The recent state visit of French President Macron to China, and his subsequent comments regarding Taiwan and the overlapping relationships between China, Europe and the United States, have led to considerable furore on the part of other imperialist powers and politicians and certainly appear to indicate a significant breach in the coalition that US President Biden has been seeking to construct against China.
In this thoughtful and incisive analysis, written specially for Friends of Socialist China, Dr Jenny Clegg, author and campaigner, who is a member of our advisory group, takes a deep dive into the issues surrounding the visit and its aftermath, including:
- To what extent does it indicate a return to a more independent Gaullist tradition in French foreign policy?
- Does the Sino-French 51-point Joint Statement offer a fresh template for relations between major developed and developing countries?
- How can all this contribute to the search for peace in Ukraine and to averting the danger of war in the Asia Pacific Region?
- How does it relate to President Xi Jinping’s recently announced Global Civilisation Initiative?
Jenny concludes with the observation that, “even if the path is twisted, multipolarity is the objective trend – and a work in progress.”
The French President Emmanuel Macron departed for China in early April, apparently on a mission on behalf of the ‘collective West’ to get President Xi Jinping to “bring Russia to its senses”; he came away, however, with quite a different message, calling on the EU to not be too dependent on the US. It seems it was Xi’s mission to encourage Macron’s Gaullist instinct for ‘strategic autonomy’ that prevailed over the course of the three day state visit.
The fact that Macron was accompanied by a large group of businesspeople suggested that other, more commercial, motives were also at play. Indeed, China’s offer to bulk purchase 140 Airbus aircraft for $17bn was very generous. But this visit was by no means simply just another delegation along the vaunted ‘commerce over human rights’ pattern.
The meeting between leaders of the second and the seventh largest world economies – the largest developing and fourth largest developed respectively – between two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and officially recognised nuclear powers, was made all the more significant by the exceptional times.
The summit took place following a few short weeks of intense diplomatic manoeuvres – from China’s Ukraine and Middle East peace initiatives and summitry with Putin to the bizarre Sinophobic ‘balloon incident’ in the US, which saw Secretary of State Antony Blinken call off his visit to China, and, in the Pacific, the AUKUS expansion of nuclear-powered submarine capacity. All this reflected the extremely precarious situation internationally, with the Ukraine conflict on the verge of escalation, and now US provocations over Taiwan, potentially bringing major powers to the point of a Third World War.
The prospect of working towards a lasting Sino-French comprehensive strategic partnership held the promise of injecting some rationality into a chaotic situation in danger of veering out of control.
For China, the summit was a key part of its major power diplomacy aimed at promoting a sound interaction between the world’s main players as set out in its recently released Global Security Initiative Concept Paper. As major powers, both permanent members of the UN Security Council, as China sees it, China and France have a particular responsibility to address the current situation of growing global deficits in peace, development, security and governance, even as the international community confronts multiple risks and challenges.
The Sino-French 51 point joint statement
US President Biden’s New Cold War China policy formula to ‘compete, confront and cooperate’ carries great risks of muddle and incoherence in practice whilst narrowly and unrealistically restricting cooperation to the window of climate change.
The 51-point France-China Joint Statement in contrast opens up a wide range of areas for cooperation – political and strategic; economic and business; cultural and educational – and not only on a bilateral but also a multilateral basis, setting the frame, as major powers on the world stage, of “a shared view of a multipolar world” with “the United Nations at its core”.
On the vital question of the Ukraine crisis, there was support for “efforts to restore peace…on the basis of international law and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter” and, although there was no explicit call for a ceasefire, acknowledgement of Russia’s legitimate security concerns or opposition to unilateral sanctions – all covered in China’s 12 point proposal on the Ukraine crisis – what was of significance was the call for “no action that could heighten the risk of tension”, given recognition of the dangers of escalation and even nuclear war.
On bilateral cooperation, from artificial intelligence and the digital economy, including 5G, from the general improvement of market access on both sides, to science and technology cooperation, language teaching, inter-university and cultural exchanges, there is little evidence of the paranoia that now permeates the US, UK and the rest of the Anglosphere over alleged Chinese ‘spying’ and the supposed hidden threat in all these to national security.
On climate change, a ‘Sino-French Carbon Neutral Centre’ for scientific and technological cooperation is to be established.
In terms of addressing global challenges, there was agreement to cooperate in three key areas: on food security – to seek market stability for agricultural products and promote localised food production in Africa and other countries; on reform of the World Trade Organisation (WTO); and on climate finance, with support for sustainable development, working through partnerships to promote a more just energy transition in developing countries.
Further advancing an inclusive multilateralism, the two sides will work to promote China-EU relations and strengthen cooperation in the G20 as the main forum for international economic cooperation which also then covers issues of debt, development finance and biodiversity.
