If we identify the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as the greatest danger to the West (and humanity in general), then President Macron’s visit to Beijing in April was disturbing. At best we could say Emmanuel Macron’s passing reference to “de-risking” relations between Europe and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) before departing for Beijing indicated a more realistic stance. On the other hand, Macron’s comments to Les Echos and Politico suggest he is another in a long line of Western leaders unwilling to accept that the CCP is a totalitarian entity playing a zero-sum game with the world. In a long interview with the reporters on his presidential plane, Macron insisted that Sino-French relations must remain strong in order that France (and Europe) attain autonomy from the United States. Xi Jinping, obviously, would like nothing better than for trans-Atlantic bonds to be loosened and for France—and the rest of Europe—to be more independent from the US. Contrariwise, Beijing has no intention of allowing Europe (or the European Union) to end up independent from the PRC. The question we have to ask, along with US Senator Marco Rubio, is whether Macron “speaks for all of Europe”.
Macron’s Beijing-to-Paris media confab aboard Cotam Unité was problematic on all fronts, but we might begin with the fantasy that Europe (led by France) is “the third world power”. It almost goes without saying that during their six-hour tête-à-tête, Xi would have flattered Macron with the idea that Beijing and Paris are peers. One region in which France has pretensions to being a global power is in the South Pacific, something that would be contested by Beijing—more than it already is—if Taiwan were to be annexed by the PRC. This makes Macron’s remarks about a prospective Battle for Taiwan even more unhelpful:
The question Europeans need to answer … is it in our interests to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? … Europeans cannot resolve the crisis in Ukraine; how can we credibly say on Taiwan, “watch out, if you do something wrong we will be there”?
Macron’s obsession with France (and the European Union) achieving “sovereign autonomy” vis-à-vis the United States has a long history. But the possibility of post-war Europe becoming a stand-alone superpower remains a pipe dream, and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 only confirmed that fact. The title of Bart Szewczyk’s article for Foreign Policy magazine back in April 2022, “Macron’s European Vision Crashed and Burned in Ukraine”, says it all. Vladimir Putin was not deterred from undertaking his “special military operation” when Macron implored him, two weeks before the war, at the other end of a very long white table, not to invade Ukraine. France, on its own, is a global lightweight. At the one-year mark of the Ukraine War, the United States had earmarked $75 billion in military, financial and humanitarian aid for the people of Ukraine, while the French contribution stood at approximately $5 billion.
One of the purported reasons for Macron’s visit to the PRC was to persuade Xi Jinping to “bring Russia to its senses”, a stated objective that was either supremely naive or duplicitous. Not only did China-Russia trade skyrocket in 2022 but, as Georgetown University’s Dennis Wilder argues, Putin and Xi are “are bonded in a way that [the West] has not understood”. Putin and Xi are new-generation anti-West warriors determined to undermine the power and authority of America/the West, and Beijing’s supposed neutrality, as per its abstentions at the United Nations, is laughable. In March, Xi paid a call on Putin, newly certified as a war criminal by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, and made this pledge to his “dear friend” on his leave-taking: “Now there are changes that haven’t happened for a 100 years. When we are together, we drive these changes.” Transparently, Xi and Putin are agreed on creating a new world order and Xi’s “twelve-point peace plan” for Ukraine is no peace plan at all. Its first point alone, calling for the upholding of the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries”, without condemning Putin’s invasion, is a travesty in itself. The only merit in Xi’s position comes in the eighth point: “Nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought.” But China’s real concern about the “Ukraine crisis”—Xi cannot even bring himself to call it a war—is in point ten, the imposition of unprecedented tough sanctions by the West against Russia: “Unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure cannot solve the issue … Relevant countries should stop abusing unilateral sanctions and ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ against other countries.”
