Wednesday

27th Jan 2021

Analysis

Macron's Chinese 'game of influence'

  • Macron 'yielded on nothing' on economic issues in his discussions with Chinese leader Xi (Photo: cn.ambafrance.org)

"Europe is back," French president Emmanuel Macron told Chinese leaders last week during a three-day visit to China.

"I came here to tell China my determination to get the Europe-China partnership into the 21st century," he stressed.

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But surrounded by a large business delegation, he also declared "France is back" - raising questions about how his China policy can fit into an evolving EU policy towards the new global power.

Macron returned to France with trade deals on agriculture, as well as two agreements in principle for Airbus planes and a nuclear waste treatment plant.

"Macron seems to have come to the realisation that he had better be on the right side of the table under China's 'divide and conquer' strategy in Europe," Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief economist for Asia at the Natixis bank and an expert at the Bruegel think tank, wrote in a note.

"He wants to be seen as the only true leader in Europe and overtake Merkel as the key negotiator with China," she told EUobserver.

"China is playing a game in which it says to Germany: 'you are annoying us, we go to someone else'," according to Francois Godement, from the Paris office of the ECFR think tank.



In recent years, he said, Germany has "disappointed China" with criticisms on human rights abuses in China and controversies over some Chinese investments in Germany.

"China hosted Macron with the idea that it has to to diversify its policy and not only focus on Germany," Godement, who followed Macron's trip, told EUobserver.

He said that the Chinese leadership was trying to "get the young Macron in their pocket" - and that the French president let them.


"But where is the truth?" he asked.

"When you look at the joint statement that was issued at the end of the visit, you don't know who's 'wrapping' who."

"We are in a classic game of influence," he said.

He noted that while welcoming Chinese investments and praising China and its 'One Belt-One Road' infrastructure project from Central Asia to Europe, Macron insisted on "reciprocity" in economic relations.

In a joint statement, Macron and Chinese president Xi Jinping agreed that economic globalisation should be "more open, more inclusive, more balanced and allowing reciprocal advantages and benefits."

"Macron yielded on nothing" on economic issues, Godement noted.

Realpolitik

But the French expert added that Macron set a dangerous precedent when he said that he would not "publicly lecture" the Chinese leadership on human rights.

"One can probably justify that with realpolitik," Godement added.

Macron's visit to China was the first by an EU leader since the 19th congress of the communist party in October.

He will be followed by UK prime minister Theresa May, who is expected in Beijing at the end of the month.

With China-Germany relations in a "bad patch", Beijing is tempted to "look for Germany's main competitors," Godement noted.

But the 'British Dream' of deeper links with the UK, expressed by Xi's visit to former PM David Cameron in 2016, was damaged by the Brexit vote.

"The Chinese are not the last to understand that the UK is weaker," Godement said.

 He added that the UK becoming a 'European Singapore' with an economy based on financial services would not be bad for China, "except if there is no access to the single market."

Macron, who pointed out in Beijing than Xi and himself both have a fresh five-year mandate, therefore appears for now as China's best option in Europe.

Coordinated approach

While defending French business in Beijing, Macron did also insist however on the need to have a "coordinated approach at European level", especially when it comes to defending European interests.

"Europe has too often arrived disorganised in front of China," the president said, blaming both those who were "too open" and those who were "too timorous".

He argued again for more EU oversight on Chinese investments in strategic sectors, saying that China could not "respect a partner that decides to open its economy or its strategic sectors like in an auction."

Macron, with the support of German chancellor Angela Merkel, pushed last year to establish an EU screening mechanism. The plan, which was unveiled by the European Commission in September, has not been adopted yet.

In the meantime, the EU introduced new rules on dumping and published a first report on Chinese market distorsions.

"Europe has gotten the measure of the Chinese risk," Godement noted. "It has a more defensive policy. It hardens what is at stake."

He said that China, which at first did not believe in "the resurgence of European realism", will probably continue to look for the fault lines between EU countries.

"We should expect Macron and Xi to increase the frequency of their state visits down the road," said Garcia-Herrero.

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