As the conflict in Ukraine continues to escalate, the European Union (EU) faces a difficult balancing act in its relationships with China and Russia. Despite tensions and disagreements between the EU and China in recent years, two key European leaders — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron — have expressed their commitment to maintaining a dialogue with China, regardless of U.S.-China relations and despite the reinforcement of the transatlantic alliance in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and U.S. diplomatic and military support for Ukraine. The future direction of Europe’s geopolitical role hangs in the balance at a critical moment.
Among the European leaders who are seeking to engage with China, two stand out: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who visited Beijing for the first time in November 2022, and French President Emmanuel Macron, who is one of the EU’s most experienced heads of state, particularly in dealing with Xi Jinping’s China. Macron will visit China on April 5–8, accompanied by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. While there, Macron will attempt to engage with Xi, who reaffirmed his centralized leadership during China’s annual “Two Sessions” parliamentary meeting in March. Later that same month, Xi celebrated his close partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a state visit to Moscow.
Ahead of Macron’s visit to China, this paper addresses the rapidly deteriorating EU-China relationship against the background of the Ukraine war while highlighting the German and French ambitions to maintain strong connections to China — no matter what. Indeed, the German and French leaders, the “odd couple” driving many European policies, demonstrate contrasting approaches to China: while Scholz prioritizes German economic interests, Macron’s ambition is to explore a “third way” between China and the United States.
The first few months of 2023 have highlighted tensions between China and Western democracies. While relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have reached yet another low point (a “true test may be to avoid catastrophe,” according to some observers), relations between China and other powers such as Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Canada are characterized by different levels of disharmony. Since the summer of 2022, China has been signaling that it wants to reengage diplomatically. The EU is expected to play its own tune. In what increasingly appears to be a new cold war, European leaders do not want to find themselves caught between the United States and China.
The uncertainties of China’s interactions with the United States have put a spotlight on Sino-European relations. The somewhat chaotic post-COVID reopening of China’s economy has led the PRC leadership to reaffirm its special ties to the EU, which has become China’s largest trading partner over the past few years. The Chinese discourse emphasizes the need for the EU to think and act more strategically and autonomously — even though the bloody Russian invasion of Ukraine has led neighboring European countries to rally around NATO, to Beijing’s dismay.
Diplomatic strains between China and Australia, Japan, India, and several Southeast Asian nations, and especially with the United States, have led the Chinese leadership to try to maintain quality ties with Europe, which is not seeking to decouple from China. Insisting on European values while keeping trade channels open is the strategy that the EU intends to pursue.
The Dire State of China-EU Relations
In February 2023, Wang Yi (王毅), a member of the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo and director of the CCP’s Foreign Affairs Office, visited several European capitals in what one report titled an “uncharming charm offensive.” During that trip, Wang stressed that China and Europe are “two major forces, two major markets and two major civilizations” in a multipolar world.
“We must join hands and work together to build a safer world,” Wang added on February 18 at the annual Munich Security Conference, amid considerable European skepticism. Could Beijing’s “Ukraine peace plan,” put forward on February 24 — one year after the start of the war — help in any way, though, without consultations with Kiev? Even as Russia’s ruthless aggression against Ukraine shows no sign of abating, China seems unapologetic in its support for Putin’s actions.
This appears to be a major impediment to China’s rapprochement with Europe.
Wang also visited Moscow during his tour, stressing that “China is willing to work with Russia to maintain strategic resolve, deepen political trust, strengthen strategic coordination, expand practical cooperation and safeguard the legitimate interests of both countries, in order for the two countries to play a constructive role in promoting world peace and development.” During his state visit to Moscow on March 21, Xi told Putin that China and Russia should support one another’s core interests and jointly resist interference in internal affairs by foreign forces — a clear reference to NATO’s implication in helping the Ukrainian defense.
From a European viewpoint — especially Eastern European — it is impossible to envision a peace plan without Russian troops withdrawing from Ukraine, especially after 13 months of massive casualties among the Ukrainian population and the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure and civilian facilities. Europeans have been watching scenes of desolation on television and on the front pages of their newspapers, and they see no return to normal until this war ends.
