Taipei, Taiwan – When French President Emmanuel Macron stood shoulder to shoulder with his Chinese President Xi Jinping for a photo during a state visit to Beijing, the two leaders seemed at ease.
They smiled and looked friendly. Macron appeared to have his hand on Xi’s back. Also in the picture – and standing slightly apart from the two men – was Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission who was visiting China with Macron.
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The image captured the mood of the trip – an unexpected display of bonhomie between Xi and Macron and a rather cooler reception for von der Leyen.
The two European leaders were meant to present a united front to Beijing about its handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but instead, von der Leyen appeared on the back foot for much of the trip and was even left out of a state banquet.
The snub was, no doubt, the result of a critical speech she made about China-European Union relations shortly before her departure for Beijing. Xi and Macron, in contrast, seemed like old friends.
Onlookers in Europe were dismayed when Macron seemed to parrot Xi’s talking points and vocabulary during their joint press conference and when he later seemed to abandon Taiwan, a self-governed democracy claimed by China, when he told reporters Europe must avoid getting dragged into a confrontation between China and the island and keep its distance from any United States-led foreign policy – lest Europe becomes one of “America’s followers.”
Instead, he called for the “strategic autonomy” of Europe.
In Taiwan, long used to the disregard that comes with diplomatic isolation, the response ranged from muted to dismissive.
“His comments did not make much of an impact on Taiwan or in Asia for that matter given there was never an understanding that major European economies will have a definite role in a Taiwan contingency,” said Sana Hashmi, a fellow at the Taiwan-Asia Exchange.
Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory and has not ruled out the use of force of take control of the island.
In online discussions, Macron’s comments were interpreted by some Taiwanese as “naive” with the sense that he “did not take threats from China seriously or had the luxury of staying out of such conflicts in a way that Taiwan certainly does not,” said Brian Hioe, a non-resident fellow at the University of Nottingham’s Taiwan Studies Programme.
Back in Paris, the presidential office was in damage control within days of Macron’s return, explaining that France’s policy on Taiwan was unchanged.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also headed to Beijing. Calling any change to Taiwan’s status quo “unacceptable” she took a noticeably tougher approach than the French president.
Billed as an opportunity for Europe to show its unity, for many observers Macron’s visit ended up underlining the continent’s divisions, not only over how to approach Beijing but also on complex issues such as Taiwan’s disputed political status.
“Macron’s visit, his conversations with Xi and follow-up interviews during his visit did spark wide confusion in Europe (and in the US) because he acted as if he was representing Europe and as if he was speaking on a European voice, and by doing so, he undermined European unity,” Sari Arho Havrén, a Brussels-based China analyst and adjunct professor at the George C Marshall European Center for Security Studies, told Al Jazeera by email.
“What Macron ended up doing was helping Beijing in its strategic intent to further divide the EU internally and weaken the transatlantic alliance,” she said.
Critics also fear Macron’s appeasement-like approach could encourage Xi to maintain support for Russia and even attack Taiwan should he believe such an assault would face limited repercussions beyond the US.
‘Shift of recognition’
Much of the difference in opinion reflects the fact that, while policy-making bodies like the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union head the EU, its 27 member states maintain their own foreign policy.
This extends to China as well, noted Marc Cheng, director of the European Union Centre in Taiwan, as member states and the greater EU apparatus often differ on how they view Beijing and its claims to Taiwan.
Hungary and Greece, both part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, are typically pro-China, while former Soviet-controlled states like Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have moved closer to democratic Taiwan in the past few years through a combination of “values-first” foreign policy and a desire for greater access to the island’s world-leading semiconductor industry.
Many countries fall somewhere in the middle and while there is a growing wariness towards China across Europe, there is more uncertainty over how to respond, said Maya Wang, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“There’s a shift of recognition after the Russian invasion and also a shift of recognition in what happened to Hong Kong and Xinjiang,” she told Al Jazeera, referring to ongoing campaigns of political repression in both places.
“On the other hand, the shift of recognition does not equate to a shift in strategy that is unified or logically follows that shift of understanding.”
