Very few heads of state are as invested in the European project as France’s Emmanuel Macron. In his latest visit to China, he reiterated his desire to turn Europe into a ‘superpower’ capable of becoming a kingmaker on the global stage. But, with the two established giants at odds with each other, with the United States urging for a stronger stance on China due to its role in the war in Ukraine and continued escalations in Taiwan, Macron’s intentions place the EU in a rather delicate position.
In September 2017, mere months after being elected as the youngest French leader since Napoleon himself, Macron made clear his ambitions for a stronger European bloc; one that would stop excessively relying on the US both economically and diplomatically. Now, after a tripartite meeting between himself, China’s president, Xi Jinping, and the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, this rhetoric has once again resurfaced.
Europe’s ‘strategic autonomy’ motto
Speaking with a group of POLITICO and French journalists aboard the French presidential plane, Macron said: “The paradox would be that, overcome with panic, we believe we are just America’s followers.
“If the tensions between the two superpowers heat up… we won’t have the time nor the resources to finance our strategic autonomy and we will become vassals.”
First brought up in 2013 in a bid to promote independence in defence matters within the EU, the concept of ‘strategic autonomy’ championed by Macron has evolved to be an umbrella term for any sort of European security, diplomatic, and economic dependence on other countries. As a broad concept, the way it manifests is largely a by-product of the biggest international issues of the moment.
This time around, Macron’s concerns were two-fold. He particularly focused on how Europe (and France by proxy) can diversify their economic portfolio, as well as how they should place themselves in relation to both the US and Taiwan to encourage Xi to cooperate on the Ukraine war front.
Macron’s economic vision for Europe: pure economics or a broader goal?
One of the points hammered home by Macron while on his way back from Beijing was the expanding European dependency on American weaponry and energy. By and large this is true, although perhaps with a few caveats.
As a result of the war in Ukraine, European imports of armaments rose sharply. Furthermore, the ensuing energy shock caused by the boycotting of Russian-originated trade forced the bloc to seek out energy imports from elsewhere.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of this change in trade dynamics was the US, becoming one of Europe’s largest exporters of liquified natural gas (LNG), and solidifying itself as a powerhouse in military trade, accounting for 40% of arms exports between 2018 and 2022.
Interestingly, however, particularly on the armament front, statistics from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) show France has become a great exporter of military equipment in its own right, accounting for 11% of global arms exports between 2018 and 2022. Similarly, despite the recent challenges in terms of energy security, France is known to be a net exporter of energy and is, in fact, taking steps to regain that position as the war in Ukraine continues to lose pace.
A broader look at trade relations between the EU and the rest of the world also suggests a different reality to what Macron is alluding. It is indeed the case that the US is dominating in terms of arms and energy: however, according to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade, EU imports are already China-dominated, accounting for 23% of total imports in 2022 in comparison to the US’ 13%. In France, the outlook is similar with China representing 9% of total imports to the US’ 6%.
In this vein, it seems unclear the way in which President Macron sees EU international trade going forward in relation to both the US and China. In a joint statement released by Beijing, various points on the diversification of trade relations and increased cooperation between the EU and China were made, with a particular focus on food goods and tech.
This is not surprising considering China’s status as the world’s leading exporter of high-tech products — of which its trade value in computers in 2021 reached over $180bn — nearly five times bigger than its closest Western counterpart, Germany. At the same time, with an estimated 150 million malnourished people and over $200bn in agricultural imports, it makes sense for China to be expanding its trade relations in this field with a bloc known for being an expanding net exporter of agricultural goods.
A cynical take on Macron’s actions, therefore, would question his decision to somewhat alienate the United States economically, as both the US and the EU are well positioned in global trade markets, and do not necessarily clash with the French president’s plans for EU-China cooperation. Instead, this rhetoric seems to be the EU’s attempt at a resolution of the war in Ukraine, while deferring the problems surrounding Taiwan.
Moving closer to China: strengthening the EU or dividing the West?
Von der Leyen’s agenda when flying to Beijing was much more conflict-focused than Macron’s, at least at first glance. The former, despite having long criticised Xi and his iron fist rule over the country, has made clear her focus on resolving Vladimir Putin’s war as soon as possible, even if this calls for some concessions in relation to China.
“Within this context, we all know that this leads to calls by some to decouple from China,” she noted at a press conference following her return, “I doubt that this is a viable or desirable strategy”.
Instead, Von der Leyen’s visit promoted ‘de-risking through diplomacy’, a softer approach to the one pushed forward by Joe Biden. Indeed, the European Commission president remained unmoved on Ukraine, saying that China, as a member of the UN security council has an important role in maintaining peace and that arming Putin would be against international law and “would significantly harm relations”, her stance on Taiwan was rather flimsy.
In a separate statement released by China’s ministry of foreign affairs, Von der Leyen is stated to have “reiterated that the EU has no intention to change its long-standing one-China policy,” adding that she supports the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the “sole legal government representing the whole of China”.
A similar point was made about Macron and his apparent support for the PRC’s view of Taiwan’s sovereignty.
On the other hand, the French president seems to have taken a slightly different approach to his European counterpart, taking an almost isolationist approach to Taiwan, stating that Europe “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy”.
US disquiet at Macron’s stance
Marco Rubio, the US senator for Florida, took to Twitter to express his discontent with Macron’s comments.
“Europe, including France specifically, has depended heavily on the United States for 70 years for their own defence,” he said in a video, “we’re spending a lot of our taxpayer money on a European war”.
While Rubio certainly does not speak for the whole of the Republican party, and much less for the White House, his statements do reflect a growing sentiment that the US’ involvement in Ukraine is being done at the expense of national problems.
Still aboard the presidential plane, Macron also stated Europe should be wary of its capability to intervene in Taiwan given its relative lack of success in Ukraine, adding that “the worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction”.
Dr Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, also took to Twitter to condemn this statement, arguing that Macron’s reference to a ‘US agenda’ reinforced the ‘Chinese narrative’.
He said: “It’s the PRC that is ‘accelerating the crisis’ with aggressive military exercises designed to coerce Taipei into giving into Chinese pressure for unification on China’s terms.”
There is an argument that Macron, and Von der Leyen to some extent, are attempting to persuade Xi to let go of China’s close relationship with Putin by making significant deferring concessions regarding Taiwan. After all, a ‘strategic ambiguity’ has been the US’ approach to the problem for several years now. However, considering that China’s commitments to European geopolitics have not gone beyond verbal support to restore peace in the region, these efforts may only result in a neutral China.
As such, while diplomacy channels and negotiations should certainly remain open, with some concessions having to be made, there is a fine line for Europe to travel between warming up to China and disregarding the United States.