Years of what many Europeans perceive as disingenuousness on China’s part have led to a common defensive reaction. Recently, that mistrust has become more open. On Ukraine, Von der Leyen expressed doubts about China’s intentions and suggested that she would need more evidence to acknowledge Beijing’s peace plan. “A plan that does not include a withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine is not a peace plan,” she said in a March 30 policy speech on the state of EU-China relations. “How China continues to interact with Putin's war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward,” she added. This lack of trust is not limited to the European Commission, but is shared by other institutions and EU member states. Some have warned about a potential “red line” should Beijing provide military assistance to Moscow. There are strong signs that the ongoing Sino-Russian entente makes EU leaders worried. During its March 23 summit, the European Council cautioned member states “not to provide material or other support for Russia’s war of aggression” and to focus on “reducing strategic dependencies” — a phrase that alludes to the EU’s reliance on China for critical raw materials.
In this environment, expectations for Macron’s first visit to China in three and a half years are high — perhaps too high. Xi Jinping has already hosted European Council President Charles Michel and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. But the French president wants to play his cards on the world stage as an Indo-Pacific nation and as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (P5), while at home, he seeks to relaunch his European autonomy strategy. In a major speech in 2017, the first year of his presidency, Macron pronounced that “the only way to guarantee [our] future is to re-establish a sovereign, united and democratic Europe.” Insisting that the EU must be “united and strongly democratic,” he listed six keys to European sovereignty:
- A Europe that guarantees security in all its aspects
- A Europe that addresses the migration challenge
- A Europe that looks toward Africa and the Mediterranean
- An exemplary Europe regarding sustainable development
- A Europe of innovation and regulation adapted to the digital world
- A Europe that stands as an economic and monetary power
In terms of defense, Macron called for “a joint intervention force, a joint defense budget, and a joint doctrine for action.” He continued, “We need to encourage the swift creation of a European Defense Fund, permanent structured cooperation, and supplement them with a European intervention initiative that better integrates our armed forces at all stages.” Macron’s strong language intrigued many analysts, not only among France’s main allies but also in China, where the leadership had been trying to identify cracks in the transatlantic alliance. This was before the Ukraine war and the massive military aid carried by NATO.
Many Years of European Dashed Hopes on China Engagement
In 2001, the EU, alongside the United States, was a chief proponent of China’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Although few voices openly called for reform of the Chinese economy toward a more capitalist system or highlighted discrepancies between the realities of market access in China and in the EU, there were hopes that China was on its way to becoming a full member of the global community, both economically and diplomatically. European multinational companies had been investing heavily in China since the 1990s, setting up joint ventures with Chinese partners in the automobile, energy, and retail industries; bringing in machine tools and other high-end technologies; and encouraging “people-to-people relations” such as student and scholarly exchanges, training programs for Chinese managers, and EU-financed urban development projects.
For example, in 1994, the EU launched the Shanghai-based China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), the first business school in mainland China to offer full-time MBA and executive education programs. Through a joint venture with Jiao Tong, one of Shanghai’s largest universities, the school was designed to train Chinese executives and develop business ties between China and Europe. When the agreement ended ten years later, CEIBS was taken over by the Chinese partner, and the EU became a minor player. Some large European companies also sponsored prestige events such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. In 2008, Germany’s Adidas sportswear became the single largest Olympic corporate sponsor in history, spending €80 million. At the Shanghai World Expo, the Italian pavilion cost well over €150 million, and its French counterpart, €50 million. These examples show the European enthusiasm for the China market, mixing corporate and government interests.
After a slow start in the early 1990s, bilateral trade has been rising continuously. From 2000 to 2010, trade in goods between the EU and China increased 400 percent, from €101 billion to €395 billion. EU exports to China reached €113 billion in 2010 compared with €26 billion 10 years earlier. Imports from China were close to €282 billion in 2010, up from €75 billion in 2000. Despite this increase, the EU has run a structural deficit with China in trade in goods since 1997. That deficit, which is concentrated in manufactured goods, largely in China’s favor, shows no sign of abating.
For a long time, the investment situation presented a completely different picture, with EU investment in China far exceeding Chinese investment in the EU. The realization of significant investment projects by EU member state companies began in the early 1990s. In 2009, EU foreign direct investment in China (including reinvested earnings of firms controlled by European companies) amounted to €5.9 billion, and the total stock of EU direct investment (including reinvested earnings) totaled €58.3 billion. The 2008 financial and debt crisis led to a major shift in Europe, however, as countries sought new investors.