We can imagine if (or when) the PRC makes its move on Taiwan, either by an amphibious invasion or by laying siege to the island nation, Beijing will be using similar language: unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure by the West cannot solve the Taiwan crisis. Taiwan, as it happened, experienced a form of siege at the same time Macron was distancing himself from America’s commitment to Taipei. For three days, in protest against Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in Washington, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “encircled the island, simulated missile attacks on cities, and practised ship-launched strikes from the east”.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has not been alone in claiming “lots of connectivity, lots of interdependency” between the invasion of Ukraine and the situation in Taiwan: “God forbid, if Ukraine falls, if Ukraine gets conquered, the next day China may attack Taiwan.” Morawiecki is alluding to the necessity of containing Moscow and China, of an adoption of the principles of conservative internationalism. This must be our future if the West is not to be fatally compromised by China’s ambitions to impose a Pax Sinica (with Russia as the junior partner) on the world. Morawiecki, then, exemplifies a way forward, while Macron represents the past—that, in any case, is the optimistic scenario.
Although Macron’s state visit to the PRC occurred under the pretence of persuading Xi to lean on Putin to end the Ukraine war, the real business at hand was the business at hand—including the announcement on the final day of his visit of the sale of fifty Airbus HI60 helicopters, which can be used for military purposes, to a Shanghai-based leasing company. Airbus, a day earlier, had agreed to double the capacity of its manufacturing capacity in China and received the green light from Beijing to deliver 160 transport jets held up by the economic downturn in China caused by COVID-19. Airbus can now boast it has overtaken Boeing as the chief supplier of civilian aircraft to the PRC. All of this, and all of the other Sino-French business deals announced during Macron’s three days in China, combined with the French president’s predictable failure to shift Xi’s position on the Ukraine war, makes Macron not only a hypocrite but an accessory to the CCP’s global strategy to subjugate the world.
There was a time, before Xi Jinping became the paramount leader of China in 2012, when Western countries could more easily deceive themselves that closer economic relations with the PRC meant not only lucrative profits for Europe but also a more liberal communist China. Obviously, this constituted a misjudgment of the totalitarian workings and ambitions of the CCP, a mistake that goes all the way back to the growing ascendancy of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. It is not the dictatorship of the CCP that has been undermined by the PRC’s engagement with the West but—to borrow from Macron—the sovereign autonomy of Western governments. Thirty years ago, for instance, France sold Taiwan six frigates and sixty Mirage fighters, and yet merely upgrading those weapons, according to the terms of the original 1990s contracts, is enough to threaten Sino-French relations. To do business with China—or so it seems—necessitates kowtowing to Beijing’s political will. This explains Macron’s desire not to “take a cue” from America on the subject of Taiwan.
Macron has proven himself less a champion of European sovereign autonomy than an impediment to it. His bizarre insistence that things ought to go back to business-as-usual between the PRC and Europe now that the Covid pandemic is mostly behind us seems childishly naive. For many powerful players in the West, from (mostly Republican) members of the US Congress to formerly bullish pro-China investors on Wall Street, sentiment on China has cratered. Not the least reason for this is the increasing credibility that the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Biosafety Level 4 Laboratory was (albeit inadvertently) responsible for the Covid pandemic. The CCP regime, to put it bluntly, is responsible for the deaths of some seven million people around the world. We might add, as I argued in “Dancing with the Devil” (Quadrant, November 2022), that Beijing’s cover-up of the origins and communicability of SARS-CoV-19 destroyed the integrity of the World Health Organisation. Additionally, the financiers and speculators occupying Wall Street are now more reticent about investing in a country where the whims of a paranoid despot might bring business to a standstill. In the short term, of course, Macron can brag that Airbus has surpassed Boeing as Beijing’s aircraft of choice, but this is no more than gross opportunism. If Macron were a genuine statesman, he would reflect on the fact that the Wuhan laboratory was built with French taxpayers’ money. Once the laboratory was operational, predictably, Beijing banished French oversight from the site.
