Macron seeks engagement with China. The rest of Europe should, too

The West has nothing to gain from being confrontational with China, and everything to gain from working with it

French President Emmanuel Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping during a Franco-Chinese Business Council meeting in Paris on Monday. EPA
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This week, the Princeton academic Rory Truex published an essay titled “Let’s all take a deep breath about China”. He observed that “America’s collective national body is suffering from a chronic case of China anxiety. Nearly anything with the word ‘Chinese’ in front of it now triggers a fear response in our political system”.

Among other examples that Mr Truex gave were US Senator Rick Scott writing to US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo last December, requesting an investigation into imports of Chinese garlic. Whether they were “whole or separated into constituent cloves, whether or not peeled, chilled, fresh, frozen, provisionally preserved or packed in water or other neutral substance”, Mr Scott claimed he was worried that fertiliser used to grow the vegetable constituted “a threat to US national security”. (Scientists at McGill University in Canada concluded that it did not, in a 2017 note posted online under the heading “Separating Sense from Nonsense”.)

This anxiety – not just over garlic – appears to have permeated much of Europe as well. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak rather extravagantly declared just over a month ago that China was “the greatest state-based threat to our economic security”.

So it was a pleasant relief to hear French President Emmanuel Macron talking in far more level terms ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s two-day state visit to France, which began last Sunday. “Let’s be clear, I’m not proposing to distance ourselves from China,” Mr Macron said in an interview with a French newspaper. “Whether it’s about climate or about safety, we need the Chinese.”

Warm words were matched by what appeared to be warm interactions between the two heads of state, with Mr Macron taking Mr Xi for a splendid lunch with both their wives at a bistro in the Pyrenees. It was a nicely personal gesture; the area has fond memories for the French leader as it was the home of his maternal grandmother.

Mr Macron called instead for a “reset”, “because China is now in excess capacity in many areas and exports massively to Europe”. The precise word he used was “aggiornamento”, which means “bringing up to date”. There’s nothing negative about that. When circumstances evolve, it may be sensible for a relationship to do the same.

I have no doubt Macron believes in France’s 'eternal values'. But he also seems aware of the 'world as it is'

Whether Mr Macron is on board with just how much the international order has changed, in the view of many countries, may be open to question. I was struck recently by the themes of two important upcoming conferences, one in Malaysia, one in Qatar. The Asia-Pacific Roundtable, hosted by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia in June, is titled “Crisis in an Interregnum”. Next week’s Qatar Economic Forum conference is titled “A World Remade: Navigating the Year of Uncertainty”.

Note the lack of question marks. They state as fact, and not up for discussion, that firstly the world has been remade, and secondly that we are in an interregnum between the unipolar US-led period and a new order that has yet to emerge.

Mr Macron may not agree completely. Most French leaders cherish a rather over-elevated idea of their country’s grandeur, destiny and influence. But if he could use his power in the EU and Europe more generally, in both of which France is a leading player, to steer the continent towards engagement, not confrontation, with China, he would not only have done us all a great service. Mr Macron would also be acting in the tradition of his presidential predecessor Charles de Gaulle, who said after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Paris and Beijing 60 years ago: “France simply recognises the world as it is.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appears, on the whole, to understand this. As a Wilson Centre commentary put it, the Chancellor’s recent visit to China “underlined Scholz’s tendency to prioritise German-Chinese economic co-operation rather than focusing on issues of disagreement”.

Some others on the continent, however, do not.

Italy’s withdrawal last December from China’s Belt and Road Initiative – an association that comes with no formal obligations – was an unnecessary and undiplomatic rebuff. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is ever ready to wag her finger disapprovingly, criticising China for both its internal and external policies, and threatening Mr Xi with “the full use of our trade defence instruments” just after a trilateral with him and Mr Macron on Monday.

Ms von der Leyen has said in the past that the EU’s “values” will define how the group relates to China. And this is where she, and some other European leaders, would be advised to reconsider their words in public. They can have conversations on such subjects, as well as on trade, on security issues and others – as indeed, Mr Macron and Mr Xi may have done over lunch in the Pyrenees. But that requires getting round the table in a friendly manner first. Aggressive lectures given to the world’s media do not help.

As Raja Nushirwan Zainal Abidin, director general of Malaysia’s National Security Council, put it in a speech in March: “The myth that there is only one, western model, to achieve socio-economic progress has been broken. China’s rise has proven this.” This phenomenon, he thought, was not well understood in the West – but needed to be. “Given the sea change in attitudes in the Global South, those who harp on about western values should stop – if the hole is getting deeper, then stop digging.”

I have no doubt that Mr Macron fully believes in France’s “eternal values”. But he also seems aware, like Gen de Gaulle, of the “world as it is” – perhaps he even realises that it has been “remade” – and that there is no reason why Europe should fall for the American “China anxiety” that led Senator Scott to get so excitable about a humble bulb of garlic.

Some polite, warm words, the sharing of a hearty meal in good fellowship, diplomacy instead of decoupling – all of these can go a long way, as Mr Macron appears to recognise. Europe has nothing to gain from being confrontational with China, and everything to gain from engagement.

If both sides still differ strongly, Mr Macron’s approach makes it far easier, as South-East Asian diplomats are fond of saying, “to agree to disagree without being disagreeable”.

Published: May 09, 2024, 7:00 AM