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Foreign Policy

A Stabilizing Visit to China

Apr 12, 2023
  • Jade Wong

    Senior Fellow, Gordon & Leon Institute

French President Emmanuel Macron.png

On the afternoon of April 7, 2023, President Xi Jinping held an informal meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Pine Garden in Guangzhou City of Guangdong Province, China.

The visit of French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to China in early April attracted global attention. It was an important part of the “restart” of China-Europe diplomacy after China’s 20th National Congress and the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Other dignitaries had come earlier — the German chancellor, the president of the European Council and Spain’s prime minister. Macron and Von der Leyen will be followed by some other European leaders. Sino-German governmental consultations and the annual meeting between China and Europe are also on the schedule.

Macron’s visit was a highlight and a clear indication of the stabilization and warming of China-Europe relations. It was characterized by two key words: focus and solidarity.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spent only 11 hours in China in early November. In contrast, Macron spent seven hours with Chinese President Xi Jinping over three days. Macron had invited Von der Leyen to accompany him as a sign of European solidarity.

But Chinese and European media have both questioned the symbology. In China, Macron said he wanted to relaunch a comprehensive strategic partnership. Speaking of decoupling, he said, “I do not believe — in any case, I do not want to believe — in this scenario.” Von der Leyen, maintained her more assertive stance, while the Chinese side urged China and Europe to “build a correct mutual understanding and avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations.”

Since the Ukraine crisis began, European strategic discussions about China have resumed and are continuing. In general, the EU adheres to the triple view of China — partner, competitor and systemic rival — that emerged in early 2019, but there’s more emphasis on systemic rivalry than before. Before the trip, Von der Leyen gave a major speech at an event co-hosted by think tanks on March 30. She summed up the EU’s position on China by saying that the EU needed a “bolder” approach. But she added that Europe should not decouple; it should only “de-risk,” she said. The speech was relatively balanced and basically accepted by all sectors in Europe.

The visit also addressed two key issues for China and Europe: peace and development.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict only “adds to the woes” of the already lackluster China-EU relationship. Europe is wary of a “no-limits” Sino-Russian relationship and frustrated by what it sees as China’s disregard of its core interests. It was not until the first anniversary of the war, at the end of February, that China’s peaceful initiative for a political solution to the crisis eased some of the tensions with Europe. Both Macron and Von der Leyen made the matter a priority of their visit. Before her trip, she said the direction of China-Russia relations “will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward.” European media bluntly stated: “The trip will be considered a success only if Xi Jinping promises not to send weapons to Ukraine or has the first phone conversation with [Volodymyr] Zelensky,” Ukraine’s president.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has also affected Sino-European economic relations. Having learned a lesson from its oil and gas dependence on Russia, Europe is considering reducing its economic dependence on China. The United States has seized the opportunity to impose economic sanctions on Russia to further coordinate U.S. and European economic policies toward China. This makes it more difficult for Europe to strike a balance between ideology and economics.

Macron led more than 50 business figures to China and attended a meeting of the China-France Business Council with Xi Jinping. The president of Airbus Europe, who was part of the entourage, announced the opening of a second production line in Tianjin.

The China-EU Comprehensive Investment Agreement — which Chinese Ambassador to the EU Fu Cong strongly advocated recently — was not mentioned, but the European side did not respond as positively to the Belt and Road Initiative as did the Russian side during President Xi’s visit to Moscow at the end of March. Yet the visit of Macron and Von der Leyen to China sent a clear signal that economic and trade contacts remain the anchor of China-EU relations.

Finally, in terms of the international environment, the visit by Macron and Von der Leyen was a highlight in the interactions between major powers since the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Before its peace initiative at the end of February, China was not really involved in the details of the game between the West and Russia. Before the trip, Macron and Von der Leyen spoke on the phone with the U.S. and with Ukraine. Li Qiang, China’s new premier, also spoke by telephone with the Russian prime minister before his meeting with the European side.

This is no coincidence. Macron said in Beijing that he hoped President Xi would “bring Russia back to reason” over the war, while the Kremlin spokesman said there were “no prospects for a political settlement” of the Ukraine issue in the offing. China, for its part, repeatedly reminded the Europeans that it is “an independent pole in a multipolar world” and expressed its “support for Europe’s strategic autonomy. It was, in fact, pointing to the United States.

The games of great powers, at a time of transformation in the international order, is often fierce, and there will be no clear winner until the last moment. Both China and Europe hope to stabilize their relationship to gain more international space to maneuver.

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