As several Southern European countries faced major structural debt problems, China offered its help, raising its investment profile beyond the usual brand and small and medium-sized enterprise mergers and acquisitions by Chinese companies, which accounted for the lion’s share of investments in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Italy. After 2010, smaller EU member states like Greece and Portugal opted for Chinese equity when they were forced to privatize key infrastructure such as port, airport, and energy facilities.
Beginning in 2010–2011, a wave of Chinese investments in Europe targeting infrastructure and technology under China’s “going out” strategy (走出去战略) stimulated a much-needed debate about how to deal with an ambitious China. In 2016, the acquisition of the German robotics company Kuka by China’s state-owned enterprise Midea for €4.6 billion raised eyebrows in Berlin and convinced German politicians to rethink their approach to Chinese investment, increasing protections on the country’s key industries. European officials particularly worried about technology transfers and data-related risks. During this time, the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei built partnerships with a number of European operators, creating potential risks in the event of a political crisis.
EU institutions became more proactive, or perhaps “less naive,” in the words of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In 2017, the governments of France, Germany, and Italy wrote a letter to the European Commission requesting that the EU’s executive branch consider new legislation to screen foreign direct investments. The EU’s investment screening mechanism was introduced in record time (2020), putting in place an effective coordination framework — albeit a much less coercive one than the American Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, which was strengthened during the Donald Trump administration. According to the 2022 annual report of the European Commission’s chief enforcement team, the EU observed more than 4,000 transactions made by foreign investors, including Chinese companies. It noted that 53 percent of foreign acquisitions were made in the high-tech sector (compared with 45 percent in 2021).
Pointing to a diminishing “reciprocity” between China and the European market (as Beijing encouraged the development of more national corporate champions), the EU introduced other instruments, such as a white paper on “distortive” foreign subsidies in the single market published in July 2020, and a set of mitigating measures on 5G in January 2021. Another important milestone took place on March 28, 2023, when the European Council and the European Commission reached a political agreement on an anti-coercion instrument (ACI), with the aim of countering economic sanctions against EU member states, such as those that China once imposed on Lithuania. In 2021, the Lithuanian government allowed the opening of a “Taiwan office” in Vilnius, which prompted China to react angrily and impose sanctions both on Lithuanian products and on European companies trading with Lithuania. Acting in solidarity with its member state, the EU had no option but to raise a case before the WTO. As for the ACI, the EU defines it as “a framework for the Union to respond to economic coercion with the objective of deterring, or having the third country desist from such coercion, whilst enabling the EU, as a last resort to counteract such coercion.” Although the ACI does not target any particular country, it clearly aims to counter the kind of coercion that Lithuania faced from China.
Multiplying Difficulties in the China-EU Relationship
The tense geopolitical climate has not helped the ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), a document signed by the EU and China in December 2020 after nearly seven years of negotiations. Blocked by a set of cross sanctions by the EU and China, the ratification process has been stalled since March 2021. On the China side, four officials involved in the repression of Uyghurs were forbidden to enter the EU. Beijing responded by “sanctioning” a large number of European diplomats, analysts, and members of the European Parliament, making it politically impossible for the latter to ratify the document. Stating in her March 30 speech that the EU-China trade relationship is “unbalanced and increasingly affected by distortions created by China’s state capitalist system,” Von der Leyen insisted that “we have to ensure that our trade and investment relations promote prosperity in China and in the European Union.” CAI aimed at such rebalancing but “we have to recognize that world and China have changed significantly in the last three years – and we need to reassess the CAI in light of our wider China strategy,” she said. (Some in Brussels claim that China is trying to push the CAI back onto the diplomatic agenda.)
In a sign that the EU had managed to build a more unified China policy, in March 2019, it published a new EU-China Strategic Outlook that described China as a “negotiating partner” but also as an “economic competitor” and “a systemic rival.” This triptych of roles has helped Brussels address, in parallel with trade issues, the systemic challenges raised by China, such as the human rights violations against Uyghurs, the arrests of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, and forced labor in Xinjiang.
From China’s perspective, there is no contradiction in both talking trade with the EU — its largest trading partner — and arguing with Brussels about the war in Ukraine or human rights issues. As Feng Zhongping (冯仲平), an expert on European issues at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (中国社会科学院), argued, “There is no fundamental geopolitical conflict between China and Europe. China’s development is an opportunity rather than a threat to Europe. Differences between the two sides can be resolved through dialogue and communication.” He continued, “China and Europe have different views on some issues. But these differences should not and cannot prevent the two sides from contacting each other, and China and the EU are expected to reiterate this consensus in this communication and contact.”
