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Macron’s Uphill China Trip

Macron’s Uphill China Trip
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

The visit Emmanuel Macron is starting today in China promises to be a difficult one, as he is confronted to contradictory imperatives. There are perhaps four of them. First, that of French national diplomacy, which aims at delivering a global message at a time when the multilateralist space is shrinking. Climate change and biodiversity protection will be more favorable grounds for this than the WTO reform, where China is clinging to its special statute. Then there is Europe, where Emmanuel Macron must confirm the message that he had delivered to China during Xi Jinping’s Paris visit last March: he had then invited Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel to take part in Xi’s reception. This kind of gesture demands continuity, even more so as Chinese leaders tend to believe in deeds rather than in words.

The French president must also present itself as a defender of universal values – at a time when human rights are particularly under challenge in China. The dehumanizing treatment of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and more generally Muslims and some Christian communities in western China is a major issue. Even if it is less dramatic for the time being, the fate of Hong Kong is worrying. Finally, the commercial imperative has not disappeared. Mr. Macron has to sell planes (here also in the name of Europe), reach for contracts, including in the nuclear industry, and advocate more opening of China’s services and public markets.

How are these goals manageable in today’s charged international environment? In Europe, a Commission that has reached its end is nonetheless not completely replaced, thus inevitably creating a period of wavering. Certainly, EU civil servants are busy implementing the changes that were – finally – decided by the Juncker Commission: screening foreign investment, countering lobbying and, most importantly, reforming competition policies and support for innovation, which are the two positive changes that the EU can bring to match China’s entry inside Europe. An interim EU report on the security threats associated with 5G, has a running thread in the narrative that points towards the special risks from Chinese companies in this sector. It seems that Europe has got its act together to face the challenge and pressure from China’s hybrid economy. And France has been instrumental in this change of attitude and shift towards new rules.

It seems that Europe has got its act together to face the challenge and pressure from China’s hybrid economy. And France has been instrumental in this change of attitude and shift towards new rules.

But we are now in an interval of doubt regarding the next steps to take from the Commission’s March 12 communication on China policy, and on the follow-up to the April EU-China summit. The summit placed China in front of its own responsibilities, asking it to expeditiously fulfill its long-held promises regarding several important EU-China agreements. Since then, only one has been signed, concerning civil aviation. A second one may be signed during Mr. Macron’s visit on geographical indications: it is important for agribusiness, and particularly for France and Southern Europe. All in all, it’s not much considering that on the more important comprehensive investment agreement, there has been no progress after 20 negotiation rounds.

Meanwhile, China is again pushing ahead on its 5G lobbying, with perhaps some degree of success: returning from her own September China trip, Angela Merkel made a surprise announcement countering the European report’s position on Chinese companies. Boris Johnson immediately followed suit, whatever his words may be worth in the midst of the Brexit crisis. Without much doubt, his hosts will bring pressure to bear on Mr. Macron regarding the 5G issue.

The European wavering has several sources of explanation. One cannot neglect the uncertainties that Donald Trump is bringing on various American policies. There are legitimate reasons to request Europeans coordinate with the United States on the protection of sensitive technologies. But this does not go very well with the opening of several commercial conflicts across the Atlantic. And Donald Trump’s ultimate goal with China is more than ever in doubt: does he really want to compel a change in China’s economic governance, or is he aiming for a quick, even limited, commercial gain that could be cashed in during the election period?

European leaders – from the European Union, or Mrs. Merkel during her latest trip to China, or Emmanuel Macron today – face a hard reality: in Beijing, US economic threats are more immediate and effective. America drew the attention of China’s leaders, whether it is about achieving a truce, even short-lived, or if it is about digging in for long term conflict, implying an even greater shift to a state-driven economy.

Bringing along on his visit a European commissioner as well as a German minister is proof enough: nobody before him has given as much credit to Europe. It is also a risk he takes.

As if this wasn’t already difficult enough, there is also a certain gap between France and Germany. In Beijing, Mrs. Merkel was more outspoken on human rights than French visitors usually are. That gap is indeed customary, and it is also true that China takes in stride these declarations, although it was less tolerant of a later reception of Hong Kong’s Joshua Wong in Berlin. Mrs. Merkel was far less articulate when it came to addressing the European economic agenda with China, perhaps deferring the issues to the two EU-China summits Germany will be presiding over in 2020. In Brussels, there is concern that Germany might hijack the negotiations according to its own concerns: the German automotive industry, for example, is now literally a hostage of the Chinese market. Germany has fewer direct interest in the service and financial sector than some other European countries. Mrs. Merkel’s recent weakness on 5G shows that she might be tempted to aim for low threshold agreements.

If dispersed, Europe has much less weight in dealing with China – as it does with Russia and the United States, for that matter. Here again, Emmanuel Macron wants to push for a European way. Bringing along on his visit a European commissioner as well as a German minister is proof enough: nobody before him has given as much credit to Europe. It is also a risk he takes. At home, he may be judged naive or, worse, a federalist. In Germany, the current fog regarding foreign policy may need justifications over the so-called pragmatic economic interests, however a short view these may be. In China, it would be surprising that his hosts give him credit for the advocacy of a unified and realist European policy. They do very well with a Europe that is either divided or lacking means to defend its stands.

Nothing is sure in advance, either on this visit, or on the future of Europe’s China policy. The Chinese leadership needs to ponder that, by stalling negotiations with Europe in the past, they have lost much credit with their counterparts or with the European public opinion. The polls show that the same European public opinion actually credits Mr. Macron much more than many jaded political commentators do. He is there to stay, and he will therefore be an important interlocutor for China – if the country cares at all about relations with Europe. 


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