Macron Bows to China

The respected German observer of American-European relations Josef Joffe has noted “Envy [is] the motive for resentment… with America embodying the might and glory Europe no longer has and therefore pretends to disdain.” “Pretends” is the key word, especially regarding France, a proud country that remembers when it was not only the most powerful country in Europe (prior to the unification of Germany in 1870) but second only to Great Britain as a global empire. It is still active in its former African colonies and has a naval squadron to protect its possessions in Asia. When the plane I was on landed in Maldives to refuel, I spotted a French helicopter carrier and its escorting frigate whose crews were enjoying shore leave at this Indian Ocean resort.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently seemed to play into China’s hands by exhibiting the “strategic autonomy” from U.S. leadership that Beijing has long called on Europeans to do, not only in regard to abandoning Taiwan but cooperating with Russia in a Eurasian embrace. Macron’s visit gave Beijing only half a loaf. He may not see a French interest in Taiwan, but he does see one in Ukraine. Geography and economy are the keys. Paris can put business ahead of security when dealing with a power on the other aide of the planet, but not with one just across the continent with which France has had to contend for centuries. Macron, along with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, visited Kyiv last June to show unified European support for the defense of Ukraine against the brutal Russian invasion. In October, Macron stated that peace cannot be “captured by Russian power.” It should be up to Ukraine to decide when to talk peace, and at that point “the international community will be there.” Unfortunately, Macron seems to think China will be part of that process, acting to restrain Russian ambition, a hope without serious foundation.

On April 16, China’s Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow. According to Chinese state media, “China and Russia have powerful military strengths and significant strategic influence globally, and they are the key powers to contain and deter hegemony.” Hegemony is the term used to describe U.S. policy. “China and Russia have already been holding joint patrols and joint exercises over recent years, with the two countries' armies, navies and air forces joining each other in naval patrols in the Pacific Ocean, aerial patrols in the Sea of Japan, the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean” brags the Chinese press. Joint exercises with Iran were also mentioned (Tehran has been providing weapons to Russia in Ukraine). China is supporting Russia’s economy and defense industries but has been discouraged from sending heavy weapons because of U.S. and NATO objections.

Macron is a centrist who still holds naïve views about China that the U.S. has outgrown, having recovered from its post-Cold War euphoria and end of history fantasies. France holds less than two percent of the China market. Luxury goods (fashion and wines) are its leading exports. In contrast, it imports machinery and electronics supporting strategic sectors of Chinese industry. It is also helping develop Beijing’s nuclear industry and is opening a second assembly line to build Airbus jets in China. The biggest deal announced since Macron’s visit to Beijing is a French order for 18 container ships from Chinese shipyards. Given France’s trade deficit with China, those ships will be carrying more goods to Europe than to Asia. Some French firms are profiting from turning their country into a tribute state to Beijing. By listening to them, Macron is proving to be only a politician, not a national leader.

France is part of the G7 (with U.S., UK, Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan) and had to agree to its April 3 statement on China’s threats against Taiwan. The G7 Foreign Ministers declared, “We are concerned by recent and announced threatening actions by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), particularly live-fire exercises and economic coercion… The PRC’s escalatory response risks increasing tensions and destabilizing the region. We call on the PRC not to unilaterally change the status quo by force in the region.” This has always been the U.S. position. The status quo is an independent “self-governing” Taiwan. This status can only be changed by force since the people of Taiwan are determined to remain free. In the face of an aggressive Beijing, peace can only be maintained by deterrence which requires a strong posture by the U.S. and its allies. Beijing must understand that any attack on Taiwan will not only inflict devastating costs on China but will fail.

France is also a NATO member (though in an earlier fit of bluster it had pulled out of NATO’s Military Command structure from 1966 to 2009). The NATO 2030: United for a New Era report (released Nov. 25, 2020 and showing the influence of President Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy) states “NATO must devote much more time, political resources, and action to the security challenges posed by China -- based on an assessment of its national capabilities, economic heft, and the stated ideological goals of its leaders.” The June 2021 Brussels summit went further: “China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security… It is also cooperating militarily with Russia.”

The United Kingdom took the lead projecting power into the Indo-Pacific with the seven-month (May-December 2021) voyage of British Carrier Strike Group 21 based on the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier and its escort of two Royal Navy destroyers, two frigates, two support ships and a nuclear submarine. But it was also an alliance effort. The task force included a U.S. Navy destroyer and a U.S. Marine Corps fighter squadron operated from the UK carrier. There was also a Royal Netherlands Navy frigate. The group conducted exercises with the Indian, Australian and Japanese navies along the way, bringing together NATO and the Quad alignment (against which China protested).

On her way to the G7 Foreign Ministers conference in Japan, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stopped in China where she said that the EU and Germany "cannot be indifferent" to escalating tensions between China and Taiwan, and that "A military escalation in the Taiwan Strait... would be a worst-case scenario globally.” She also called on Beijing to urge Moscow to stop the war in Ukraine.

Japan was the proper place for this G7 meeting, as Tokyo sees a global alignment against aggression. On March 21, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrived in Kyiv to "show respect to the courage and patience of the Ukrainian people who are standing up to defend their homeland… and show solidarity and unwavering support for Ukraine.” At their meeting, the G7 Foreign Ministers “condemn in the strongest possible terms Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine” and “Russia’s irresponsible nuclear rhetoric.” Furthermore, “There can be no impunity for war crimes and other atrocities such as Russia's attacks against civilians and critical civilian infrastructure.” 

On China, the final communique stated, “We strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion. There is no legal basis for China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea, and we oppose China’s militarization activities in the region.” China’s policy of forcing “illegitimate technology transfer or data disclosure in exchange for market access” was also condemned.

All nations will evaluate world events in terms of their own interests. Even within the enduring alliances built by the U.S. encompassing the most advanced civilizations of our time, there will be nuances on even the most central policies. The task of diplomacy is to rally coalitions of the willing to act, not just talk. As Winston Churchill said, “The only things worse than fighting with allies is fighting without allies.”

William R. Hawkins is a former economics professor who served on the Republican staff of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. He has written widely on international economics and national security issues for both professional and popular publications. 

Image: RawPixel

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