However, the war in Ukraine has exposed a contradiction in EU-China relations. On the one hand, Europeans have strengthened their reliance on NATO for security. Eastern European countries, including Poland and the Czech Republic, are now leading the support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion. No one debates the massive U.S. defense and economic support in that respect, making America a major military player on the European continent. On the other hand, China claims that Europe should be “autonomous” from the United States, a clear reference to Macron’s 2017 speech. Another PRC scholar, Zhang Jian (张健), director of the Institute of European Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (中国现代国际关系研究院), insisted that “most of the increased military spending by European countries is still likely to go to the U.S. rather than European countries’ [own] military industries. … This is clearly not a good sign for [European] strategic autonomy.” Zhang continued, “Most EU member states, which still purchase American weapons in order to express their loyalty to the U.S., aim to win U.S. goodwill rather than build the EU’s defense autonomy.” Thus, there is a clear divergence between Chinese hopes and the reality on the ground.
In other areas, China’s efforts to engage and influence European government policies in ways more favorable to Beijing have also fallen flat. For example, the “17+1” format, aimed at Central and Eastern European states, did not bear the expected diplomatic fruits. The group is now down to 14 members following the departure of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the last two years. The Czech Republic’s president, Petr Pavel, has somehow upgraded his country’s relations with Taiwan by taking a call from President Tsai Ing-wen. Moreover, amid China’s increasing military intimidation of Taiwan, the self-governing island has seen a real improvement of its image in Europe — a good omen for Taipei if tensions increase across the Taiwan Strait. European leaders who had never addressed the Taiwan issue clearly in the past may be prepared to stand for the island — at least in principle.
Even Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy undertaking, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has proven largely unsuccessful in Europe. While a number of EU member states signed BRI memoranda of understanding, most have enjoyed little in the way of Chinese investments, with the exception of the takeover of Greece’s Piraeus Harbor by the China Ocean Shipping Company in 2016. (Although, even in this instance, the deal had been in the making before the BRI was announced.) And, in the case of Italy — the only G7 country to have signed a BRI memorandum of understanding, in 2019 — the renewal of a five-year agreement is under scrutiny by the Italian Parliament because of the lack of concrete deliverables. Again, Italian public opinion has become largely negative.
Since the fall of 2022, China has endeavored to revive a dialogue with Europe after the pandemic-induced “lost years.” As China’s relationship with Washington has deteriorated, the PRC leadership has recognized the need to engage with the EU as part of a renewed diplomatic strategy, which includes mediating the Ukrainian crisis. The resumption of dialogue will largely depend on China’s efforts to court the EU’s two economic powerhouses, which together account for half the euro-area gross domestic product: Germany (29.2 percent) and France (20.5 percent). Beijing anticipates that these two nations, particularly Germany, will seek to preserve their access to the Chinese market.
Germany: China’s Economic Partner
Germany is China’s largest economic partner in Europe by a significant margin, and China is Germany’s largest trading partner. This economic relationship makes Berlin a natural partner for Beijing, and it has led previous German chancellors to bring business delegations to China annually.
Sino-German relations are primarily business related and transactional. At the senior level, the relationship has seen few political discussions but plenty of business deals. Moreover, thousands of young Chinese engineers have been trained at German universities. Across China, Germany enjoys an excellent reputation for the quality of its products, its long-term vision, and its ability to invest in technology — exactly what the Chinese leadership has been targeting over the past two decades.
Turnover in Germany’s trade with China, calculated as the value of goods imported and exported, has outpaced that of its other top trading partners since 2016, reaching €297.9 billion in 2022. Companies such as Volkswagen, BMW, Siemens, and BASF have a long-standing presence in the Chinese market, with carmakers at the forefront of the relationship. For instance, Volkswagen relies on the Chinese market for at least half its profits, which explains why its CEO, Oliver Blume, was one of the first multinational senior executives to visit China in February 2023, after COVID restrictions were lifted. Germany’s economic stake in China continued to increase in 2022, with a record €10 billion in new investments. Surprisingly, Berlin has also allowed Huawei Technologies to maintain some of its equipment across the German 5G network.
