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China’s New Approach to Europe

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China’s New Approach to Europe

Beijing’s effusive reception of French President Macron reveals the underpinnings of its Europe strategy.

China’s New Approach to Europe

From left: French President Emmanuel Macron, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Beijing, China, Apr. 6, 2023.

Credit: European Commission

Earlier this month, French President Emmanuel Macron visited China for in-depth talks and discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping, over topics including the state of Sino-European relations, the war in Ukraine, and the future of bilateral economic relations.

Macron was joined on the first day of the trip by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, though it quickly emerged that the two, whether by design or in inadvertent disjunction, did not see eye to eye over the crux of the Sino-European relationship. Von der Leyen viewed China with wariness and skepticism, with the primary goal being one of management, as captured by the euphemism of “de-risking” (i.e. selective decoupling and installation of safeguards to even areas of mutual cooperation). Macron, on the other hand, saw in China an effective counterbalance against outsized U.S. influence over international geopolitics.

The French politician’s statements concerning strategic autonomy and France’s stance on contentious issues such as the Taiwan issue drew the ire of hardline critics, who viewed the president as insufficiently critical and excessively deferential to China. On the other hand, figures such as European Council President Charles Michel and Hungary’s Viktor Orban – the latter of whom Macron met just over a month ago – were more receptive to Macron’s emphasis on strategic autonomy.

Fundamentally, Macron’s visit was illuminating for two reasons. On one hand, it highlighted the substantive disagreements and divisions within the European Union concerning the collective’s approach and response to China. Some are inclined to view Sino-Russian relations and growing Chinese economic and foreign policy assertiveness as sound arguments for Europe to reduce its extent of dependence upon trade, technology, and cultural ties with China.

Others are convinced by the alternative frame set forth by the Chinese foreign policy establishment: that the United States is bent on waging a new Cold War against China, but Europe need and should not follow suit. In this view, the future of Sino-European relations lies with a third path governed by Europe’s capacity to tread carefully where it must, and dexterity in securing greater economic, innovation, and financial gains wherever it can.

On the other hand, there were plenty of signs indicating that Beijing is placing particular emphasis upon consolidating Sino-French friendships. Such signs included the lavish ceremonials and exuberant reception that greeted Macron in Beijing, the 51-point joint statement issued at the end of Macron’s visit that encompassed an unusually diverse range of policy areas, and Xi’s meeting Macron over an informal setting in Guangzhou (with only translators present). Both leaders agreed to “elevate the China-France comprehensive strategic partnership to a new height” through “closer strategic communication.”

The Diagnostic Question: What Were China’s Primary Motivations?

Spectators should not be too surprised by China’s amenable approach to France. France has long served as a relatively open anchor in Europe to which China turned, even amid fractious relations with the United States and other, more ideologically disposed members of the proverbial “Western bloc.” In 1964, General Charles de Gaulle recognized the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate representative of the country, a move that in turn precipitated the establishment of bilateral relations at the height of Cold War tensions (the Prague Spring took place just four years later).

Post-Cold War, President Jacques Chirac opted for a pro-business, pro-cultural engagement policy that improved Sino-French relations at large. This also established within China’s foreign policy circles the implicit premise that France would be a reliable, credible strategic partner so long as France continued to derive substantial gains from China’s cheap manufacturing bases and growing consumer markets.

Beijing certainly has a tendency and track record to pick and choose friendlier elements within Europe to engage constructively, with punitive reprobation extended to those who fail to respect what China deems to be its core interests. Countries such as Germany under Angela Merkel and France – under Nicolas Sarkozy (later years), Francois Hollande, and now Macron – have been viewed through relatively favorable lenses by successive Chinese leaderships, especially amidst a growing rift between Beijing and Washington throughout the second half of the 2010s.

Yet even by such standards, the level of attention and praise piled onto the visiting French president is rare by Chinese diplomatic standards, especially for countries within Europe. There are several reasons undergirding Beijing’s effervescent reception of Macron.

The first is the geostrategic case pertaining to great power rivalry. Amid increasingly fractious relations with the United States, China needs a strategic force that can push back against the conspicuous bipartisan consensus in the U.S. Congress – as evidenced by the TikTok hearings, the establishment of the House Select Committee on China, and the earlier fracas over the spy balloon. Knowing fully that a complete détente between all European states and China would be nigh-impossible, Beijing seeks instead a Brussels that is willing to put a healthier distance between itself and Washington.

Since the departure of the pragmatist Merkel, Sino-German relations have been complicated by the ascent of the “Traffic Light Coalition” that has mixed attitudes toward China, to say the least. France is thus the most logical – and pivotal – actor within Europe that Beijing must convince to come aboard the non-alignment train, though China has also made similar pitches to leaders of Spain, Germany, and Italy, as of late.

The second rationale is the particular case surrounding Beijing’s vision for a China-led coalition to broker a peace agreement over Ukraine. China has little incentive for the ongoing war to escalate substantially. Such large-scale escalation would only bolster NATO solidarity and induce the risk of a nuclear confrontation, while further jeopardizing food supplies and domestic political stability within Russia. More fundamentally, from the perspective of its senior leaders, Beijing is keen to demonstrate its maturing diplomatic finesse as not only an economic superpower, but also as a core driver of global governance and conflict resolution.

