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French President Emmanuel Macron concluded a three-day state visit to Beijing, where he was accorded an “unusually lavish welcome,” according to Reuters. Macron was joined by Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, who received much less generous treatment due to her criticism of Chinese economic policies and support for Russia.

The Agenda

Macron’s primary aim was to get Chinese President Xi Jinping to move forward on his offer to contribute to a diplomatic resolution of the Russia-Ukraine war. Trade — including the sale of Airbus aircraft — was also on the agenda. Macron was joined by a large delegation of French business leaders.

Von der Leyen was keen to push forward her agenda of “de-risking” relations with China — an alternative to America’s “decoupling.” In March, she described the EU-China relationship as “unbalanced and increasingly affected by distortions created by China’s state capitalist system.” She called for rebalancing ties “on the basis of transparency, predictability, and reciprocity.” Von der Leyen also hit hard at China’s support for Russia since the Ukraine invasion.

The Results

There are no indications so far that Xi has actually budged on Ukraine. An unnamed French diplomat told Politico Europe: “The president urged Xi not to make deliveries to Russia that would help its war against Ukraine. Xi said this war is not his.”

Von der Leyen does not appear to have broken much ground on trade reciprocity. She says the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, whose ratification was frozen by the European Parliament in 2021, was not even discussed. At a press conference, she reiterated the need for a “level-playing field” on trade.

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China’s Game

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has united the United States and NATO powers. Beijing fears the West along with its Asian allies could consolidate similarly over the China challenge.

China has aligned with Russia and last year the country’s leaders spoke of a partnership with “no limits.” But China has since tried to walk back that statement. In February, China proposed its own vague peace plan for the Ukraine war. It may not amount to much, but Beijing wants to look like it’s trying.

Macron and von der Leyen made the trip together in a sign of European unity. However, the different treatment they received — von der Leyen was excluded from some events — undermined the show of unity, giving Xi a symbolic victory. On Friday, the final day of the Macron-von der Leyen visit, an opinion piece in the state-run China Daily accused the European Commission president of “finger-pointing” and said she had a “serious lack of understanding of today’s China.”

The perception of Chinese strength will be amplified by the upcoming visits of Germany’s foreign minister and the top diplomat of the European Union (EU).

The Big Picture

The EU’s pursuit of “strategic autonomy” — a foreign policy not dependent on the U.S. — has been upended by China’s growing assertiveness and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The U.S. is the biggest and most decisive provider of aid to Ukraine, though the war is more an existential question for Europe than it is for America.

A question for the road ahead: will France pursue its own strategic autonomy on China? In February, France and China moved forward with plans to jointly partner in infrastructure development projects in other countries.

The Globely News team tracks the leaders, states, networks, ideologies, and technologies that are reshaping the world order. From AI and electric vehicles to the rise of China, we've got you covered.

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