In April, French President Emmanuel Macron emerged from three days of meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing sounding as comfortable talking to Beijing as he does talking to Washington.
The US is pressuring Europe to decouple from China by reconsidering their relationship and breaking their significant economic ties. But when Macron traveled to China, his travel companions were a crowd of French business executives. And they weren’t there to discuss breaking economic ties with China. Instead, Macron declared that "any decoupling, or "de-linking," is not good for Europe, given the vast economic interests at stake." He rejected the US insistence that "differences over political systems that make Europe and China ‘rivals’ should . . . lead to the ‘decoupling’ and ‘escalating tensions’." Far from breaking economic ties and ending the relationship, France’s aim is to "reinforce those ties" and "re-launch a strategic and global partnership with China."
This independent stance, which Macron has frequently referred to as "strategic autonomy," was to be just the first of several comments that sounded more like Beijing than like Washington. Macron was independent, but he was not alone. Charles Michel, the head of the European Council, after saying that "There has been a leap forward on strategic autonomy compared to several years ago,” revealed that “On the issue of the relationship with the United States, it’s clear that there can be nuances and sensitivities around the table of the European Council. Some European leaders wouldn’t say things the same way that Emmanuel Macron did … I think quite a few really think like Emmanuel Macron.”
One of those European leaders may be Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. Weeks before Macron went to China, Sanchez blazed the trail. Seeking a more balanced trade relationship with China, Sanchez announced agreements to increase Spanish exports to China and Chinese tourism to Spain. Sanchez "also wants access to China’s rare earth minerals." He expressed a willingness to "deepen bilateral mutually beneficial cooperation, especially cooperation in areas including electric vehicles, green energy and digital economy . . . and jointly promote further development of Spain-China relations." Like France, Spain seems to be holding out against US demands to decouple from China.
The US seeks to sideline China not only on trade but on diplomatic negotiations over the war in Ukraine. The US has been less than welcoming of China’s offer to help negotiate a settlement to the war and has been hesitant to encourage the emergence of China as a diplomatic power.
Macron has again exercised strategic autonomy. He has supported China playing a "major role" in negotiating an end to the war and “made clear that he would urge the Chinese president, XI Jinping, to get deeply involved in this effort.” According to a French diplomatic official, Macron “has worked enormously to see how, with China, we can be useful to the benefit of Ukrainians.” Macron has argued that China is “the sole country in the world capable of changing Moscow’s calculus” on the war, according to the official. At their meeting, Macron appealed to XI to use his influence with Russia to bring about “a durable peace” and told him “I know I can count on you . . . to bring Russia to its senses and bring everyone back to the negotiating table.”
Sanchez has supported Ukraine’s peace proposals. But he has also said that the world should not ignore China’s peace proposal. "China is a global actor," he said at the end of March, "so obviously we must listen to its voice to see if between all of us, we can put an end to this war and Ukraine can recover its territorial integrity."
Perhaps Macron’s boldest expression of strategic autonomy is his support for a more multipolar world over a US led unipolar world. Upon departure from Beijing, Macron said that “Europe must reduce its dependency on the United States.” He warned that Europe must not become “just America’s followers.” More foundationally, Macron said that Europe must achieve “strategic autonomy” and become a “third superpower.” It was with reference to this geopolitical reshaping of the world order that the European Council’s Charles Michel said that "quite a few [European leaders] really think like Emmanuel Macron." Sanchez may be amongst them.
One expression of multipolarity is the failure of the US to guarantee its place at the head of the negotiating table when it comes to the war in Ukraine. In a unipolar world, the US would determine the position to be negotiated with Russia and enforce it on its subordinates. But, as CIA Director William Burns recently said, “the United States . . . is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical bloc. And our position at the head of the table isn’t guaranteed." China has offered to sit at the head of the table. So has the multipolar promoting international organization BRICS. Africa has asserted itself as an independent pole to be listened to with the recent announcement that Putin and Zelensky had agreed to separately receive a delegation of African heads of state in their capitals to discuss a possible peace plan to end the war. Brazil has offered to organize a negotiations table. Turkey has made serious attempts, as has Israel. Even Denmark, a US ally and member of NATO, has expressed a desire to host peace talks. Recognizing the new multipolarity, Danish Foreign Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said that success would require "engagement from "countries like India, Brazil and China."
Like France, Spain, too, recognizes and welcomes that multipolarity. Spain is set to assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. A "central policy" of that mandate is strategic autonomy. During a May visit to Washington, Sanchez "outline[d] to Biden the concept of ‘open strategic autonomy’.” But Sanchez acknowledged more than just the third European pole. Sanchez, who had just met with XI Jinping and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, implored US President Joe Biden "to listen to the opinions of non-NATO members such as China and Brazil on the war in Ukraine," recognizing that there are "divergent views." That is a recognition that the US bloc "is no longer the only big kid on the geopolitical bloc."
France is "an ally of the Americans." They "are not equidistant between China and the United States," as one French diplomatic official explained it. But they "don’t have the same positions on China, because we don’t have the same interests.” On a number of key issues, from decoupling from China, to China’s role as a broker in negotiations on the war in Ukraine, to multipolarity, France seems to align more closely with Beijing than with Washington. And on each of those key issues, Spain seems to sound a lot like France.
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.