EU sharing extensive common interests; cooperation and common ground between the two sides outweighing competition and differences; the China-EU relationship not targeting any third party, nor being dependent on or dictated by any third party; China’s championing true multilateralism; the need for China and the EU to jointly uphold global stability and prosperity, and stand against hegemonism, unilateralism and attempts to decouple economies or sever supply chains.
They also said, “President Macron noted that France is committed to an independent foreign policy and to the strategic autonomy of Europe, and opposed to stoking confrontation, division and bloc rivalry. France will not pick sides.”
Among Mr. Macron’s and Ms. Von der Leyen’s expectations from the visit was an endeavor by China to stop Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Speaking to reporters alongside Mr. Macron, President Xi said that China is ready to “issue a joint call” with France on the “Ukraine crisis”. Most of what he said on the path to peace must have pleased his guests, perhaps with the exception for the “bad cop”, of his reference to the need “to accommodate the legitimate security concerns of all parties”.[v]
On the way back home, once again stressing “strategic autonomy” for Europe, “The paradox would be that, overcome with panic, we believe we are just America’s followers,” President Macron told Politico. “The question Europeans need to answer … is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction,” he said.
[ii] Odd Arne Westad, The Cold War, A World History, Penguin Books, 2018, page 115.