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Opinion | Who governs China-EU relations, as Macron visits

By Tom Fowdy

On Wednesday French President Emmanuel Macron, accompanied by European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen, will pay an official visit to China. The visit comes amidst a somewhat hawkish speech from von der Leyen, who called for "reducing dependencies" on Beijing, albeit rejecting decoupling entirely. It is perceived in turn, that her insistence on joining Macron is regarded as a moderating force or "spoiler" against the French leader conceding too much to Beijing accordingly against the "collective European interest". Yet, rumours abound that numerous economic deals will be signed anyway.

The diplomatic push from Europe towards China comes amidst a fear over Beijing's support for Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. Viewed in this light, Xi Jinping has played his diplomatic cards remarkably well because as opposed to alienating Europe, he has rather forced its hand. European leaders are clearly questioning: "What if we lose China?" and therefore, never has diplomacy been more valuable. This of course allows China to extract concessions from Europe in order to maintain their neutral position and "stay on board". Hence the Prime Minister of Spain also visited the country the previous week.

But the question remains, who truly governs China-EU relations? Is it a bilateral relationship whereby both parties are fully autonomous actors, acting in clear self-interest terms, or is a certain third party continuing to intervene? Emmanuel Macron for one, is a big fan of so-called "strategic autonomy" for the European Union, the idea that the EU should be a unified and geopolitically independent actor capable of staking out its own will in global affairs as a "pole" in its own right. But there is a huge gap between what is said, and what is done, that is because the European Union is not a unified actor at all but a rather loose coalition of 27 countries that seek to try and maintain a common position by consensus.

France and Germany of course, are viewed as the "de facto" leaders of the EU. They constitute its two largest economies and most populous states. The mechanism of European integration after all was built around the binding of common interests between Paris and Berlin as they sought to reconstruct a post-war relationship that was built upon centuries of war and hostility. Thus, while these two states often "take the lead"- the reality nonetheless remains that the EU institution is a multifaceted one with many levels of input and entry, which is exactly what the United States has long sought to exploit in ensuring Europe never can truly "escape" its grasp.

What for example, can France and Germany do, if the United States eggs on Lithuania to cause a confrontation over Taiwan, as it did in late 2021? Or on the other hand, if the US creates a controversy surrounding Xinjiang so large that the European Parliament, long a troublesome institution, becomes rebellious to the point it declines to ratify a new investment treaty between the EU and China? Washington is the master of creating "wedge issues", that is exploiting strategic points of entry to create issues which subsequently serve its geopolitical objectives, and of course preventing China's deeper integration with Europe is top of the agenda for the United States. Only yesterday did the Wall Street Journal report that the US successfully got Croatia to overturn Chinese ownership of a port which it successfully won a contract for.

And likewise, Ursula von der Leyen, head of the institution itself, is clearly a massive and hawkish advocate in favor of trans-Atlanticism, than Sino-European ties. This means, the pro-engagement forces in the EU concerning China are limited by many, many things. The EU is not so much capable of establishing a coherent position on China as much as it is a tug of war, from many directions. Of course, certain actors in France and Germany may be still pushing to keep ties alive, but others are determined to dismantle that. The United States sponsors scores of think tanks in Europe to do just that, and they decry, berate and condemn every aspect of engagement in the belief the EU must follow Washington and its agenda.

Given this, Macron's visit to China is a positive political statement above all, yet clearly it remains far from the European Strategic autonomy which he could hope for. This leaves the question open, who truly governs China-EU relations? A battle continues to be waged between pro-engagement and hawkish voices, which has hardly been made easier by the conflict in Ukraine. China itself is determined not to "lose" Europe, yet the reality remains clear that it remains a continent dominated by the United States above all, in both military, historic and political terms, which is why visits like this must be premised on getting as many results as possible.


The author is a well-seasoned writer and analyst with a large portfolio related to China topics, especially in the field of politics, international relations and more. He graduated with an Msc. in Chinese Studies from Oxford University in 2018.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of DotDotNews.

Read more articles by Tom Fowdy:

Opinion | How China seized the diplomatic initiative in 2023

Opinion | Land Protest Obsession shows the BBC's inherent bias against China

Opinion | We don't live in a zero-sum world anymore, the US is in denial

Opinion | The US says other countries can choose their paths, except when it's against them


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