By undermining EU President Ursula von der Leyen’s memorandum about the malevolence of Beijing, delivered on March 30, 2023, Macron’s visit to China also diminished the likelihood of a united European approach to future relations with the PRC. Von der Leyen’s proposed “de-risking” strategy, while falling short of “de-coupling” Sino-European relations, indicates a potentially worthwhile shift from the EU’s outright appeasement of an earlier era: “It is clear that our relations have become more distant and more difficult in the last few years.” The EU President held nothing back in her aversion to Xi’s unscrupulous support for the war criminal in the Kremlin: “Far from being put off by the atrocious and illegal invasion of Ukraine, President Xi is maintaining his ‘no-limits friendship’ with Putin … It is clear from this visit that China sees Putin’s weakness as a way to increase its leverage over Russia.” She noted Chairman Xi’s boast to Putin about changes taking place in the world order “the likes of which we have not seen in a hundred years”. Von der Leyen underscored her distrust of China’s intentions with a lengthy list of Beijing’s aggressiveness, from its “show of military force in the South China Sea and East China Sea”, provocative actions in the Taiwan Strait and “grave human rights violations in Xinjiang” to “its policies of disinformation and economic and trade coercion” throughout the world, including the trade wars mounted against Lithuania and Australia.
Vilnius earned the wrath of Beijing when it established a Taiwanese trading mission on its territory in 2021. Beijing subsequently launched a trade war against Lithuania, not so different from its banning of Australian exports in the wake of Canberra’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid. Beijing, in both cases, demonstrated its contempt for the strictures of the World Trade Organisation. Lithuania, former a vassal state of the USSR, knows something about the totalitarianism of communist regimes. Baltic sentiment towards the PRC was not improved when Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, declared in April that former Soviet countries (which would include Ukraine) have “no effective status” in international law. Perhaps Shaye’s acrimony was a result of Estonia and Latvia following Lithuania’s lead in quitting a Beijing-run economic forum for Eastern European countries in 2022. Beijing, to be fair, later walked back Shaye’s comments and Xi Jinping even made his long-delayed phone call to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but only the naive or obtuse would have any faith in the good will of the CCP.
Cynics might say von der Leyen arguing for de-risking rather than de-coupling is a consequence of the undeniable fact that many of the larger European countries are too dependent on trade with China, along with Chinese investment in European infrastructure, to begin asserting their independence from Beijing in the manner of the small Baltic states. Nevertheless, the EU President is wholly alert to the belligerent paranoia of the CCP: “the Chinese Communist Party’s clear goal is a systematic change of the international order with China at its centre”. To justify the EU’s rejection of the de-coupling option, von der Leyen made a range of points, some more plausible than others. For instance, she spoke of effective Sino-European diplomacy achieving positive outcomes for the environment:
I very much welcome the leading role China played in securing the historic Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity agreement. And a few weeks ago, China was also an active player in the global deal to protect biodiversity in international waters. At a time of global conflict and tension, these are notable diplomatic achievements—which China and the European Union worked on together.
There is an argument to be made that a zero-sum game is at play between Xi’s regime and Europe, and that in the end there can only be one winner. Take, for example, the revelation that Beijing, despite the Xi–Zelenskyy phone call, has been helping Russia in its war on Ukraine. A report in the Wall Street Journal has revealed that Russia continues to deploy miniature drones, made in Shenzhen by a Chinese company and transported into Russia via the United Arab Emirates, on the battlefield in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the PLA has gained crucial expertise on operating drone technology for future use in the South China Sea, the East China Sea, the Indian border region and, of course, against Taiwan. A February article in the German magazine Der Spiegel accused Russia of negotiating with China to purchase 100 strike drones. A story in the New York Post, based on Russian customs data, claims Beijing has been sending Moscow “fighter-jet components, navigational systems for military helicopters, and other technology” since the start of the war. A recent Dutch investigation established that the millions of Dutch microchips recovered in spent Russian weaponry resulted from a “clear pattern” of Chinese companies purchasing chips from the Netherlands and selling them on to Russia.
