The British government last month announced a ban on the Chinese telecoms company Huawei supplying new 5G equipment, stirring the wrath of Beijing and threats of retaliation. Ten days earlier, France made a similar move with barely a squeak of Chinese protest. France’s policy was floated by the head of its cyber security agency in a newspaper interview. It was not presented as a ban, but the effect is the same. French telecoms networks will be free of all Huawei gear by 2028 at the latest, one year after Britain.
The 5G decision is typical of the low profile that France, under President Emmanuel Macron, has adopted on China. The response of Paris to human rights abuses against Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang, a sweeping new security law in Hong Kong and, bar a spiky comment in a Financial Times interview in April, China’s opaque handling of Covid-19, has been muted. That is odd, because on foreign policy issues, Mr Macron does not usually do low profile.
He enjoys his status as the EU’s pre-eminent strategic thinker. For a time, he saw himself as the EU leader best placed to deal with US President Donald Trump. He likes to expound on France’s role as a “balancing power”. Sometimes he sounds more like a provocative policy wonk than a head of state, such as when he declared Nato “brain-dead”. His annual foreign policy addresses to French ambassadors at the Elysée Palace are rich in reflection and policy detail. Last year’s, in which he argued for a new security relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, irritated Berlin and infuriated Warsaw.
Mr Macron’s cautious approach to China is compatible with that of Angela Merkel, Europe’s other power broker. The German chancellor is a fervent believer in patient engagement with Beijing. For her, commercial interests remain paramount, even if the German business world is frustrated by a lack of reciprocal market access and resentful at forced technology transfer. Germany alone accounted for 42 per cent of EU exports to China in 2019. No other EU member accounts for even 10 per cent.
France has big export interests, including luxury goods and aircraft. But Mr Macron’s appreciation of Chinese power goes far beyond the size of its market and he sees it as less than benign. His case for outreach to Moscow is premised on the dangers to Europe of a Russian alliance with China. He told the writer William Drozdiak that China’s President Xi Jinping was “rebuilding an empire” and was prepared to be aggressive in pushing the limits of international law.
Mr Macron regards France as an Indopacific power — it has 8,000 troops and 1m citizens in territories in the region. Its navy has run freedom-of-navigation missions in the South China Sea and Paris has sought closer military ties with other Asian democracies, such as Australia, Japan and India.
But the French leader does not want France or Europe to be hitched to Mr Trump’s campaign to decouple the US from China. True to Gaullist tradition, he is a proponent of “strategic autonomy” for Europe. A new administration in Washington might be willing to work more closely with Europe to counter Chinese unfair trade practices and its push for technological supremacy.
As the China analyst François Godement argues in a recent paper for the Institut Montaigne, Europe’s relations with China are a constant test of strength. But the EU has a lot less leverage than the US because it is unwilling or unable to wield its economic weight to extract concessions from Beijing. Its 27 members have different interests at stake. Germany fears a Chinese consumer backlash; some southern and eastern states still see China as a source of valuable investment.
Mr Macron says China has a “real diplomatic genius” for dividing and weakening Europe. He has made an effort to build a common front, inviting Ms Merkel and EU officials to his meetings with Mr Xi. All EU leaders signed up to a new hardened strategy last year denoting China as a “systemic rival” as well as an economic competitor and partner in international co-operation. The EU is building defensive tools, such as the screening of Chinese investment and curbs on Chinese-subsidised companies operating in the EU, with strong support from Mr Macron.
But, like the German chancellor, he still seems wedded to fading hopes that China will move beyond vague statements of support for international co-operation and agree to binding commitments to open up its economy. Ms Merkel has set the terms of Europe’s engagement with Beijing for the past decade, but she will be gone in a little over a year. It will be up to Mr Macron to define a sharper European strategy.
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