Macron and von der Leyen: Europe’s good cop and bad cop meet Xi Jinping

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China's President Xi Jinping, his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von de Leyen meet for a working session in Beijing, China April 6, 2023Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Mr Xi welcomed Mr Macron and Ms von der Leyen in Beijing

As Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen meet Xi Jinping, they are sending a message of unity - even as China seeks to exploit potential cracks in Europe's alliances.

The French president and the head of the European Commission flew into Beijing on Wednesday and were welcomed by the Chinese president on Thursday.

Their joint trip is the latest in a noticeable push from European leaders to engage with China, which has seen German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez paying visits in recent months.

Like them, Mr Macron and Ms von der Leyen are pressing Mr Xi on taking further steps to halt the Ukraine war, while also finessing the increasingly fraught trade relationship between the European Union and China, its biggest trading partner.

European watchers expect them to work as a tag team on the Chinese.

With his attempts at engaging Vladimir Putin, the French president is likely to play the good cop. An Élysée Palace spokesman told reporters that Mr Macron found "points of convergence with Chinese proposals" on ending the war.

Meanwhile, some have called Ms von der Leyen the "bad cop from Brussels", given her strong relationship with US President Joe Biden and vocal support for Nato's position.

Days before her arrival, Ms von der Leyen gave a strongly-worded speech criticising Mr Xi for maintaining his friendship with Mr Putin. In a reference to China's 12-point peace plan, she stressed that any plan consolidating Russian annexations was "simply not viable".

She also pushed the concept of "de-risking", a more moderate version of the US idea of decoupling from China, where Europe would talk tougher in diplomacy, diversify its trade sources, and protect its trade and technology.

Together, the leaders represent two "fairly different strands of European thinking on China", said Dr Andrew Small, a senior fellow with think-tank the German Marshall Fund.

"One is on China deepening support for Putin on the war, especially on the question of lethal aid. They will want to say at a minimum that it will be damaging to the entire relationship with Europe."

But with Mr Macron coming with a large delegation including business leaders, "there is also the commercial and economic relationship that continues even in the middle of this… the message is that Europe and France still want to do business".

Crucially, Ms von der Leyen is in China at Mr Macron's invitation.

This would provide reassurance that they would hold the line, noted Dr Small, not only to EU member states sceptical of Mr Macron's approach to Russia and China, but also to the Americans who would be watching closely.

The US has yet to meet the Chinese leadership since Secretary of State Antony Blinken's much-anticipated trip to Beijing was called off during the spy balloon row. This trip may be the closest the Americans get to facetime with Mr Xi for now, and just before leaving France Mr Macron spoke to Joe Biden where they discussed plans to engage China.

Mr Macron and Ms von der Leyen's show of unity is also an attempt to put paid to any Chinese hopes of exploiting differences within Europe. Some observers believe this is one goal of Beijing as it tries to woo parts of Europe away from the US orbit.

But with member states maintaining relationships of varying degrees of closeness to China, the EU has yet to come up with a clear consensus on how to handle Beijing. Some, like France and Germany, are more keen to preserve trade ties while others, particularly former Soviet bloc states nervous about Russia looking to claim other territories after Ukraine, will want to go harder on China.

The danger is that China may be emboldened to use its relationship with Russia as leverage over Europe, warn observers.

Rather than just follow the US and Nato's lead, Europe must clearly draw their own red line and lay out the consequences of China overstepping it, said Janka Oertel, director of the Asia programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"The Chinese really need to understand what the stakes are. This is an opportunity for Europeans to say, 'This is your problem, you could have stayed away like in 2014 [during Russia's annexation of Crimea], but you chose not to - so you own this'," said Dr Oertel.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mr Macron last visited Mr Xi in Beijing in 2019 before the Covid pandemic

So how would China likely respond?

Ms von der Leyen would be greeted with wariness. Her speech last week needled the Chinese, eliciting a swift retort from their ambassador to the EU, Fu Cong, who said it contained "a lot of misrepresentations and misinterpretations" and it "deliberately distorted Chinese positions".

China would not be keen on her concept of "de-risking", but it may have no choice but to accept it, say experts. In any case, it may be hard for China to protest given its own efforts to become more economically self-sufficient, with Mr Xi championing his own "dual circulation" strategy.

"The Chinese also do not want to be caught in a situation where they are too dependent on the US or the Russians," said Reuben Wong, an associate professor in political science who studies Asia-Europe relations at the National University of Singapore.

Stoked by the war, the growing unity among Western allies - underscored by Finland joining Nato on Tuesday - represents a "serious development in foreign relations" for China, leaving "very little room for them to take an unyielding position", said Wu Qiang, a Beijing-based independent political consultant.

Increasingly, he noted, the only route Beijing could take is to be more co-operative in working out, such as lifting trade sanctions. A recent Chinese move to block imports to Lithuania, over its decision to allow Taiwan to open a de facto embassy, did not go down well with the Europeans, who in response developed their own tools to block what they see as economic coercion.

But the biggest sticking point will be the Ukraine war.

Media caption,

Watch: One year of war in Ukraine in 87 seconds

Keen on burnishing his credentials as an interlocutor, Mr Macron has favoured personal talks with key players. But the opacity of the Chinese leadership has meant there is little available evidence Mr Xi can be easily influenced with such an approach.

Mr Macron is also mounting his Chinese campaign right after Mr Xi's visit to Russia where, publicly at least, the two countries made it clear to the rest of the world that their "friendship with no limits" was still very much intact.

This could mean his visit to China "may end up like his visit to Russia and talks with Putin, where it has proven to be largely fruitless", said Dr Wu.

"In the past month, we have also seen a high wind of foreign diplomacy from China, representing its return to the global stage. Under these circumstances China is confidently asserting its stance, so it will not easily change."

But others believe this is precisely why China may be keen on working with Mr Macron to end the war Russia started - taking advantage of an opportunity to show the world it can do what the Americans have failed to accomplish so far.

In recent weeks it has promoted itself as an alternative peace broker, releasing concept papers and surprising the world with its hand in an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

"When the Ukraine war eventually ends, China wants to be at the table… this time it would be seen as a peacemaker. So this would really raise their profile in international diplomacy," said Dr Wong.

As the war continues to exact a toll on the global economy, and Chinese exports continue to shrink, "it is in Beijing's interests to start fine-tuning their message to the Russians", he added.

It will no doubt be the goal foremost in Mr Macron and Ms von der Leyen's minds, as they walk down the red carpet laid out for them in Beijing.