After three days and many hours of talks, French President Emmanuel Macron emerged from Beijing and made a number of statements that, presumably to the alarm of the US, seemed to align several key foreign policy positions more closely with Beijing than with Washington.
Macron arrived in China with a call to Chinese President Xi Jinping "to bring Russia to its senses and bring everyone back to the negotiating table.”
Macron was able to announce in a joint statement with China that XI agreed that "all efforts" should be made "to restore peace in Ukraine on the basis of international law and the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations," that "armed attacks on nuclear power plants and other peaceful nuclear facilities" should be opposed, and that "the importance of all parties to the conflict scrupulously observing international humanitarian law" should be stressed as well as increasing humanitarian aid.
But those statements are easy: nearly any sane party would agree to them. The most defining statement XI made on ending the war on Ukraine was not included in the joint statement. XIsaid that "Peace talks should resume as soon as possible" but added that the "legitimate security concerns of all parties" should be considered. That statement is an echo of Russia’s decades old mantra both that NATO must keep its promise to cease its eastward expansion to Russia’s borders and that there is a need for a European security structure that takes seriously the legitimate security concerns of all countries, including Russia. The US has rejected both demands, insisting that NATO’s doors are open and all countries have the right to choose their alliances and rejecting, right up to the eve of the war, Russia’s calls to negotiate security guarantees.
But though XI’s formulation harmonizes more with Russia than with the US, it resonates with Macron’s position and is a policy he could agreed to. France seems closer to China on what needs to be negotiated to bring a lasting peace to Ukraine than with the US. Macron has said that “We need to prepare what we are ready to do, how we protect our allies and member states, and how to give guarantees to Russia the day it returns to the negotiating table. One of the essential points we must address – as President Putin has always said – is the fear that NATO comes right up to its doors, and the deployment of weapons that could threaten Russia.”
And that was not the only point of convergence on which France seems to align more closely with China than with the US. The US has pressured the EU to re-examine and harden its trade policies with China. But Macron did not travel to China just to talk about Ukraine and Russia. He traveledin the company of about fifty French business executives, including the chief executives of Airbus – who just sold 160 aircraft to a Chinese company – and the French electricity company EDF.
On his first day in China, Macron declared that “differences over political systems that make Europe and China ‘rivals’ should not lead to the ‘decoupling’ and ‘escalating tensions’ that some regard as inevitable.” Macron has been “critical of the Biden administration’s tough line on China,” according to The New York Times, “and believes any decoupling, or “de-linking,” is not good for Europe, given the vast economic interests at stake.” The French objective, a diplomatic source told The Times, “is not to break ties with China. On the contrary, our objective is to reinforce those ties on better foundations.” Macron has gone so far as to say that his aim in meeting with XI is to “re-launch a strategic and global partnership with China.”
The joint statement issued by China and France was full of the language of economic and strategic partnership. It speaks of the reaffirmation of the "commitment to the development of EU-China relations," of "promot[ing] economic cooperation" and of "working to provide a good environment for business cooperation." Most importantly, the joint statement says that "France and China reaffirm their desire to pursue the continuous development of their close and solid global strategic partnership."
But the potential alignment of key elements of France’s and China’s foreign policy goals may reach even more foundational levels. They may go beyond particular issues of Russia’s war in Ukraine and economic ties. France may, in some key aspects, be more closely aligned with China than with the US on how they view a future world order.
In an interview on Macron’s plane while returning from China, the French president said that "Europe must reduce its dependency on the United States." He warned that Europe must not become "just America’s followers." Specifically, Macron insisted that it is not in Europe’s "interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan." More foundationally, and more seriously, Macron said that Europe must achieve "strategic autonomy" and become a "third superpower."
This ambition for Europe to sever from the US and cease being a follower of the US either in a unipolar world or in a new Cold War with the US at one pole and China and Russia at the other and become a third pole is a radical rebellion against US foreign policy which seeks to preserve its hegemony and its view of a unipolar world. In that view, France and Europe are key junior partners and allies.
But though Macron’s view is a radical break from US plans for the world, it aligns closely with Chinese plans for the world. China and Russia have long advocated a multipolar world with many poles in which all countries have an equal voice. After meeting Macron, Xi said that Europe is an "independent pole in a multipolar world." Perhaps most significantly, and of greatest concern to the US, is that the China-France joint declaration uses the language of Russia and China in saying that France and China "seek to strengthen the multilateral international system under the aegis of the United Nations, in a multipolar world."
France openly called for the Chinese-Russian advocated multipolar world. They even joined the call of several regions of the world to move away from the monopoly of the US dollar: a move that would weaken US leverage and influence. In his onboard interview, Macron may have stunned the US with his call for Europe to reduce its dependency on the "extraterritoriality of the U.S. dollar." That statement, again, aligns with policy goals of China and Russia.
The US hoped that it could count on the visit to Beijing of its French ally to drive a wedge between China and Russia and draw China closer to the US. Instead, three days of talks between Macron and XI seem to have driven a wedge between France and the US and drawn France closer to China. France articulated policies that align more closely with China than with the US on negotiating security guarantees for Russia and on economic ties with China. But France is advocating more than just defying the US by increasing trade with China and avoiding confrontation with China. More importantly, France is advocating for France and Europe to outgrow their role as a follower of the US in a unipolar world and metamorphosize into a third superpower in a multipolar world. Macron is advocating a world order that more closely resembles China’s vision of a multipolar world than it does the US vision of a continuation of a unipolar world under its hegemony.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.