Macron In China: The Spectre Of European Strategic Autonomy

Macron In China: The Spectre Of European Strategic Autonomy
Since October 2022, the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China has been almost central to the imagination of Western media. This is either because of – as claimed by Western narratives – the increased diplomatic activity of China since then, or – which seems more logical to me – the reopening of the Chinese economy, announced shortly after the CPC Congress, after almost three years of the pandemic lockdowns.

We can ask ourselves why the West is so afraid of the opening up of China when, at the same time, it wanted this to happen so much. Basically, from 2021, the West began to blame China for "cutting off the supply chain," which is supposed to cause a global economic crisis. So they clearly demanded that China abandon the lockdown policy. At the same time, the topic of an economic "decoupling" began to gain currency. But this inconsistency is not surprising, as it is all part of a new US-led Cold War against China.

Despite this, world leaders began to visit China in droves: Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, Philippine President Marcos, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim or Singaporean PM Lee Hsien Loong are one among many others. Xi Jinping himself visited Indonesia and Thailand in November 2022, Saudi Arabia in December and Russia in March 2023.

In October 2022, Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz paid an official visit to China. However, he did not go there alone, because together with about 30 German business leaders – including the CEOs of Volkswagen (VLKAF), Deutsche Bank (DB), Siemens (SIEGY) and chemicals giant BASF (BASFY). This visit, despite the ongoing Cold War (which for me is a fact, not just perspective), anti-Chinese rhetoric promoted by the head of German diplomacy Annalena Baerbock, is an example of Realpolitik. It is clear that the rhetoric of Western leaders is one thing, and the interests of their business are another. This visit has become so important since Germany is the main loser of the Ukrainian crisis, it is German industry that suffers the most from the European Union's disconnection from cheap Russian energy resources. Not surprisingly, Scholz was the first Western leader to visit China since the outbreak of the pandemic in December 2019, because China has been Germany's largest trading partner for seven years. In 2022, trade between China and Germany was worth $320 billion. In the second half of April, the German foreign minister is also due to visit Beijing.

During the G20 summit in Indonesia, Xi also met with Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni. In February, Wang Yi (Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission and former Chinese Foreign Minister) went to Rome to meet the Italian Deputy Prime Minister and President. Although there are no official announcements, it can be concluded that the talks focused on extending cooperation between Italy and China under the Belt and Road Initiative (the agreement signed in 2019 may expire if the Italian government terminates it by the end of 2023, and if it does nothing it will be automatically extended). In the election campaign, Georgia Meloni called the deal a "mistake," so it looked like she was going to take a very anti-China stance. But since taking office, her stance on China has softened considerably. As they say: "where you stand depends on where you sit."

At the end of March 2023, Spain's Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez visited China – thus becoming the first foreign leader to hold an official meeting with the new Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang. Four important agreements were signed: on education, two on exports of agricultural products, and cooperation in sport. Tourism was also the topic of discussion, and the Spanish Prime Minister announced that a Sino-Spanish Tourism Forum would be held in June. Pedro Sanchez also did not hide the purpose of his visit: he directly urged China to invest in his country and described Spain as "one of the best places to invest and do business."

Between 5 and 8 April 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron paid an official visit to China. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen also flew to Beijing with him. Despite the de facto "combined" visit, it was basically two separate visits. Von der Leyen primarily focused on what she emphasised in her speech at the end of March, i.e. inequalities in economic relations between the EU and China. Macron, on the other hand, visited China in a similar capacity to Scholz's visit – also surrounded by 50 French business representatives, including the CEOs of Airbus (AIR.PA), Alstom (ALSO.PA), and EDF (EDF.PA). The visit resulted in the signing of several important economic agreements:

- Airbus has announced the installation of a second final assembly line for its A320 and A321 single-aisle aircraft in China, expected to double production; the company will also sell 50 H160 helicopters to China, the largest single order for these helicopters since the model's inception;

- the French company ERF and the Chinese company CGN extended the global partnership agreement; it covers the design, construction, and operation of nuclear power plants;

- French EDF signed cooperation agreements with energy companies CHN Energy and SPIC in the field of an offshore wind energy project;

- Engineering company Gaztransport and Technigaz has established cooperation with PipeChina in the field of membrane technology for liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanks for the production of storage tanks;

- L'Oreal sealed a three-year partnership with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba on the "sustainable consumption" of cosmetics;

France also secured 15 pork export permits to China, and seawater desalination projects were signed. Discussions on visa facilitation between China and France in terms of educational exchange have also been launched. The Palace of Versailles and the Forbidden City have agreed to an exhibition in China next year. „Originally scheduled for 2020, it will finally take place in the year of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and China. 150 objects from the Versailles collection will be presented to the Chinese public in this way to evoke the exchange between the two countries”.

So, apart from these cultural and educational exchanges, this visit is above all a huge amount of money – for example China promised to buy 292 new Airbus aircraft, worth nearly $40 billion before discounts.

In this way, in the last six months, Xi Jinping met with the leaders of the four largest economies of the European Union: Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. It is worth mentioning that he did not meet the Prime Minister of Great Britain, which is the second largest European economy, but Britain is no longer in the EU. Trade between the EU countries and China amounts to $732 billion a year – these are unimaginable sums that no European country will give up overnight because "Uncle Sam" does not like the economic power of China. In fact, it's hard to find in the media coverage about the trade deals that European business leaders and representatives signed with the Chinese, the main discourse is focusing on Ukraine and other ”values” issues.

