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EU-China: we have to talk about (not Macron but) strategy

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Most people don’t like to hear inconvenient truths, especially not, it seems, from the President of France. Yet when Macron says that the European Union should become the third pole, at the same level as the US and China, he is absolutely right.


EU-China: we have to talk about (not Macron but) strategy

Most people don’t like to hear inconvenient truths, especially not, it seems, from the President of France. Yet when Macron says that the European Union should become the third pole, at the same level as the US and China, he is absolutely right. Becoming that pole will require a lot of hard work, though – that is the inconvenient part.

Multipolarity: a fact of life

Many people react as if the statement that the world is multipolar implies condoning an evil Chinese plan to make it so, and is therefore anti-American. In his classic work on The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers though, Paul Kennedy traces the current multipolarity back to the 1970s, decades before China re-emerged as a great power. The reality is that multipolarity, i.e., the existence of several great powers that compete and cooperate in ever-changing constellations, cannot be purposely created or averted. It is just the normal state of international politics, resulting from the interaction between states that seek to increase their power so that they can pursue their interests more effectively.

The world is multipolar: that is just a factual statement. The question is: which role should the EU play in such a world? Should it be a pole, i.e., a great power, at the level of the US and China? Or is its role only a supporting one, as the most faithful ally of another pole, the US? This existential question is the core of every Grand Strategy. The tragedy is that EU Member States remain fundamentally divided about the answer, and so the Union cannot settle on a consistent Grand Strategy. In that sense, Macron is wrong, alas, when he claims the “ideological battle has been won”. But contrary to the perception created by their recent not-so-joint visit to China, Macron and Commission President von der Leyen are fundamentally on the same side of this divide.

Macron and VDL on the same page

In her major speech on China, von der Leyen calls for a strategy of de-risking, not de-coupling. The first step, she states, is to make the EU economy more competitive and resilient: remaining a front-runner in key sectors while reducing and diversifying dependencies. She also rightly calls for the more assertive use of existing and new instruments to control trade and investment, both inward and outward, to react to Chinese coercion in all forms. The term is absent from the speech, but what is that if not strategic autonomy, and the will to defend it? Macron, moreover, does use the term de-risking.

This strategic autonomy is the precondition to engage China: one cannot confront, but also not cooperate with such a power from a position of weakness. While the EU is reinforcing its strategic autonomy, it definitely has no interest in an acceleration towards a “duopoly”, as Macron calls it, i.e., a world driven by Sino-American rivalry. Therefore, the EU must engage China at the same time as asserting its own autonomy. In von der Leyen’s words: “we need to think about how we can work together productively in the global system in the future, and on which challenges”.

This also means that Macron is right about Taiwan: it is very important to the EU, precisely because of the need to avoid it becoming a flashpoint between China and the US. The EU should never play along in uselessly ratcheting up tensions. Not when American admirals that want more money and ships for their fleets create a crisis atmosphere. And also not, of course, when China overreacts to symbolic gestures with intrusive and therefore highly risky military manoeuvres. European leaders themselves should avoid futile political tourism to Taipei and think of tangible ways to deepen economic cooperation instead, while stating clearly that if ever China were to use force to change the status quo, the economic relationship would never be the same again.

Both von der Leyen and Macron are thus charting a distinctive EU course in international politics, one that sees the EU confidently strengthening and defending its own position as a pole while exploiting the opportunities for constructive relations with all other poles.

But not entirely

It was a great pity, therefore, that their visit to Beijing was not a truly joint one. Separate programmes offered China the opportunity on a golden plate to put Macron on a pedestal and belittle von der Leyen. That grave tactical error created the perception (which some in the EU and the US then purposely enhanced) that they are strategically divided. In terms of timing, it was not very clever tactics either for Macron to literally give such a significant interview on the fly, in the aircraft from Beijing to Guangzhou, or for von der Leyen to decry that “the Chinese Communist Party’s clear goal is a systemic change of the international order with China at its centre” just before going to Beijing.

The latter quote shows that even though Macron and von der Leyen are pushing for the same substantial policies, their framing is very different. Macron warns against blindly following the US. When she criticises China even for how it “positions itself as a power and peace broker, for instance through the recent Saudi Arabia and Iran agreement”, von der Leyen, on the contrary, goes very far along with the American perception. For Washington, China is a revisionist power that aims to undo the current world order. In this framing, every political or economic success for China must be a defeat for the West.

In reality, China is acquiring more power within the current world order, in which it is a major stakeholder, so that it can co-shape the rules. Other states, such as Saudi Arabia, increasingly do what states always do in a multipolar system: they are hedging, keeping their options open by working with all great powers. This shift in the balance of power and in the allegiance of states is a challenge for the EU and the US, but it does not ipso facto amount to the undermining of the current order. As long as the key powers can agree on a core set of rules that they all (more or less) abide by, a modus vivendi is possible. Hence von der Leyen’s call, in the same speech, for cooperation with China.

The framing is important, for it conditions how far the EU should go in the strategy of de-risking. This is a continuum: take de-risking too far and it becomes de-coupling. Moreover, as Tobias Gehrke argues, if the EU creates the perception that relations will deteriorate anyway, then why would China change its economic behaviour? Where one draws the red line is crucial, therefore.

At first sight, von der Leyen draws the line quite close, focusing on avoiding forced technology transfer and on dual-use items with both civilian and military applications. That is much less far-reaching than the US’ blanket prohibition of any cooperation with China in areas such as advanced semiconductors (which it is trying to force individual EU Member States to adopt). Her reference to human rights implications, when interpreted too broadly, could become prohibitive, however. Here too, the line should be drawn close: the EU should never become complicit in human rights violations, for example by importing the product of forced labour. But, sadly, if the EU links all economic interaction to the general human rights situation in a country, it soon will have very few trade partners left.

Conclusion: strategy

In her China speech, von der Leyen has set the agenda; now the debate on what exactly a de-risking strategy entails must begin. If it is to be effective, this can only be an EU strategy, for the single market as a whole. EU Member States should absolutely resist giving in to pressure from either the US or China to pre-emptively adopt national policies. Nor does it serve any purpose for other European leaders to go and set the record straight in China, as some have purported in the wake of the Macron – von der Leyen visit. That will only complicate things. This debate must be had among the Member States and the institutions, in Brussels – not in Beijing.


Sven Biscop is neither a panda-hugger nor a dragon-slayer, for those  see everything through the lens of China. Whereas for him, everything starts from the European interest. Obviously.


(Photo credit: EU/Christophe Licoppe, Wikimedia Commons)