The wider point is that helping—or even being seen to help—Putin in his genocidal war against Ukraine, whether supplying arms or increasing trade or making a morale-boosting visit to the Kremlin, is guaranteed to do irreparable damage to the reputation of the PRC in the eyes of many Europeans. Xi must have known this and yet the logic of his “China Dream” means that he cannot help himself because—as von der Leyen asserted—he seeks a new “international order with China at its centre”. For that to occur, the CCP’s “values” must, ultimately, prevail over European or Western “values”. Beijing is always bewailing the “Cold War mentality” of Western attempts to organise a united stand against China’s imperial ambitions—the establishment of AUKUS, for instance—but it is Xi’s regime, in conjunction with the Kremlin, pushing the West to abandon its previously naive accession to China’s imperialist-Leninism. How, exactly, did Xi expect Europe to respond to the assertion made by his defence minister, Li Shangfu, that the bonds between Russia and China “surpass the military-political alliances of the Cold War era”? Li, in Moscow on April 16, could not have been more effusive about Putin’s Russia if he tried: “This is my first overseas visit since taking over as China’s defence minister. I specifically chose Russia for this in order to emphasise the special nature and strategic importance of our bilateral ties.”
Von der Leyen’s March 30 speech was no naive accession to China. Her de-risking strategy is premeditated on the urgent need for the EU to attain more diversity when it comes to supply chains:
We know this is an area where we rely on one single supplier—China—for 98% of our rare earth supply, 93% of our magnesium and 97% of our lithium—just to name a few. We are deeply mindful of what happened with Japan’s imports of rare earths from China a decade ago when foreign policy tensions between the two in the East China Sea became acute.
Here von der Leyen makes the connection between Beijing’s business operations and its geopolitical aspirations. Once your eyes are open to the CCP’s modus operandi, it is clear that any far-reaching economic relationship with China will never result in a win-win for both sides: “The European Union needs to define its future relationship with China and other countries in sensitive high-tech areas such as microelectronics, quantum computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, biotech—you name it.” Any business relations with Chinese enterprises is a likely boon to the CCP and the PLA due to “China’s explicit fusion of its military and commercial sectors”. In this sense, perhaps, the EU President, despite being a protégé of Angela Merkel in a previous political incarnation, might be counted as a China hawk convert, albeit a tardy one.
Larry Summers, a former US Treasury secretary, has complained—with a certain amount of hyperbole—that “everyone” in Washington is a China hawk these days, an unhappy development in a climate threatened by recession. The truth, of course, is that China hawks have to acknowledge that the PRC’s penetration of the West is so vast that de-coupling from China—even in America despite the rhetoric—is a piecemeal and perilous course. Macron, conversely, sees only advantages for France when French companies, from Airbus to luxury concerns such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Lancôme, Christian Louboutin, Givenchy, Lafite, Yves Saint Laurent and Cartier, sell their pricey products in the Chinese market. When the American, British, Japanese, Lithuanian or Australian governments antagonise Beijing that is their economic loss. Von der Leyen is seemingly a different story, which doubtless explains the cold shoulder she received when accompanying Macron to China. The problem remains that many European countries are so invested in their business dealings with the PRC that few are prepared to risk the ire of Beijing.
Germany is a case in point. Chancellor Olaf Scholz strikes many as an overly cautious and even obtuse character, adopting something of a deer-in-the-headlights posture after finding himself ensnared in an unexpected and unwelcome development—a second cold war. Scholz’s trip to China, back in November 2022, nine months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, had all the hallmarks of Macron’s April 2023 visit, including an entourage of CEOs desperate to retain business-as-usual opportunities in the PRC. China, after all, is Germany’s largest trading partner. Volkswagen, to give one example, announced one month before Scholz’s China jaunt that it planned to invest 2.4 billion euros into a smart-car venture with the Chinese start-up company Horizon Robotics. In this context, at least, it seems unlikely that the European Union, traditionally dominated by France and Germany, any longer has the will or ability to stand up to the PRC, irrespective of Ursula von der Leyen’s de-risking manifesto.