However, Macron's words in an interview with Politico on board the presidential plane echoed around the world. Among other things, the French president said that "Europe cannot just follow America" (in the context of fueling the crisis over Taiwan), he also argued that Europe has increased its dependence on the US for weapons and energy and must now focus on boosting the European defense industry and that Europe should reduce its dependence on the US dollar. Such commentary on currency sounds quite hypocritical indeed from the mouth of a French politician, because Paris controls the currency of several West African countries; but it should be remembered that the French president speaks on behalf of defending his own interests, not the interests of global justice.

In any case, it is hard for me to disagree with any part of what Macron said in this interview. His idea of a "strategic autonomy" of Europe (of course understood as Europe with France at the centre, rather than the EU as a confederation of equal entities – for the latter vision can be put in books with fairy tales for small children) certainly fits into the new, multipolar world order.

The last few days were a real show of multipolarity – on the same day in Beijing, the president of China, France and the head of the European Commission spoke, and also the first direct conversation since 2016 between the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia took place, mediated by China's foreign minister Qin Gang.

Given the huge value of trade between the EU and China, it is hard to expect "decoupling." Even in her relatively hawkish speech, von der Leyen ruled out such an option – she only called for a reduction in the trade balance and limiting exchanges in the field of critical technologies.

To be honest, headlines like this one from Asia Times: "Macron has no interest in 'decoupling' from China – French leader puts business before politics during trip to Beijing" put a smile on one’s face. The same article quotes some comments from the Western press about Macron's visit:

- The New York Times ran a headline saying “French Diplomacy Undercuts US Efforts to Rein China In”;

- The Telegraph wrote “Macron has humiliated himself – and the EU. So much for Western unity”;

- Foreign Policy called Macron’s trip “a Fool’s Errand”

This makes me laugh in the sense that once again old Karl Marx is right to criticise the capitalist "political economy" which claims to be "objective and scientific," while US propaganda (imperialist here in the sense of being unabashedly pro-American) is based on some abstract strategic axis-building arguments.

Noah Barkin (from Rhodium Group, an American anti-China think-thank) said : "It's not the time to announce business deals or big new investments […] It would essentially be a vote of confidence in the Chinese economy and send the message that France is not on board with the U.S. approach."

Western commentators naively (or maybe cynically) ignore the economic dimension of these visits and basically reduce them to the topic of Ukraine, and China's unwavering stance (which can be summarised as "this is not our war") as a "failure" of EU leaders. Yes, both Scholz, Sanchez, and Macron mentioned the topic of Ukraine because they build a narrative around this topic in their countries since last year. So by abandoning this issue, they would lose face in front of their voters. However, I do not believe that the topic of Ukraine was a motivation for the visit of any of these politicians (including the pro-American von der Leyen).

The United States expects that when the world is in a global recession, and after the sanctions against Russia and the blowing up of the Nord Stream pipelines (for which some fingers of accusation are beginning to point towards the US), the "Old Continent" will faithfully and blindly follow "Uncle" Sam. Moreover, the US seems to expect that Europe will consistently ignore its own economic interests, including energy security. Let us recall that the power of the European – and mainly German – industry in the 21st century was built on energy security. Already, over the past year, Europe has sacrificed a lot to defend the strategic interests of the US.

The US became the main supplier of gas to Europe (and its price is much higher than the price of gas previously purchased in Russia) – of course, the consequence of this is the collapse of many European smaller companies that simply could not afford to cover the energy costs. Another point, which is also generally not mentioned in the European media space, is that for several months the European Union has been facing another major economic challenge from the US. The US Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) providing huge tax breaks is another nail in the coffin of European business. As Reuters writes: ”Europe-based companies are put at a disadvantage to U.S. rivals and, say EU politicians, may choose to relocate or at least prioritize investment in the United States, making it a leader in clean tech production at Europe's expense. Companies looking to set up factories may put U.S. expansion first.”

Of course, I am not saying that some European countries do not support Washington's policy on China. In the face of the Ukrainian crisis, the countries of Eastern Europe allowed themselves to be completely vassalised by the United States, which is why they are adopting an increasingly harsh course towards China – the Baltic states and the Czech Republic are the best examples. But let's be honest: these are semi-peripheral countries, and their economic importance is small, therefore their position will not affect the policy of the great capitalist economies of Western Europe (which are also one of the largest and most important economies in the world).

Finally, it is worth mentioning Samir Amin's words about collective imperialism – there is no such thing as an "international bourgeoisie." The national bourgeoisie is still the basis of capitalism – there is just a strong imperialist alliance (Europe + Japan with the US at the helm). But the multipolarity is beginning to show cracks within this alliance (which has existed since the end of World War II) as the interests of the local bourgeoisie of imperialist countries begin to clash. In the face of this analysis, it is best seen in the example of aircraft – it's not just that the French company Airbus is not to invest in China, the problem for the US is that their company Boeing is being displaced by a French competitor from the Chinese market. And the United States does not want to come to terms with it.

A country that has defended the "free market" for decades cannot accept that it is losing out in free market competition – a real irony.

The author is a student of law in Poland