Not Macron’s China views, global double standards are the problem

The French leader’s comments highlight Europe’s divisions on China. But they also raise questions for the Global South.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron talk in the garden of the Guandong province governor's residence, in Guangzhou, China, April 7, 2023
Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and French President Emmanuel Macron talk in the garden of the Guandong province governor's residence, in Guangzhou, China, April 7, 2023 [File: Jacques Witt/Pool via AP]

Dismay“. “Uproar“. “Turmoil”. French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent comments about how Europe should deal with China and avoid becoming a “vassal” of the United States have attracted a wave of condemnation in the West.

“The great risk” Europe faces, Macron said in an interview on the plane back from his high-profile visit to China, is that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, and prevents it from building its strategic autonomy”.

Critics especially pounced on his comments about Taiwan, which seemed to imply that Europe had no stake in the conflict and that the US was primarily responsible for accelerating the “rhythm” of the crisis, heightening the risk of a Chinese “overreaction”.

This sounded like a wide departure from the much more neutral position of the European Union, or, indeed, of the official French one — which Macron’s foreign minister re-emphasised during a meeting of the G7’s top diplomats on Tuesday.

Macron was also accused of hurting European unity by appearing much more conciliatory towards China than European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who had accompanied him on the trip. And wasn’t he throwing a wrench in the relationship with Washington at a time when, “if it weren’t for US leadership, intelligence and weapons, the Russians would be sipping tea in Lviv”, as one prominent American commentator put it?

To be sure, Macron’s statements look like a self-inflicted diplomatic debacle. Attempting to advocate for greater European autonomy in the context of a world increasingly shaped by the US-China rivalry, he ended up with the exact opposite result — a bewildering show of disunity in front of the world’s two hegemons.

Yet he is hardly the only one responsible for that lack of coherence emerging from Europe. For who was speaking for the continent last week? Should we take our cues from von der Leyen’s tough-as-nails position on China, or from the European Council’s top diplomat Josep Borrell’s reassurance that “we do not fear China’s rise”?

Which views are more representative of European sentiment? Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s suggestion that “instead of building strategic autonomy from the United States”, Europe should seek a “strategic partnership” with Washington, or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s insistence that “’we must start from our own interests, not take into account the interests of others”?

European disunity works to the advantage of the world’s two heavyweights. Beijing, given the size of its economy, gains by dealing bilaterally with individual countries rather than with Europe as a bloc. Washington has also not been above fuelling divisions on the continent when it has felt that the EU has dragged its feet over its demands — such as on the imposition of economic sanctions on Iran or China.

Of course, Washington would like to see greater European unity against China. “French Diplomacy Undercuts U.S. Efforts to Rein China In” was the takeaway from The New York Times. “Macron weakens deterrence against Chinese aggression”, denounced The Wall Street Journal.

This is overblown.

For all of Macron’s clumsiness — thinking aloud is not the recommended course for heads of state, especially in front of the press — many around the world, especially in the Global South, share the French president’s sense of being inexorably dragged into the US-China fight for supremacy. It is a fight that has little to do with the immediate interests of most countries but is one that they are forced to navigate.

“China and the United States are geopolitical facts that no country can ignore, and precisely because of their rivalry, dealing with both simultaneously is the necessary condition for dealing with either effectively,” writes Bilahari Kausikan, a former top diplomat from Singapore in an article published last week in Foreign Affairs. “Faced with these realities, most countries are going to try to maximize their autonomy within the constraints of their specific circumstances. They will not want to align all their interests across all domains in one direction or another.”

Macron’s approach is no different. In his view, Europe needs to build itself as a “third pole”. To that end, it needs to gain greater security autonomy from the US — which after all may revert at some point to a Donald Trump-like anti-European defence stance. Concurrently, it needs to reduce its economic dependence on China amid an ever-growing trade deficit.

In fact, Europe has started to take concrete steps in these directions.

We are left with one problem, though. If a policy of hedging between the two great powers truly is the best, as Kausikan recommends and Macron seems to be illustrating, where does this leave issues that can only be addressed through international cooperation and global governance?

Countries in the Global South are already paying the heaviest price in terms of climate change, rising poverty levels, vaccine and medicine access, human mobility and many other pressing issues. Resigning oneself to a permanent tug-of-war between the US and China is not a viable response.

Rather, the international community should consistently demonstrate that it expects both powers be held accountable to international law. China should not get a free pass from the international community for its inexcusable human rights record, be it the mass detention of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic people sent to re-education camps in Xinjiang, or the jailing of rights activists.

Similarly, the US and Europe should be held accountable for the horrifying treatment of asylum seekers and refugees and for neglecting the rights to health and development in poorer countries, among many other issues. It is a hard truth that it will always be harder to hold to account veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council. Yet what is profoundly damaging is how openly they break free from the very rules they are the custodians of, and escape accountability for war crimes, the violation of the territorial sovereignty of other countries, and the illegal behaviour of their allies. The US invasion of Iraq, and Russia’s war in Ukraine, are examples.

However, rather than taking the sterile view that one country’s violations somehow cancel out violations in another — a refrain sadly heard across the Global South — all actors in the international system, big and small, should strive to abide by and apply international law. After all, these are laws that they themselves have elaborated, negotiated, and signed up to.

Unless it shows genuine respect for international law, the oft-heard argument from Washington that the US is the true guarantor of the “global order” will continue to ring hollow to much of the world.

Likewise, China’s clamour that it is a true champion of multilateralism and the UN Charter will do little to quell doubts about its commitment to anything but its naked self-interest, as long as it militarises the South China Sea and denies Russian crimes in Ukraine.

“Dismay”, “uproar”, “turmoil” are indeed fitting terms when looking at the state of international politics. But a more just world will not happen without a greater commitment to justice — which, in the case of states, starts with international law.

As for Macron’s comments, any outrage should be directed where the real problems lie: a general lack of accountability by governments around the world, for which humanity is paying a growing price.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.