US, Europe not on same page on China

It was only a few months ago, in December last year, that French President Emmanuel Macron was seen as the new leader of Europe in Washington, standing “shoulder to shoulder” with President Joe Biden, as a Washington Post headline put it. The newspaper added: “With Angela Merkel gone, and the UK running through prime ministers like Kleenex, Macron looks like the de facto leader of Europe.” That was before his latest trip to China.

The French president was accused of “betrayal” by Republican leaders and the media talked about the “outrage” that Macron faces from allies over his comments in an interview to two newspapers — one American, Politico, and the French Les Echos — during his flight home from China.

President Macron “shocked” Washington when he told the journalists, after meeting with President Xi Jinping of China, that Europe must reduce its dependency on the US and not become America’s followers. He said: “If the tensions between the two superpowers heat up … we won’t have the time nor the resources to finance our strategic autonomy and we will become vassals.”

But the comments that Washington considered “worrisome” were those related to Taiwan, with Macron suggesting that the security of Taiwan was not the problem of a Europe that must resist becoming America’s “vassals.” He said: “The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction.” Macron added: “Europeans cannot resolve the crisis in Ukraine; how can we credibly say on Taiwan, ‘watch out, if you do something wrong, we will be there?’ If you really want to increase tensions, that’s the way to do it.”

The comparison with the Ukraine conflict irked the Americans and Europeans the most and some saw them as lowering deterrence against China, although he was realistic in his assessment of the situation, according to European experts.

The US political reaction to Macron’s comments seemed to straddle party lines, with the Republicans leading the charge against him and the Democrats trying to play them down.

The first reaction came from Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who asked in a tweet if the French president speaks for Europe, noting that the US “is spending a lot of taxpayer money on a European war.” He warned: “If Macron speaks for all of Europe, and their position now is they’re not going to pick sides between the US and China over Taiwan … maybe we should basically say we’re going to focus on Taiwan and the threats that China poses, and you guys handle Ukraine and Europe.”

Some lawmakers even called on the US to “reassess its posture toward France,” as Rep. Chris Smith described Macron’s statement as a “seeming betrayal of democratic Taiwan.” Other Republican lawmakers saw Macron’s statements as “geopolitically naive,” as Rep. Mike Gallagher, chair of the House Select Committee on China, said on Fox News.

The White House, in contrast, expressed confidence in the relationship with France and hailed “a terrific bilateral cooperation.” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said: “We’re focused on making sure that together we’re meeting the national security requirements of both countries.”

The US political reaction to Macron’s comments seemed to straddle party lines, with the Republicans leading the charge against him. 

Dr. Amal Mudallali

The statements of the French president came at a time of high tension between the US and China, made worse when House Speaker Kevin McCarthy this month met Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen in California, angering Beijing. The meeting coincided with Macron’s visit, while China launched military exercises around Taiwan soon after the French president left. This raised questions about the wisdom of the timing and location of his statements. Had he waited until he had got back to Paris, their impact may have been less concerning for Washington.

The French presidency “clarified” Macron’s statements by saying he “has often said that France is not in a position of equidistance between the United States and China. The United States are our allies, we share common values.” The statement added that China is “a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival.” It stressed that the position on Taiwan was “constant,” adding: “We support the status quo and maintain exchanges and cooperation with Taiwan, which is a recognized democratic system.”

It is also important to note that the French president’s talk of European “strategic autonomy” is not new. He has been saying it since he came to power.

President Macron is also blunt. In 2019, he spoke about the “brain death” of NATO and accused the US of “turning its back on us,” which was received with similar shock.

In 2021, the French president was upset with Washington and Australia and he implied that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had lied to him, according to media reports, when Canberra canceled a deal to buy conventional submarines from France and opted for an American-British deal — dubbed AUKUS — to provide nuclear-powered ones.

But this month, despite Macron’s rhetoric, his actions revealed a different approach. Experts point to French naval activity in the Taiwan Strait as proof that France still supports US policy in the area.

Many in Europe distanced themselves from Macron’s statements and described him as being out of step with the feeling across the continent. But it seems this is not the whole picture. The New York Times wrote that “sharp divisions persist on the continent, particularly between the frontline states bordering Russia, that are fiercely attached to NATO, and Mr. Macron’s Gaullist vision of a France that is ‘allied but not aligned’ with Washington.”

Moreover, The Washington Post reported that Joseph de Weck, the author of a book on Macron, believes that some European countries share Macron’s belief that Taiwan, unlike Ukraine, is a distant problem, but generally avoid saying so publicly.

European sources agree that Europe is not monolithic in the way it views the China issue and the prolonged war in its backyard. They point out that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who accompanied Macron to China, was tough in her statement and addressed the issues of dependencies that raise the risk to Europe.

But when addressing the calls by some to decouple from China, she expressed doubts that this is a viable or desirable strategy. She instead called for engaging in “de-risking” through diplomacy and dialogue.

On Ukraine, although the majority of Europeans still support Kyiv, some are frustrated with the lack of a path to end the war.

Washington has the right to be upset, considering its huge investment in the defense of Europe, in Ukraine and beyond. But maybe it is time for the transatlantic allies to start talking seriously and frankly and to better coordinate their respective approaches on all the issues that Macron raised. Criticizing the French president alone might not be the answer.

  • Dr. Amal Mudallali 

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