Ng Han Guan/Getty Images
- China’s president is seeking to exploit differences among Western allies, analysts say.
- Some European countries want to maintain stronger trade links to China than the US does.
- After a trip to China, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said it’s important not to be a US “vassal.”
French President Emmanuel Macron and US President Joe Biden have been so effusive in their praise for each other their relationship has been dubbed a “bromance” by some observers.
But that friendship may have soured after Macron made comments likely to irk Biden following his recent state visit to China, the US’ arch global rival.
During the trip, where he was given a lavish red-carpeted welcome, Macron suggested that Europe should not be drawn into the crisis over Taiwan, which has long been one of the flash points in the global rivalry between China and the US.
Beijing has claiming the territory as its own, and Washington has pledged to defend its independence and create a global alliance to deter Chinese aggression.
“Being an ally does not mean being a vassal… doesn’t mean that we don’t have the right to think for ourselves,” Macron said amid a backlash over the comments Wednesday.
Xi drives a wedge between allies using trade
Europe has long been divided between countries skeptical of China and seeking closer ties with the US, and those lured by China’s vast export markets, who harbor desires for greater autonomy from the US.
It is differences such as these that China’s President Xi Jinping is keen to exploit as he seeks to drive a wedge between the US and Europe and humiliate Biden by exposing the limits of his influence, analysts say.
Roland Freudenstein, vice president of the Globsec think tank in Brussels, said that Xi appeared to have found a receptive audience in Macron, a leader who has long attempted to portay an image of a global power broker steering a bold and independent path.
“Don’t forget that flattery is a well-honed skill in China, and with Emmanuel Macron, demand matches supply here,” he remarked. “Xi is trying to lure them with lucrative business deals and, in France’s case, with enthusiastic support for European ‘strategic autonomy’. Both tools are also used by China to drive a wedge between Europe and America.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) welcomes German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Grand Hall in Beijing in 2022.
Kay Nietfeld/AFP/Getty Images
While the US has sanctioned China, and sought to disentangle itself from China’s economy and tech sector, companies in some of Europe’s biggest economies are taking a very different path.
German businesses remain committed to expanding operations in China, despite US pressure on European leaders, The New York Times reported Thursday.
Macron is not the first European leader to tread a path to China in recent weeks, while US and Chinese diplomatic relations remain frozen in the wake of the Chinese spy balloon scandal. Spain’s Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, and Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, are among the European leaders Xi has hosted.
Ukraine conflict hardens anti-China stance in Europe
But there are a range of issues where Xi has been less successful in exposing differences between Europe and the US.
China’s brutal persecution of the Uighur Muslim minority, the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong, and the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, have led many European governments to take a more wary stance towards Beijing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping make a toast following their talks in Moscow on March 21, 2023.
PAVEL BYRKIN/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images
And China’s backing for Russia in invading Ukraine and sparking the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II is hardening that stance — particularly in light of reports that China is considering sending weapons and other lethal aid to Russia.
“Deepening Sino-Russian relations will constrain the extent to which China can rebuild strategic trust with the European Union, especially if Beijing were to provide low-end lethal aid or even heavy weaponry to Moscow,” explained Ali Wyne, an analyst with the Eurasia Group.
Despite providing diplomatic and economic support for Russia, Xi has also sought to position himself as a peace broker in Ukraine. He has touted a 12 point peace plan that the US has dismissed as heavily skewed in favor of the Kremlin’s goals.
So far European leaders have remained united with the US in rejecting Xi’s overtures, though Macron remarked in China that he believed Beijing wants to “build a pathway toward peace.”
Wyne said that the proposals could start gaining more support in Europe if Ukraine’s much-anticipated spring offensive underwhelms, and non-European countries start to coalesce around it as a starting point for negotiations.
But Freudenstein cautioned European leaders against the belief that Xi can act as a mediator with Putin.
This, he said, is “not happening because Xi’s influence is limited, and he fears a Russian defeat more than almost anything.”