Taipei, Taiwan – French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are set to arrive in China on Wednesday for a three-day state visit that will see them meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Macron will be accompanied by a delegation of more than 50 CEOs and meet with the French business community, but all eyes will be on how he and von der Leyen discuss the war in Ukraine with the Chinese leadership.
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“The primary issue that Macron and von der Leyen will probably want to push on is to help get some support from China in dealing with Russia and to help advance on that front,” Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an associate research fellow at Sweden’s Institute for Security and Development Policy, told Al Jazeera.
“Realistically, I don’t think we can expect much, but I think clearly everyone agrees that that’s the priority.”
China is officially neutral on the war but has propped up Russia economically and diplomatically in the face of Western sanctions. Xi also has the ear of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he shares a close friendship spanning more than a decade. In March, the duo signed a Sino-Russian strategic partnership during Xi’s state visit to Moscow.
At the G20 summit in November, Macron called for China to play a “greater mediation role” in the war but Beijing has yet to advance its role beyond issuing a 12-point peace plan that has received a lukewarm response in Kyiv and Western capitals.
Macron’s trip is his first to China since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in early 2020, when Beijing effectively shut its borders to travel. The French leader last visited the country in 2019.
His trip follows one made by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in November but it has already taken a different tone.
Scholz’s trip was widely criticised in Europe as too conciliatory towards Beijing, with the German leader’s efforts to shore up the country’s business interests taking precedence over pushing China to join the negotiating table over Ukraine.
This time, however, Xi can expect pushback.
Macron and United States President Joe Biden agreed in a telephone call ahead of the French leader’s trip to engage China to hasten the end of the war in Ukraine, the Elysee Palace said on Wednesday.
“The two leaders have mentioned their joint willingness to engage China to accelerate the end of the war in Ukraine and take part in building sustainable peace in the region,” Macron’s office said in a statement.
During a speech in Brussels last week, von der Leyen publicly criticised Beijing’s “no limits” ties with Moscow in the face of an “atrocious and illegal invasion of Ukraine”.
“Any peace plan which would in effect consolidate Russian annexations is simply not a viable plan. We have to be frank on this point,” von der Leyen said, while also taking aim at China’s increasingly assertive posture on the South China Sea, the Chinese-Indian border and Taiwan.
“How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward,” she said.
Beijing said it was “disappointed” by her speech, according to its European Union ambassador Fu Cong.
Against such a tense backdrop, Macron is expected to ask China to not supply Russia with weapons. Beijing is not known to have supplied weaponry to Russia despite requests from Moscow, although US officials have warned of the possibility.
Macron’s trip is not likely to produce a watershed moment but his diplomacy could produce wins down the road for European security, said Matthieu Duchâtel, the director of international studies at France’s Institut Montaigne.
“It’s really about moving it a little bit in a positive direction and not bearing the unrealistic expectation that China can mediate,” Duchâtel told Al Jazeera, describing the European view of China as being a “swing state” in the Ukraine war.
If China were to supply Russia with weapons, it could tip the scales in Moscow’s favour as the war drags on, Duchâtel said, while the opposite would be true if Beijing were to lean towards Ukraine.
Macron will need to play a careful game, said Antoine Bondaz, a researcher at the French think tank, La Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique. A poorly worded statement could unintentionally signal support for Beijing’s position and score a win for the Chinese Communist Party, he said, instead of impressing on China the dangers the war poses to European security.
One point of cooperation, however, could be the issue of nuclear weapons, Bondaz added.
France, like China, is a nuclear power but the country does not take part in NATO nuclear exercises. Both also oppose the sharing of nuclear technology, said Bondaz, which means France is in a “legitimate” position to “ask China for an official reaction to Russia’s announcement of its intention to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus, and to try to prevent such a deployment.”
Whether Macron can achieve these goals will depend on whether China fears further sanctions from the EU and the risk of deepening “transatlantic coordination” between Europe and the US on issues like Ukraine, he added.
Some analysts believe Xi could try to drive a wedge between the US and Europe, the latter of which has traditionally adopted a less hawkish approach to bilateral relations.
Despite being a founding member of NATO, France is not part of US-led security blocks like AUKUS – made up of Australia, the United Kingdom and the US – and the QUAD – featuring Australia, India, Japan and the US – both of which are widely seen as aimed at countering China.
Still, EU-China relations have deteriorated sharply in recent years.
Apart from disputes over China’s claims in the South China Sea and crackdowns in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, Beijing’s attempts to punish EU member states like Lithuania for engaging with Taiwan and tit-for-tat sanctions on European parliamentarians have not gone over well. In 2021, the 27-country bloc put a significant trade and investment deal with China on ice amid growing tensions between the sides.
Macron and von der Leyen’s trip could be a first step towards improving those ties, said Ferenczy, the associate research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy.
“Bilateral ties have been deteriorating, and I think there’s also an effort from Beijing to rebuild relations,” Ferenczy said, adding that EU leaders understand they have “actual leverage over China and that we need to speak more from that position”.
“China wants to continue cooperation and business, trade relations with the EU.”