France Seeks to Calm Diplomatic Storm Over Macron’s China-Taiwan Comments
By Henry Ridgwell
22 April 2023
France is trying to limit the diplomatic fallout after President Emmanuel Macron said Europe should reduce its dependence on the U.S. and avoid “getting caught up in crises that are not ours,” following a state visit to China earlier this month.
Critics said Macron’s remarks undermined the transatlantic relationship at a time of dangerous geopolitical tensions.
Macron was in Beijing April 5-8, alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, partly to seek China’s help in ending Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They were accompanied by dozens of European business leaders, who signed a series of commercial deals during the visit.
So far, China has refused to condemn Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. President Xi Jinping again refrained from criticizing Moscow during Macron’s visit. Nevertheless, Macron later wrote on Twitter: “Long live the friendship between China and France!’”
In an official statement, China described the visit as “successful and rewarding with fruitful outcomes.”
Beijing has since vowed not to send any weapons to Russia. “China will not provide weapons to relevant parties of the conflict and will manage and control the exports of dual-use items in accordance with laws and regulations,” Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang said at an April 14 news conference, alongside his visiting German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock.
Just two days after Macron and von der Leyen’s visit to Beijing, the Chinese military conducted live fire exercises encircling Taiwan, which Beijing claims as part of its territory.
On the flight home to Paris, Macron gave interviews to journalists from Les Echos and Politico, in which he reportedly said the great risk Europe faces is that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy.”
“The question Europeans need to answer … is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction,” Macron was reported as telling Politico.
Macron was questioned about his remarks during a visit to The Hague on April 12.
“France is for the status quo in Taiwan. France supports the ‘One China’ policy and the search for a peaceful settlement of the situation. This is, moreover, the position of the Europeans, and it is a position which has always been compatible with the role of ally,” Macron told reporters.
“But it is precisely here that I insist on the importance of strategic autonomy. Being allies does not mean being a vassal. It is not the case that because we are allies, because we do the things together that we decide to do, that we no longer have the right to think alone.” he added.
There has been a strong backlash on both sides of the Atlantic.
Marcin Przydacz, a foreign policy adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda, said Warsaw was not in favor of any shift away from Washington. “We believe that more America is needed in Europe. … Today, the United States is more of a guarantee of safety in Europe than France,” Przydacz told Polish broadcaster Radio Zet.
In Washington, Republicans on Capitol Hill also strongly criticized Macron’s remarks. In a video posted on Twitter, Senator Marco Rubio said if Europe refuses to “pick sides between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, then maybe we shouldn’t be picking sides either [on Ukraine].”
Macron’s timing was unwise, said Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to the United States and the United Nations and now an analyst with the Atlantic Council.
“We are just right now fighting — all of us, together, behind the Americans — we are fighting the Russian aggression in Ukraine. And I do understand that for a lot of our partners, it was not the right moment, frankly, to raise the issue of our transatlantic alliance,” Araud told VOA in an interview Tuesday.
Others fear the fallout could be more damaging, as Macron’s comments undermine the transatlantic alliance just as the West tries to counter Russian aggression and stand up to an increasingly assertive China.
“The way Macron framed it made it sound as if it is a project of equidistance — of having sort of the same distance to the United States and to China,” said Liana Fix, a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “And it also created the impression that it is the United States which is pushing confrontation, and not China. The feedback from China was very positive, because it confirmed Chinese thinking that it’s possible to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe.”
“From the perspective of central and eastern Europeans, these remarks basically confirmed their most fundamental fears: that Macron’s pledge for European strategic autonomy or more independence is just a pledge for more French power in Europe. It’s a pledge to decouple from the United States,” Fix told VOA on Monday.
In the wake of a growing diplomatic storm, a delegation from the French parliament visited Taiwan last week to reassure them of French support.
“This is very important for us to be here and just saying to all the people from Taiwan, we stand to you, we are close to you,” the head of the delegation, Eric Bothorel, told reporters in Taiwan.
Analyst Renaud Foucart of Britain’s Lancaster University argued that Macron was simply trying to avert wider confrontation.
“China is asking for a multilateral world. And Macron is coming and saying, ‘OK, if you don’t arm Russia, we can be France and claim that we are not a vassal to the U.S., we can claim that we are all different blocs, that we have our own sensitivities to the ‘One China’ policy of Taiwan, and all those things.
“But if you start yourself, China, to create a bloc with Russia — to start to arm Russia— then we cannot be the multilateral world. We need to be together with the U.S. And this is going to be our natural allies in that in that framework.’”
It is disingenuous to suggest that Macron supports China over Taiwan, Foucart asserted.
“At the same time that Macron was making these comments about China and Taiwan … there were military boats of France cruising the Taiwan Strait at the same time as the Chinese were having their [military] training,” he said. “So, the French have their own interest in the Indo-Pacific.”
The United States is set to hold presidential elections in 2024. That could usher in a new administration less keen than Joe Biden to spend money arming Ukraine or defending Europe, said Araud, the former French ambassador to the U.S.
“For the moment, as long as the U.S. administration is strongly supporting the defense of Europe, there will be no question about strategic autonomy on European defense,” said Araud. “If [Donald] Trump is elected president, I think that the debate would be reopened by force. The Europeans who want to sleep under the American flag will be obliged to wake up.”