EU’s Struggle To Find a Unified Stance on China Will Shape the US-China Contest
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EU’s Struggle To Find a Unified Stance on China Will Shape the US-China Contest


APLN member C. Uday Bhaskar writes on French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China. Macron has pushed for strategic autonomy while von der Leyen talks of ‘divide and conquer’ tactics and seeking a ‘distinct European approach’, and all of these reflect the EU’s dilemma in finding an effective China policy. Read the original article here.

This has been a month of heightened diplomatic activity in East Asia with Chinese President Xi Jinping hosting his French and Brazilian counterparts in Beijing while Tokyo convened a meeting of foreign ministers from the Group of Seven in preparation for next month’s G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit received considerable attention for the scale of his red-carpet reception and Xi’s attentionSino-French bonhomie was on display and informal meetings between the two exuded a personal chemistry rarely seen in public. But it was what Macron said after the visit that was the most attention-grabbing.

Expanding on his comment that Europeans must not be “followers” of either the US or China, Macron said during a state visit to the Netherlands later that “being an ally does not mean being a vassal … doesn’t mean that we don’t have the right to think for ourselves”.

Some quickly inferred that France was breaking ranks with the United States and other members of the Western alliance to kowtow to China. In reality, Paris remains in consonance with the traditional European geopolitical template.

It’s just that in keeping with France’s distinctive strategic culture going back to the Charles de Gaulle era, Macron (with very likely an eye on his domestic constituency and the street protests) was asserting his country’s penchant to articulate positions on global issues that are at variance with America’s.

The disastrous US-led war against Iraq in 2003 is a case in point, but even then, Paris circled back to the Western camp after conveying its disagreement with Washington.

In Beijing, Macron was accompanied, unusually, by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, whose remarks were more in sync with the US-led position on the war in Ukraine, and the collective stand against Russia’s invasion and on Taiwan.

The initial reaction to Macron’s China visit and von der Leyen’s remarks are an insight into the EU’s strategic dilemma in developing an effective and affordable China policy.

More recently, von der Leyen outlined the predicament when she told the European parliament that “a strong European China policy relies on strong coordination between member states and EU institutions, and on a willingness to avoid the divide-and-conquer tactics that we know we may face”.

The EU has traditionally supported the international norm of nations respecting a rules-based global order. On the China visit, the Xi-Macron statement talked about seeking “constructive solutions based on international law to address the challenges and threats to international security and stability”. This is in keeping with the EU position.

But it included a new element: “France and China agree to deepen discussions on strategic issues and in particular to deepen dialogue between the Southern Theatre Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the Command of French Forces in the Asia-Pacific Zone (ALPACI), in order to enhance their mutual understanding of regional and international security issues.”

Given that the Taiwan issue has acquired a prickly military edge in recent weeks with both China and the US stepping up their military exercises and deployments, the French outreach to the Chinese PLA at the theatre command level is intriguing.
Interestingly, a French naval frigate sailed through the Taiwan Strait during the PLA’s three-day “Joint Sword” military exercise earlier this month but this did not lead to any public protest from Beijing.

The EU has been struggling to arrive at a consensus position on China since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This was highlighted in EU chief von der Leyen’s recent speech when she noted: “I believe we can – and we must – carve out our own distinct European approach that also leaves space for us to cooperate with other partners, too. And the starting point for this is the need to have a shared and very clear-eyed picture of the risks and the opportunities in our engagement with China.”

In prioritising a “distinct European approach”, she is charting a path closer to the Macron formulation, albeit in a more subtle and nuanced manner, and the signal for the US is in the subtext.

China is expected to be a major agenda issue at the G7 summit, due to begin on May 19 in Hiroshima under Japanese stewardship. The freshly concluded Tokyo meeting of G7 foreign ministers was a foretaste of the collective resolve.

In their communique, they spoke of their “strong sense of unity as the world navigates grave threats to the international system, including Russia’s continued war of aggression against Ukraine”. They also reaffirmed their commitment “to uphold and reinforce the free and open international order based on the rule of law”.

This commitment will be the core principle for the coming G7 summit. The US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes Japan, India and Australia, have a similar orientation regarding the rules-based order, including in their stance on the South China Sea, where concerns have expressed over the issue of China changing the status quo.

Beijing will no doubt study the outcome of the Hiroshima summit carefully and calibrate its support to a beleaguered Russia, even as the new contours of the US-China contest begin to crystallise.

How France and the rest of its EU partners harmonise their China policy will have a bearing on the geopolitics of 2023 and the resolution, or lack thereof, of the war in Ukraine.

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