More than a decade ago, foreign direct investment started to move in the other direction, with Chinese companies investing in German industries beginning in 2010. China acquired hundreds of medium-sized Mittelstand (family businesses), sometimes with the help of the company founders. During the same period, German public opinion on China’s environmental and human rights records began to shift. Germany, after all, is the birthplace of the world’s largest Green political party, which is now a member of the three-party coalition government. The share of Germans holding unfavorable views of China rose from 33 percent in 2005 to 59 percent in 2011, to 67 percent in 2012, and then to 74 percent in 2021.
Politicians took note. For a long time, Berlin’s strategy toward Beijing was defined by the phrase Wandel durch Handel, or “change through trade.” Along with much of the West, Germany convinced itself that China’s authoritarian politics would morph into a more open, just, and peaceful system through ever-tightening economic ties. Instead, German industries became concerned with China’s rise, with a clear opposition between “pros” and “cons,” as reflected in a major policy paper published in 2019 by the powerful Confederation of German Industries (BDI).
German decision makers are now preoccupied with China’s ambition in sectors such as robotics, semiconductors, and biotech. Five years ago, Berlin prevented the acquisition by a Chinese entity of the major chipmaker Aixtron, and in 2022, the Ministry of Economics — whose China desk was only established five years ago — blocked the takeover of two medium-sized semiconductor manufacturers: the Dortmund-based company Elmos, and ERS Electronic, located in the southern state of Bavaria.
Both the current coalition government and its immediate predecessor, the Christian Democratic Union, have concluded that China is both a partner and a rival. The coalition elected in November 2021 has extended this approach while also facing the economic consequences of the war in Ukraine (especially the decision to cut down on Russian energy, which was felt in a matter of weeks). “We don’t want to decouple, but we shouldn’t be over-reliant on China,” wrote Chancellor Scholz ahead of his November 2022 visit to China, which was criticized by both the Greens (represented in government by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, a China skeptic, and Minister for the Economy Robert Habeck) and the Free Democrats (led by Finance Minister Christian Lindner). Among the coalition’s three partners, only Scholz’s Social Democratic Party stopped short of criticizing his trip. Many commentators noted the poor timing (coming just 10 days after the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress in October 2022), the lack of European consultation, and — in the end — the limited achievements (save a joint Sino-German statement opposing the use of nuclear weapons).
Ignoring his critics, Scholz visited Beijing for less than a day on November 4, accompanied by a delegation that included the CEOs of Volkswagen, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, and chemicals giant BASF. The short trip turned out to be more of a German visit than a European one, illustrating Scholz’s complicated leadership style and attempt to balance Western partners such as the United States and France. In addition, it appears to be impossible for Germany to decouple from China following the complete reversal of its Russia strategy: a year ago, Berlin severed almost all business ties to Moscow. “Germany,” former Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg famously said, had been “sleep walking” for years vis a vis Russia and there is an adjustment. Germany’s China policy is going through a major evolution, but because of pressures from German industry, Berlin cannot be expected to close the door to Beijing, as German companies have too much to lose. One question is whether Germany use the lessons learned from its energy dependency on Russia to shape its China policy. For the time being, the coalition government seems entangled in internal contradictions. Germany has announced that it will publish a new China strategy, but it is not clear whether the government will shift its dealings with China.
Enter the second European player: “the political player” in Beijing’s eyes, France.
France’s Strong Will to Play a Pivotal Role
Beijing also understands that France has its own reasons to appear to be the “honest broker.”
Among Western nations, France enjoyed a relatively strong presence in Beijing beginning in 1964, the year President Charles de Gaulle initiated diplomatic relations with the PRC. Over the decades since then, China and France have struck substantial business agreements in sectors such as energy, aviation, water utilities, automobile, agriculture, urban development, retail, and tourism. With some 1,100 French companies operating in China, France’s foreign direct investment in the country is now estimated at €25 billion. Meanwhile, Chinese investments in France have witnessed significant growth, reaching €15.7 billion in stock in 2021. However, France ranks fourth among European nations in terms of Chinese investment, trailing behind the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy.
In contrast with Germany, France’s economic ties with China have been declining, with a rising trade deficit and decreasing cross investments. A number of major French companies, such as Alstom, Carrefour, and Auchan, have exited the Chinese market, while others have scaled back their supply chains, partly in response to the Chinese government’s “zero-COVID” policy and a perceived increase in political risks.