The historic declaration of resumption in diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia – though perhaps less the product of Chinese mediating prowess than active goodwill on the part of both actors – has certainly granted Beijing significant momentum and credibility as a peace-broker. In continuation of this path toward greater diplomatic power, China is in need of allies that can buy into its vision for a post-conflict Russo-Ukrainian balance of power that is not unequivocally tipped in the direction of NATO. China hence views France as an instrumental counterweight in this process. Buy-in from Paris, even if nominal and symbolic, could go a long way in ameliorating cynicism toward China’s aspirations for a multilaterally devised ceasefire and peace over Ukraine.

The third factor is the economic one. As I have written elsewhere, China can only succeed in its economic endeavors – rebooting growth, rejuvenating its private sector, and stimulating consumption – if it adopts a pragmatic foreign policy, which succeeds in retaining key supply chain partners while ensuring market access by Chinese firms to large, international markets.

To that end, the Macron-Xi summit yielded a roster of economic breakthroughs and deals. Airbus will be launching a second assembly line in China, doubling its production capacity. Macron paid lip service to maintaining “the fair and non-discriminatory treatment of license applications from Chinese companies,” though the country’s de facto shift toward a total ban on Huawei is unlikely to be lifted. As much as France stands to gain from both the burgeoning Chinese middle class and precise, high-tech manufacturing, China also benefits from the effective vote of confidence by Macron – as a leading European politician – in its economy.

The Interpretive Question: What Will China’s New Approach to Europe Be? 

Given the above interpretation of China’s recent overtures toward France, the following conclusions can be reached on China’s Europe strategy in the wake of the 20th Party Congress.

First up is a discursive-normative shift in the predominant frame for the Sino-European relationship. From a monolithic focus on mutual economic and material gains, which Beijing realizes are inevitably overshadowed by rhetorically convincing narratives of “democracy promotion” and “opposition to Russian aggression,” China is likely to shift toward emphasizing the case for Europe to embrace strategic autonomy.

Such rhetoric will appeal to nations that have grown increasingly disillusioned with the United States’ attempts to fuse talk of high-sounding values (e.g. democracy and freedom) with its wider economic protectionism (e.g. the Inflation Reduction Act) and seeming preference that countries must choose between itself and China. These countries may not be overwhelmingly aligned with China’s vision of a new international order, but could still be sufficiently convinced of the merits of “collectivized hedging” – a term I have coined to describe countries banding together in straddling and liaising positively with more than one great power.

Second, China will look to shift further away from engaging with Europe as a whole, and prioritize diplomatic relations with individual countries of importance. The four largest European economies – e.g. Germany, France, Italy, and Spain – will likely be the foci of Chinese strategic efforts, along both Track I and II dimensions. Yet diversification should also be expected. Resources will also be allocated to rebuilding trust and repairing frayed ties between China and Central and Eastern European countries, many of which were previously active and supportive members of China’s 17+1 initiative.

In addition, as evidenced by the joint agreement that advocated expanded cooperation in aerospace, nuclear energy, green energy, technology, and agriculture, China is seeking to render itself more useful and value-adding across a plurality of dimensions. Both moves provide gravitas and concrete bases for China’s criticisms of unilateral decoupling efforts. In exchange, China hopes that Europe will shift more favorably toward what it views to be “baseline interests,” including the Taiwan issue.

Third, the reception Macron received in Beijing is most revealing of the fact that it is possible for Chinese diplomacy to be less confrontational, less bellicose, and more strategically welcoming toward actors that are aligned or open to alignment. The degree of tactical (albeit not strategic) dexterity in Chinese foreign policy should not be underestimated. For states that acknowledge – openly or tacitly – China’s vision of a strategically autonomous Europe, Beijing is likely to significantly rein in its previously hostile rhetoric and instead employ a combination of concrete economic rewards and lavish rhetorical praise in signaling approval.

In contrast, for countries that continually repudiate this worldview, China is unlikely to soften its projected stance at large. In short, Chinese diplomacy will continue to adapt to the “complex and grim” status quo of international relations.

The Prognosis Question: How Will This Approach Turn out for China?  

Sino-European relations are about to become far more complex, intricate, and ambiguous in their directions of travel. Keen observers should expect to see more improvement in relations between select European nations and China, as relations between others and the economic giant continue to worsen.

Macron’s visit saw the leader attempt to lay claim to the concept of “strategic autonomy”; yet whether the rest of Europe takes up this value proposition, and, indeed, whether Macron will succeed in spearheading his version of his vision, remains to be seen. Beijing must recognize that European nations are driven as much by economic and financial interests as narratives and perceptions of legitimacy and justice.

With that said, one way or another, it is clear that Europe is much more reluctant to take clear sides in the China-U.S. rivalry than over the war in Ukraine. The latter concerns its fundamental territorial and security interests. The former, at least in the eyes of individual leaders, diplomats, and politicians epitomized by Macron and Michel, does not.

Both Beijing and Washington alike have been cognizant of this disparity in perceptions, though they appear to be reacting to this fact at differing speeds. China has seized upon the opening to triangulate the great power antagonism characterizing today’s era, while the United States has opted to condemn and criticize Macron for his ostensibly reckless behaviors. Either way, with Macron’s having concluded his first visit to China after the pandemic, the China-Europe-U.S. triangle has become even more interesting.