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Chinese leader Xi Jinping had one overriding message for his visiting French counterpart Emmanuel Macron this week: Don’t let Europe get sucked into playing America’s game.
Beijing is eager to avoid the EU falling further under U.S. influence, at a time when the White House is pursuing a more assertive policy to counter China’s geopolitical and military strength.
Russia’s yearlong war against Ukraine has strengthened the alliance between Europe and the U.S., shaken up global trade, reinvigorated NATO and forced governments to look at what else could suddenly go wrong in world affairs. That’s not welcome in Beijing, which still views Washington as its strategic nemesis.
This week, China’s counter-offensive stepped up a gear, turning on the charm. Xi welcomed Macron into the grandest of settings at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, along with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. This was in sharp contrast to China’s current efforts to keep senior American officials at arm’s length, especially since U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called off a trip to Beijing during the spy balloon drama earlier this year.
Both American and Chinese officials know Europe’s policy toward Beijing is far from settled. That’s an opportunity, and a risk for both sides. In recent months, U.S. officials have warned of China’s willingness to send weapons to Russia and talked up the dangers of allowing Chinese tech companies unfettered access to European markets, with some success.
TikTok, which is ultimately Chinese owned, has been banned from government and administrative phones in a number of locations in Europe, including in the EU institutions in Brussels. American pressure also led the Dutch to put new export controls on sales of advanced semiconductor equipment to China.
Yet even the hawkish von der Leyen, a former German defense minister, has dismissed the notion of decoupling Europe from China’s economy altogether. From Beijing’s perspective, this is yet another significant difference from the hostile commercial environment being promoted by the U.S.
Just this week, 36 Chinese and French businesses signed new deals in front of Macron and Xi, in what Chinese state media said was a sign of “the not declining confidence in the Chinese market of European businesses.” While hardly a statement brimming with confidence, it could have been worse.
For the last couple of years European leaders have grown more skeptical of China’s trajectory, voicing dismay at Beijing’s way of handling the coronavirus pandemic, the treatment of protesters in Hong Kong and Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslims, as well as China’s sanctions on European politicians and military threats against Taiwan.
Then, Xi and Vladimir Putin hailed a “no limits” partnership just days before Russia invaded Ukraine. While the West rolled out tough sanctions on Moscow, China became the last major economy still interested in maintaining — and expanding — trade ties with Russia. That shocked many Western officials and provoked a fierce debate in Europe over how to punish Beijing and how far to pull out of Chinese commerce.
Beijing saw Macron as the natural partner to help avoid a nosedive in EU-China relations, especially since Angela Merkel — its previous favorite — was no longer German chancellor.
Macron’s willingness to engage with anyone — including his much-criticized contacts with Putin ahead of his war on Ukraine — made him especially appealing as Beijing sought to drive a wedge between European and American strategies on China.
Not taking sides
“I’m very glad we share many identical or similar views on Sino-French, Sino-EU, international and regional issues,” Xi told Macron over tea on Friday, in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou, according to Chinese state media Xinhua.
Strategic autonomy, a French foreign policy focus, is a favorite for China, which sees the notion as proof of Europe’s distance from the U.S. For his part, Macron told Xi a day earlier that France promotes “European strategic autonomy,” doesn’t like “bloc confrontation” and believes in doing its own thing. “France does not pick sides,” he said.
The French position is challenged by some in Europe who see it as an urgent task to take a tougher approach toward Beijing.
“Macron could have easily avoided the dismal picture of European and transatlantic disunity,” said Thorsten Benner, director of the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute. “Nobody forced Macron to show up with a huge business delegation, repeating disproven illusions of reciprocity and deluding himself about working his personal magic on Xi to get the Chinese leader to turn against Putin.”
Holger Hestermeyer, a professor of EU law at King’s College London, said Beijing will struggle to split the transatlantic alliance.
“If China wants to succeed with building a new world order, separating the EU from the U.S. — even a little bit — would be a prized goal — and mind you, probably an elusive one,” Hestermeyer said. “Right now the EU is strengthening its defenses specifically because China tried to play divide and conquer with the EU in the past.”
Xi’s focus on America was unmistakable when he veered into a topic that was a long way from Europe’s top priority, during his three-way meeting with Macron and von der Leyen. A week earlier the Biden administration had held its second Summit for Democracy, in which Russia and China were portrayed as the main threats.
“Spreading the so-called ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ [narrative],” Xi told his European guests on Thursday, “would only bring division and confrontation to the world.”