The French Ministry of Economics presents a bleak outlook on bilateral trade relations between France and China. As of 2021, China accounted for 9 percent of France’s imports, making it the country’s second-largest supplier, and 1.4 percent of France’s exports, ranking as the seventh-largest export market for French products. Moreover, the trade deficit between the two countries increased from €33 billion in 2019 to €39.6 billion in 2021, making China France’s largest bilateral trade deficit partner. However, the Macron government has established a goal to “rebalance” bilateral trade, and it is expected that some announcements will be made during Macron’s visit in key sectors that remain promising, such as the luxury, aviation, and nuclear energy industries. In particular, luxury products and cosmetics have fared well during the pandemic, as Chinese consumers who were unable to travel abroad reverted to local purchases. Corporate executives are expected to push their advantage during the presidential trip.
In the civilian aircraft field, France has made substantial investments in the Airbus A320 and A330 assembly lines in Tianjin, and additional contracts are pending approval from the Chinese government. President Macron’s visit is expected to result in some announcements related to this partnership.
Furthermore, the two countries have engaged in structural industrial cooperation in the civil nuclear sector, which encompasses the United Kingdom’s Hinkley Point C, the Taishan Nuclear Power Plant, and cooperation on nuclear waste reprocessing and recycling. In the past, France’s EDF played a key role in helping China building two of its civilian nuclear plants, Daya Bay (大亚湾核电站) and Ling Ao (岭澳核电站). Both governments agree on pursuing some cooperation in this sector.
Indeed, while certain factions of the French business community still view segments of the Chinese market as promising, the overall sentiment has soured in light of human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Polls indicate that the French public has developed an unfavorable opinion of China, with the percentage of French holding unfavorable views rising from 42 percent to 68 percent between 2001 and 2021. Additionally, the Chinese embassy in Paris received negative publicity during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when its website accused the French government of neglecting its elderly citizens in April 2020. An unnamed diplomat suggested in a post that care workers in Western nursing homes, known in French as EHPADs, had deserted their posts and left residents to perish, an accusation that followed a significant upward revision of France’s COVID death rate to include nursing home residents. The post was met with outrage in France, and China’s ambassador, Lu Shaye (卢沙野), was twice summoned to the Foreign Ministry.
People-to-people relations, including those in the field of higher education, are listed as a priority for Macron’s state visit. The pandemic has had a negative impact on higher education, with only a handful of French students able to study in China, although thousands of Chinese students have received visas to study in France.
The two countries organized cross-cultural years in 2003 and 2005, and state leaders from the two countries have regularly visited each other’s capitals. France’s Chinese diaspora is one of the largest in Europe, and politicians have begun to engage with this community. Recently, cultural projects have been limited. In 2024, Paris will host the Summer Olympics, and China will be keen to celebrate the 60th anniversary of France-PRC diplomatic relations, with a potential state visit by Xi Jinping in the balance. Whether this helps restore a climate of trust between the two nations remains to be seen.
Because of COVID restrictions, the French president has not visited China since October 2019, although he has kept in touch with Xi virtually. The two leaders eventually met in Bali during the G20 in the fall of 2022. During his first term (2017–2022), Macron played a key role in building a more unified European approach to China, hosting Xi in Paris alongside former German Chancellor Merkel and the president of the European Commission. Unlike its European neighbors, France is also an Indo-Pacific nation, with overseas territories that are home to some 1.6 million French citizens. More than 8,000 French troops and dozens of vessels are deployed in the region, including in the South Pacific, where French authorities have observed China’s assertiveness with concern. France was the first European country to publish its own Indo-Pacific strategy in 2018, followed by Germany, the Netherlands (2020), and the EU (2021).
Over the years, a former French ambassador to Beijing noted, “France has attempted to build a multilateral partnership with China, recognizing the country’s growing economic and geopolitical influence on the world stage.” This has involved supporting China’s integration into international organizations and bodies, such as the WTO and the G20, and not opposing China’s efforts to secure leadership positions in international organizations.
France has also sought to engage with China on a number of global issues, such as climate change, biodiversity, debt reduction, and public health, and it has advocated for closer collaboration between the EU and China. However, it is worth noting that although France has treated China as a great power, it has not always received the expected benefits of this approach, as China has tended to focus on its strategic competition with the United States and economic cooperation with Germany. The 2015 Paris Climate Accords was a notable exception of a successful multilateral agreement. Macron wants to continue to engage China on this issue.