A similar contradiction remains between how the EU views its economic ties with China, which is both one of the bloc’s largest trading partners and a “systemic rival” that engages in unethical trade practices like dumping, intellectual property theft and “unfair” preferences for state-run businesses.
In 2021, the EU suspended a blockbuster trade deal with China after Beijing and Brussels exchanged sanctions and counter-sanctions over the treatment of ethnic Muslim Uighurs in the northwestern Xinjiang region, where the United Nations says some 1 million people might have been detained.
“I think there is an agreement between member states that the EU, as a whole, and individually member states should really rethink how they go forward with China and an agreement on a lot of things when it comes to putting trade defence instruments in place. But at the end of the day, every country, every EU member state has their national interest,” said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, an associate research fellow at Sweden’s Institute for Security and Development Policy.
She says the group would continue to try to reach a certain degree of convergence, which was reflected in von der Leyen’s pre-departure speech about “de-risking EU-China relations”.
Such a comment did not come out of thin air because the EU Commission takes its political direction from member states, nor did von der Layen’s remarks criticising China’s assertive actions against Taiwan or in the disputed South China Sea – or when she said the way “China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward”.
In this context, analysts argue Macron was trying to articulate a united European desire for de-risking through “strategic autonomy” – rather than following the US to adopt a more confrontational approach to Beijing – but the nuance was lost in the execution.
“He attempted to not just ‘huǒ shàng jiā yóu’, or ‘add oil to the fire’ when it comes to the Taiwan issue,” Mathieu Duchâtel, director of the Asia programme at France’s Institut Montaigne told Al Jazeera.
“I think the starting point here is the analysis that the US and China are on a collision course over Taiwan and that anything that can be done ‘to decelerate that collision’ is helpful.”
Macron tried to warn that “the world is turning bipolar again and that’s not in the interest of France and that’s not in the interest of Europe,” Duchâtel explained, but instead, he seemed to expose disagreement in how to approach controversial issues like Taiwan.
“There’s a gap between the intention, the communication and the outcome, because I do believe that there was a genuine intention to display a united European Union,” he said.
France as ‘weaker link’
Whatever the objective, Macron’s comments came as a disappointment to many in Asia.
At best, his remarks could be seen as an attempt to “establish “France as a third pole in the US-China great power rivalry,” said TAEF’s Hashmi. “However, in reality, he was just played in the hands of Xi and he has been successful enough in identifying France as a weaker link.”
Marcin Przychodniak, a China analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, said Macron was guilty of “peace washing” as he also tried to use his time in Beijing to “underline France’s regional superpower status and permanent membership of UN Security Council”.
Macron has taken an active interest in the Asia-Pacific take since taking office in 2017, staked in equal part on France’s powerful navy and its overseas territories in the Pacific including French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Réunion.
France has published its own defence strategy on the future of Indo-Pacific security – highlighting the potential effects of a China-Taiwan crisis – and occasionally participates in “freedom of navigation exercises” through the disputed Taiwan Strait. One ship made just such a transit a day after Macron’s departure.
France has also observed the large US-Philippines Balikatan military exercises and maintains close relations with countries like India and Japan.
At the same time, France has long been known for its scepticism towards the US, most famously displayed in one-time ally Charles de Gaulle’s staunch criticism of the Vietnam War and again following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Bilateral relations have recently come under more pressure with the US-led security pact AUKUS – under which Australia agreed to take US-designed nuclear-powered submarines. junking an agreement with France to buy diesel-powered vessels – and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), which includes Australia, India, and Japan.
France, along with Germany, is also not a member of the “Five Eyes” signals intelligence sharing network between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the US.
“Differences between EU member states visible earlier on relations with Russia, but also China, will get stronger as much as France will underline its ‘anti-US’ message,” said Przychodniak.
“France has its unique political position also because of its territories in the Indo-Pacific… however, the EU should be aware that any kind of serious Chinese escalation in Taiwan Strait has the potential to create a much bigger economic crisis than the current one, and one of the ways to prevent it from happening is to strengthen EU relations with Taiwan instead of undermining its position,” he said.