There was also, significantly, agreement to “jointly maintain the authority and effectiveness of the arms control and non-proliferation system and promote the international arms control process…and strengthen the NPT [nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty]”. Not only does AUKUS undermine the NPT, risking nuclear proliferation across Asia, but the breakdown of arms control was a particular concern raised by Russia – and the inadequate response from the US and NATO was a factor influencing its decision to subsequently invade Ukraine. Whatever France and China can do together as nuclear weapons states here might help then in finding solutions to the Ukraine crisis.
Further on matters strategic, France reaffirmed its adherence to the One-China policy, and in addition agreed to deepen the dialogue between its Pacific Ocean armed forces and the Southern Theatre of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
France in fact remains a Pacific power with territories in the southern ocean, notably New Caledonia (or Kanaky as it is known by the indigenous people who are engaged in a struggle for national independence). On at least three occasions in the last three years, the French Navy has been active in both the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits, not least in joint exercises with the US and Japan, seen as part of plans to join forces with the Quad – the US, Japan, India and Australia. Indeed the third sailing took place just as Macron left China, as the PLA was undertaking military drills in response to Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. Macron was to explain this by saying that the move took place “without provocation and with respect, but drawing a line at verbal escalation.”4
Clearly the announcement of a military dialogue is not to be dismissed: it injects an element of cooperation into a very tense situation in which the military vessels of the US and its allies confront China’s navy in disputed and congested waters. Dialogue creates opportunities to prevent accidents escalating rapidly into war through misunderstandings or miscalculations and opens the door to further steps towards a more shared approach to security in a region of central significance for the world economy as a whole.
In addition to this maritime security dialogue, agreements to cooperate in the field of space and to continue dialogue on cyber affairs take a different tone to that of NATO’s 2022 New Security Concept and its view of China striving to “subvert the rules-based international order, including in the space, cyber and maritime domains”. Here NATO was realigning with Biden’s National Security Strategy which identifies strategic competition to shape the future of the international order as driving an acute need to update the rules to the exclusion of China.
Finally, point 51 suggests a new approach to the controversial issue of human rights, setting improvement in a development context, with an emphasis on “the importance for the development of all countries to promote and protect human rights.”
A meeting of civilisations
Following the formal business, Xi and Macron made time for a ‘one to one’, no less important perhaps for its informality.
The US political elite has convinced itself that China is an aggressively expansionist power seeking to drive the US out of the Pacific so as to replace it as the world hegemon. Over tea and music, Xi would have had the opportunity to put over his own vision of China’s future modernisation – more equal and more green – and how this depends on a peaceful environment, as well as to explore his latest Global Civilisation Initiative (GCI), valuing the diversity of the world’s cultures.
In contrast with Biden’s Summit for Democracy – in essence a revival of US scholar Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations approach – the Chinese perspective sees mutual learning among different cultures and civilisations as integral to the process of rule-making to advance global progress.
Whatever Xi said it surely had an effect on Macron, who later tweeted: “I think there is a mutual attraction between China and France – a fascination, a friendship, quite a singular path…I strongly believe in friendship between China and France.”
With these words, the French President seems to be cutting himself loose from the New Cold War mentality – contrast for example with UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s comments from the Anglosphere following the recent AUKUS summit: “China is a country with fundamentally different values to ours and … represents a challenge to the world order. And that’s why it’s right that we … take steps to protect ourselves… [and] stand up for our values and protect our interests.”
France in the hegemonic-multipolar flux
Macron’s remarks to reporters on returning to France, in particular his call for caution over the Taiwan question, appeared to set the cat amongst the pigeons of the West’s political community. Calling for Europe to avoid becoming a follower – a “vassal” – of the US, and to aim instead to become a third pole in world affairs, mediating between the US and China, he stated “the trap for Europe would be…to get caught in crises that aren’t ours.”
It is no surprise that right wing China hawks such as the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss and the strident Republican senator Marco Rubio, should respond in apoplectic fashion. More problematic were the reactions from the Baltic and some East European states, such as, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who raised concerns that Macron had, at a time of war, “fallen into Beijing’s trap of dividing the transatlantic alliance.”
Even allowing for these states having security concerns in relation to Russia, who – or what – is dividing Europe from the US in the Ukraine crisis? The threat of escalation into a new world war? Of nuclear annihilation?
In the event, the German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, hastened over to China to make it clear that the Transatlantic alliance was solid, that shared values were paramount and that a forcible reunification of Taiwan with the rest of China was unacceptable for Europe. And that China should pressure Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, and stop abusing human rights as well.
Commenting from an anti-imperialist perspective, Ben Norton, noting the deepening influence of the US over Europe since the Ukraine war started, and the momentum of opinion against Macron, questions whether France actually has the political will to pursue an independent foreign policy. He points out how Macron talked, back in 2018, about strategic autonomy, but in reality failed to take any concrete actions to challenge US hegemony.