Generally, the French president will aim to play his own tune following Scholz’s lonely November 2022 trip, which was considered untimely at best by other Europeans. Macron’s visit will undoubtedly last longer, cover Beijing and the Southern city of Guangzhou, and try to engage China on “common interests.” One of those issues will be the “new global financial pact” tied to the summit hosted in Paris at the end of June, aimed at taking stock of “all the means and ways of increasing financial solidarity with the South.”
Above all, Macron will stress his personal connection with Xi while adopting a European posture. As in 2019, he will be accompanied by a high-level representative of the European Commission, this time President Von der Leyen herself. “France’s diplomacy vis a vis China needs to be tied to the Sino-European relationship,” said another former ambassador to China. “For example, if the US were to impose economic sanctions against China, the only coherent response would be European one.” There is little doubt that geopolitical topics — starting with Ukraine — will dominate the bilateral conversations, with both Xi and Macron trying to gain some political dividends. In Macron’s case, he will try to instill some hope that China wants to play a positive role in the conflict resolution — or at least that it does not intend to provide military help to Russia.
After four years of consolidation, Europe’s China policy needs a relaunch. Scholz and Macron, both of whom are facing domestic challenges, must collaborate to address China’s role in an increasingly unstable global geopolitical context.
The German chancellor — keen to preserve German business interests in China while protecting German technologies — needs to balance the views of his coalition partners with those of his national industries, which have experienced a turnaround since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The French president wants to remain influential, especially at the European level, and use his China visit to boost the concept of a more autonomous EU. He will try to offer a “third way” to approach Beijing, taking into account China’s ambition to become a leading power and offering cooperation on key subjects such as climate change, biodiversity, financial regulation, and international debt relief.
Scholz and Macron agree on two points, however: first, economic decoupling with China is a dangerous and self-harming proposition for the EU. Europeans should not emulate the United States’ hawkish approach; second, the immediate future of Sino-European relations will depend to a very significant degree on how China navigates its stand on Russia’s war in Ukraine.
In a major policy speech delivered in late March on EU-China relations, Ursula von der Leyen offered similar thoughts: yes to “de-risking,” no to “decoupling.” To achieve this, she added that the EU needed to use four pillars: making its economy more competitive and resilient; making better use of the existing toolbox of trade instruments; developing new defensive tools to protect some critical sectors, such as quantum computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and biotech; and aligning with partners including Australia, New Zealand, India, ASEAN, and the Southern Common Market (Mercosur) of South America. In other words, the EU is taking its economic security very seriously, and China should be aware of it.
The conflict in Ukraine has prompted many EU member states to prioritize transatlantic relations in their foreign policy. Eastern Europeans, who distrust China because of its failure to deliver on investment promises, believe that US military support is crucial to resolving the conflict. Additionally, Europe is concerned about China’s potential involvement in Ukraine in the aftermath of Xi Jinping’s recent high-profile visit to Moscow.
So far, Beijing’s 12-point Ukraine peace plan announced on February 24, and the proposal by Fu Cong, the Chinese ambassador to the EU, to “drop the Ukraine question from the bilateral agenda” have failed to gain traction in Europe, as Ukraine is the number-one geopolitical concern. Others, including Chinese experts, claim that Macron should offer Xi a “joint mediation” to end the war, but the French president does not carry such a mandate from his European colleagues. A compromise will be hard to achieve if Beijing continues to stand for Putin’s aggressive actions.
China is facing its own domestic social and economic realities and geopolitical challenges. As a result, the EU remains in Beijing’s eyes the best possible Western partner — and the most promising market — despite new trade defense mechanisms developed by the EU over the past five years and a much-diminished appetite for collaboration on the European side. Following in the wake of the United States, Europeans consider relations with China a core issue of their common and national foreign policy priorities.
Europe is worryingly watching the relations between the United States and China, which have become increasingly confrontational since President Joe Biden ordered a Chinese “surveillance balloon” shot down in February 2023. As the 2024 US presidential election approaches, tensions likely will remain high, if not “existential,” as Representative Mike Gallagher, chair of the House Select Committee on China, recently put it. This is an uncomfortable position for the EU, caught between the two superpowers.
The Biden administration has been increasingly working on the goodwill of its allies in some of its foreign policy decisions. Therefore, it is essential to take Europe’s awkward position into account. Competition with China is not just a bilateral issue. Europe is a close strategic ally of the United States as well as an economic partner of China. Such messages will be conveyed during Macron’s visit to Beijing and during upcoming high-level talks such as the G7 summit in Japan and the EU-US annual summit. But Europe’s challenging predicament seems unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.