French President Emmanuel Macron is jetting off on an ambitious diplomatic mission to woo Beijing away from Moscow. Officials in Washington wish him luck with that.
France hopes to dissuade China’s leader Xi Jinping from getting any cozier with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and wants the Chinese instead to play a mediation role over the war in Ukraine.
However, it is unclear what leverage Macron has — and the backdrop to his three-day trip starting Tuesday isn’t easy. Europe continues to reel from the impact of cutting off trade ties with Russia and geopolitical tensions are ratcheting up between China and the U.S., the world’s two biggest economies.
The French president wants to play a more personal card with his Chinese counterpart, after drawing fierce criticism for hours of fruitless phone calls with Putin last year — an effort that failed to stop Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Macron is expected to spend several hours in discussions with Xi, and the trip includes a visit to a city that holds personal value for the Chinese president.
“You can count with one hand the number of world leaders who could have an in-depth discussion with Xi,” said an Elysée adviser who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
But while expectations in France of a breakthrough are moderate, the view among other Western officials is even bleaker.
Given Macron’s failed attempts at playing a center-stage role in resolving conflicts, such as stopping the war in Ukraine or salvaging the Iran nuclear deal, there are doubts in the U.S. and elsewhere that this trip will deliver major results.
The White House has little expectation that Macron will achieve a breakthrough, according to three administration officials not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations. Xi is unlikely to act on Macron’s requests or curtail any of China’s assertive moves in the Pacific, the officials said.
White House aides ruefully recalled Macron’s failed attempts to insert himself as a peacemaker with Putin on the eve of the invasion more than a year ago and anticipate more of the same this time.
There is also some concern in the Biden administration about France’s potential coziness with China at a time when tensions between Washington and Beijing are at their highest in decades, even though the White House is supportive of the trip, the three officials said. There is no ill will toward Macron’s efforts in Beijing, they stressed.
But what might further complicate Macron’s endeavors is an emerging feud between the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who is traveling with the president, and the Chinese.
In a high-profile speech on EU-China relations Thursday, von der Leyen urged EU countries to “de-risk” from overdependency on China. She also implied that the EU could terminate the pursuit of a landmark trade deal with China, which was clinched in 2020 but subsequently stalled. Her remarks sparked swift blowback from Chinese diplomats. Fu Cong, China’s ambassador to the European Union, said Friday he was “a little bit disappointed.”
“That speech contained a lot of misrepresentation and misinterpretation of Chinese policies and the Chinese positions,” Fu told state-owned broadcaster CGTN.
The Europeans’ visit will also be scrutinized from a human rights perspective given China’s authoritarian pivot and alleged human rights abuses across the nation.
“President Macron and von der Leyen should not sweep the Chinese government’s deepening authoritarianism under the rug during their visit to Beijing,” said Bénédicte Jeannerod, France director at Human Rights Watch. “They should use their public appearances with Xi Jinping to express strong concerns over widespread rights abuses across China, heightened oppression in Hong Kong and Tibet, and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.”
Speaking ahead of the visit to Beijing, the French leader said his aim was to “try and involve China as much as possible to put pressure on Russia” on topics such as nuclear weapons.
But will Macron’s charm work on Putin’s “best friend” Xi?
China has sought to position itself as a neutral party on the conflict, even as it has burnished its ties with the nation, importing energy from Russia at a discount. Despite massive international pressure on Moscow, Xi decided to make the Kremlin his first destination for a state visit after he secured a norm-breaking third term as Chinese leader. Meanwhile, POLITICO and other media have reported that the Chinese have made shipments of assault weapons and body armor to Russia.
Western European leaders that were cozy with Moscow just before the war started are now calling for engagement with China, including Macron himself. Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was in China just days before Macron’s arrival, saying that the world “must listen to its voice” on Russia and Ukraine.
During his visit, which aides have been discussing since at least November last year, Macron will spend several hours with Xi in Beijing, and accompany him to the city of Guangzhou. The Chinese leader’s father, Xi Zhongxun used to work there as Guangdong province governor.
“Altogether the president will spend six to seven hours in discussions with the Chinese leader. The fact that he will be the first French president to visit Guangzhou is also a personal touch, since President Xi’s father used to be a party leader there,” said the Elysee official cited earlier.
The French are hoping the time Macron spends privately with Xi will help win Chinese support on issues such as stopping Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine or halting the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children.
It’s also expected that Macron will try to test Xi’s reaction to Russia’s threat to host nuclear missiles in Belarus, a decision that flies in the face of China’s non-proliferation stance, barely a month after Beijing revealed its 12-point plan for resolving the conflict in Ukraine.
“It’s absolutely fundamental to have moments of private encounters,” said Sylvie Bermann, France’s former ambassador to China. “Diplomacy is about playing the long game …With China, I don’t think it is easy to strike up relationships as Westerners. But maybe it means that we’ll be able to talk when the time comes.”
Despite the show of goodwill however, the French president will not hold back from sending “some messages” to Beijing on supporting Russia, particularly when it comes to arms deliveries, a senior French official said.
“We aren’t going to threaten, but send some warnings: The Chinese need to understand that [sending weapons] would have consequences for Europe, for us … We need to remind them of our security interests.” The official said Macron would steer clear of threatening sanctions.
Antoine Bondaz, China specialist at Paris’ Foundation for Strategic Research, questioned the emphasis on trying to bond with Xi. “That’s not how things work in China. It’s not France’s ‘small fry’ president, who spends two hours walking with Xi who will change things, China only understands the balance of power,” he said. “Maybe it works with Putin, who has spent over 400 hours with Xi in the last ten years, but Macron doesn’t know Xi.”
EU unity on show as trade takes center stage
Trade will also feature high on Macron’s priorities as he brings with him a large delegation of business leaders including representatives from EDF, Alstom, Veolia and the aerospace giant Airbus. According to an Elysée official speaking on condition of anonymity, a potential deal with European planemaker Airbus may be in the works, which would come after China ordered 300 planes for €30 billion in 2019.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Foreign Affairs Minister Catherine Colonna are also traveling with the president.
With the EU facing an emerging trade war between China and the U.S., the presence of von der Leyen will add yet another layer of complexity to the mix. The French president said in March that he had “suggested to von der Leyen that she accompany him to China” so they could speak “with a unified voice.”
“I don’t have a European mandate, as France has its independent diplomacy — but I’m attached to European coordination,” he said.
A joint trip with the EU head sets him apart from Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor whom French officials criticized in private for hurrying to China for a day trip with Xi last year, focusing more on German rather than EU interests.
With von der Leyen by his side, Macron may well hope to be seen as the EU’s leading voice. In the U.S., the French president had tried that tactic and obtained some concessions on America’s green subsidies plan for the bloc.
In China, that card may be harder to play.