The fact that the French parliament just last year passed a resolution denouncing so-called ‘Uyghur genocide’, indicates also that the President may be swimming against some powerful domestic tides of opinion.
Macron’s search for a more equidistant – and equal – major power status for France however has deep roots – a historic line extending back through François Mitterrand to Charles de Gaulle. Calling for a strong and independent France, de Gaulle not only withdrew from NATO’s military structures in 1966, but also, in 1964, extended full diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic, making France the first western power to do so, seven years before the UN vote to admit the PRC as the sole representative of China and the Nixon visit that followed in the subsequent year. And of course, in warning against French over-reliance on the “extraterritoriality of the US dollar”, Macron was also channeling de Gaulle, who originally coined the phrase about the dollar’s “exorbitant privilege”.
Now, 18 cooperation agreements signed by 36 Chinese and French companies, together with a series of planned strategic and high level dialogue meetings, give the new partnership agreement a certain momentum.
And 2023 is not 2018: Macron’s renewed commitment to strategic autonomy has arisen in changing objective conditions, with the world in geopolitical flux and US efforts to reverse its decline damaging its allies even as it attempts to exert hegemonic control.
France has had a rather rough ride recently: not just the loss of a $50bn deal with Australia for its diesel-powered submarines, but the deceit of its main allies, the US and UK in secretly negotiating AUKUS behind its back. More recently, Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, a case of putting America First at Europe’s expense, reducing the continent to merely a market for US goods, was seen by Macron as risking “fragmenting the West.” And now the IMF’s latest gloomy forecasts on world growth will no doubt help to reinforce European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s approach of ‘derisking’ as opposed to following Biden’s more costly ‘decoupling’ from China.
Macron has also experienced for himself the changing attitude in the Global South, his effort to reset France’s Africa Strategy being received with scepticism on the continent and seen as too little too late by many.
France now is to attend the third Belt and Road summit later this year: in this way, it may find a more acceptable ‘win-win’ re-frame for its new approach to Africa, involving China through the ‘third-party market cooperation’ referenced in the 51-point statement.
Biden has used the Ukraine crisis to hype up the danger of an aggressive move by China on Taiwan, an excuse to accelerate Pacific militarisation and increase provocations. Xi Jinping has looked to turn a threat into an opportunity, delivering the message to Europe that if it insists Ukraine is the determining factor for EU-China relations, it must understand that Taiwan is the determining factor for China’s relations with Europe.
Macron has evidently understood the message and his effort to adjust the French position on China has surely complicated Biden’s New Cold War agenda of dividing ‘democracies’ against ‘autocracies’.
How the China-France partnership will play out within the hegemonic-multipolar flux, how much room there is for manoeuvre in the G7 and in NATO, remains to be seen. At any rate, the notion of ‘strategic autonomy’ is sending out some ripples around the world: will it become the choice of others, sparking a new trend in the development of multipolarity? Surely Macron’s remarks will have encouraged the opposition to AUKUS in Australia, where former Labor Prime Minister, Paul Keating, has been railing against his country’s loss of sovereignty through subservience to the US.
Brazilian President Lula is another ‘strategic autonomy’ advocate – the just concluded Brazil-China summit bringing together two major powers of the Global South to project the voice of developing countries, calling for a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine crisis and more assistance for development and sustainability, more loudly on the world stage. His conviction that China and Brazil can change global governance is something the leaders of Europe should note as they feel the US pressure to adjust their position on Taiwan.
In the zigs and zags of major power diplomacy there is much for the international left to digest. There is some substance to the explanation which sees here the intensification of rivalries between imperialist powers, not just between the US and Europe but also within Europe, between Germany and France, as a result of capitalism’s decline.
How to assess the role of strategic partnerships – France and China, across the development divide – and their value as a counter to US hegemonism, stabilising the world order? Is Macron just speaking as a representative of French imperialism or is he indeed an advocate for peace, seeking in a way to stave off the madness of a nuclear Third World War? And to what extent is France conceding on developing countries’ right to develop? In forging agreements with France, an imperialist power if a secondary one, does China’s major power diplomacy point a strategic way forward for the anti-imperialist agenda? Is it in fact helping to set imperialist inequality and disempowerment into reverse, building a different type of major country relationship to replace an international order in decline with a more equal power-sharing arrangement featuring peaceful coexistence, overall stability and balanced development?
With international contradictions intensifying, circumstances may intervene against the realisation of the China-France partnership, at least in full, as indeed they did, to some extent, for the Sino-Russian partnership. But the articulation and detailing of such agreements sets goals and a direction which frame the follow-up agendas. They help to envisage a different kind of future: even if the path is twisted, multipolarity is the objective trend – and a work in progress.