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France and China's Search for European Strategic Autonomy

20 Apr 2023
By Moksh Suri
Emmanuel Macron, Xi Jinping , and Ursula von der Leyen, From left to right. Source: European Union 2023/

On China, disunity, not strategic autonomy, has come to define Europe’s struggles for improved relations. This ensures that on the important questions of Ukraine, China maintains the upper hand. 

The European Union’s (EU) top diplomatic officials are adapting incrementally to Beijing’s turn towards peace talks and diplomacy. Much of the recent EU diplomatic activity is owed to the optimism surrounding China’s mediatory role in the Persian Gulf to broker an Iran-Saudi Arabia peace settlement. This is not also to detract from the pessimism surrounding China’s position on Russia’s war in Ukraine. Hoping for cessation of hostilities and a return to peace talks in Ukraine, high ranking EU leaders are increasingly travelling to China to persuade President Xi Jinping to assert his growing leverage over Vladimir Putin for peace talks.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz began this trend when he visited China in November 2022, prompting some disapproval within his coalition government partners. In March 2023, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez was in Beijing to meet with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi, Foreign Minister Qin Gang, and finally Xi – where both sides exchanged views on the Ukraine crisis. The Spanish side spoke “positively” about the Chinese position paper on Ukraine.

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron and his foreign minister, Catherine Colonna, received a VIP red carpet welcome in Beijing and brought along a sizeable French business delegation to strengthen Sino-French commercial relations, ignoring much of the new “de-risking” discourse being emphasised in Brussels. Macron’s delegation also included European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the advocate of the de-risking approach and a firm critic of the Chinese paper on Ukraine.

Finally, the EU-China Strategic Dialogue will soon take place in Beijing led by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell. The purpose of these visits is to push China to take a much more active role on Ukraine and to stabilise what has been a problematic period in EU-China trade relations.

Brussels remains convinced that China’s interaction with the Kremlin (in bringing about peace) would be a determining factor for the EU in its decisions and discussion about Washington’s restrictions to contain China’s technological advancement. The Macron-von der Leyen visit, although overshadowed by Russia’s war in Ukraine, was meant to demonstrate European unity and its firm resolve to pursue strategic autonomy.

Before her visit to Beijing, von der Leyen in a speech insisted that Europe’s partnership with China remains “far too important to be put at risk by failing to clearly set the terms of a healthy engagement.” From Brussels’ perspective, it’s relationship with China calls for being more vigilant in safeguarding its interests to ensure a level playing field in Chinese markets as well as seeking to remedy its highly imbalanced trade relationship.

For China, engaging Europe through a peace process via Russia is of paramount importance for reviving the stalled EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, and preventing the establishment of a synchronised, transatlantic anti-China coalition that could possibly limit Beijing’s access to Western technology and markets. However, Beijing’s ignorance of European concerns on Ukraine, coupled with firm opposition to the EU’s normative appeals over human rights and rule of law in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet has made Brussels increasingly interested in balancing China. Despite the recent charm offensive, Beijing’s “wolf-warrior” approach to diplomacy will not go away anytime soon, particularly for the EU’s partners in the Indo-Pacific, which will be on their minds.

Allegations of Beijing aiding Russia’s war efforts in Ukraine by exporting dual use equipment have increased apprehensions in EU capitals, especially in Paris and Berlin, which have been keen to reengage with Beijing economically. The EU’s foreign policy chief had earlier stated that if China supplies arms to Russia, it would cross a redline for EU-China relations. On this issue, von der Leyen has been more assertive, directly criticising Xi for maintaining close relations with Putin and even expanding the no limits partnership with Russia further. With Europe’s growing mistrust over Beijing’s “pro -Russian neutrality,” Macron and von der Leyen will have also wanted to convey that any attempt by Beijing to supply lethal weapons to Russia will render significant costs to EU-China relations.

Amid Washington’s sweeping semiconductor export control restrictions, Brussels remains convinced that Europe, as a major economic powerhouse, makes it an important partner for both Washington and Beijing. However, the absence of a synchronised European strategic culture to engage China is increasingly being leveraged by Beijing via its  “divide and rule” tactics over the EU27 states. Xi’s entourage believes the future of EU-China relations should not be influenced by its relations with Brussels, but mainly via bilateral relations within the EU27 states. This was clearly on display last week as Xi prioritised Macron, his preferred partner in Europe, over von der Leyen who received a cold shoulder in Beijing.

Although the current debate on China in Europe remains dominated by the need to reduce dependencies and pursue diversification of trade and investment relations, lack of internal cohesion and coordination between EU27 states greatly detracts from these efforts. For instance, while von der Leyen actively promoted her “de-risking” approach towards China, Macron inked several agreements targeting deeper cooperation with Beijing in technological innovation. Macron and von der Leyen’s fundamental disagreements on how to balance economic prosperity and national security considerations while engaging Beijing only partly reflect the wider EU divide over China. This no doubts weakens the case for European strategic autonomy.

While von der Leyen was trying to project transatlantic unity on the issue of Putin’s war in Ukraine and convey the EU’s concerns over a similar possible scenario in Taiwan, Macron was busy talking about reducing Europe’s dependency on the United States and “avoid getting dragged into a confrontation between China and the U.S. over Taiwan.” Such disagreements between Europe’s top leaders can be detrimental to the very European strategic autonomy they are advocating for.

While Europe may have been less hawkish on China than Washington until now, deepening cooperation between Beijing and Moscow will continue to raise apprehensions in Brussels. This may even spill over negatively into EU-China economic cooperation, leading EU policymakers to fully support US semiconductor export control restrictions on China, given the EU’s rising ambitions to be a global geopolitical player.

Moksh Suri is a Research Trainee at the European Army Interoperability Centre in Brussels. He completed his Master’s Degree in International Relations from Leiden University. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from O.P. Jindal Global University. His core interests are IR Theory, Indo-Pacific Geopolitics, Norm Diffusion and India’s Foreign Policy.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.