The possibility of a contrary or more optimistic scenario emanates from a European country now outside the EU. Although the UK, like Germany, has deep economic ties with China, political relations between Westminster and Beijing soured over Xi Jinping tearing up the “one country, two systems” deal on Hong Kong. Britain’s supervening decision to block Chinese tech giant Huawei from its domestic 5G network was also essential for its full participation in AUKUS, the trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US. Beijing’s English-language mouthpiece, the Global Times, denounced Boris Johnson’s ban on Huawei as evidence of Britain being less a global power than a US puppet. But, to paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies, “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?”
It is feasible, as Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock proved on her recent stay in China, for European countries with extensive economic ties to China to at least dispense with the servile language of appeasement. At a joint press conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, she boldly called out the PRC’s phoney neutrality on the Ukraine war: “I have to be honest and say I ask myself why China’s positioning doesn’t include the call on the aggressor Russia to stop the war.” Speaking to the German Bundestag on her return from China, Baerbock described parts of her trip as “more than shocking” and concluded that the PRC was now less a strategic partner or even competitor with Germany than a “systematic rival”. Baerbock added that any attempt by the PLA to invade Taiwan would be a “horror scenario” which would destroy international trade and, presumably, economic relations between China and Germany. Here, for a change, was a Western politician wielding commerce as a weapon against China instead of the other way around. The most important part of her address, perhaps, was her assertion that other Asian markets should be sought in order to reduce Germany’s reliance on China. Significantly, the German government has announced that it is working on a new policy for just such a strategy. An approach, we assume, closer to that of von der Leyen than Macron.
Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier lately awarded Angela Merkel the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, the highest civilian honour of the Federal Republic. Steinmeier, Merkel’s one-time vice-chancellor, noted that under her leadership (2005 to 2021), Germany enjoyed sixteen years of “uninterrupted growth”. Yes, but at what cost to the cause of strategic autonomy—again borrowing from Macron—for Germany, Europe, the West and the world as a whole? Germany’s military might, notwithstanding a strong arms export industry, became a shadow of its Cold War self under Merkel’s stewardship. She also acquiesced in Germany’s shift to almost total dependence on Russian energy supplies through Nord Stream 1 and the sanctioning of Nord Stream 2. Finally, in a perfect trifecta, Merkel cheered on Germany’s manufacturers, not least Volkswagen and BMW, as they became increasingly dependent on China as a market and an investment opportunity. In short, Merkel oversaw the emasculation of the Federal Republic of Germany. If it were not for the Ukraine war and Xi’s no-limits friendship with his “dear friend” Putin, notwithstanding the fallout from Covid, Beijing’s much-discussed genocide in Xinjiang and the brutal crackdown in Hong Kong, Olaf Scholz might have been expected to follow in the footsteps of his Grand Cross-winning predecessor. We know, for instance, Scholz was all in on Nord Stream 2 until the very eve of the Ukraine war. Absent Putin’s “special military operation”, there would be no talk of a German Zeitenwende.
If, as Dennis Wilder asserts, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are “bonded” in ways the West is yet to fully comprehend, then the West’s auxiliary contribution to the Ukraine war represents an attempt to contain both Russian and Chinese imperialism. In other words, Ukraine’s war of resistance against Moscow is—by Xi Jinping’s own making—a proxy war against Beijing’s totalitarian regime. If that is the case, then Scholz’s Zeitenwende applies not only to Germany’s relationship with Russia but also its future relations with the PRC. Perhaps the time is coming when Europe will truly stand up to Chairman Xi’s China Dream.
Daryl McCann contributed “Imperial State-Civilisation versus the Nation-State” in the May issue. He has a blog at https://darylmccann.blogspot.com.