Europe’s ‘Strategic Autonomy’ on China

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For evidence of China’s growing global clout, look no further than the remarkable about-face recently undertaken by France on China policy. Once a staunch advocate of US-led positions on Taiwan and Sino-Russian relations, French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to China where, during a three-day visit, he set aside any notion of joint US-European policy on China by proclaiming his desire for “strategic autonomy.” But policy pronouncements in a European context are rarely as simple as they appear: The French goal of not being seen as subservient to Washington has collided with the reality that Europe is, at the end of the day, dependent on the US on matters pertaining to international peace and security.

When Macron left France for his three-day visit to China earlier this month, the headlines focused on the French leader’s self-anointed mission of getting Chinese President Xi Jinping to agree to “bring Russia to its senses” over the need for a negotiated peace settlement with Ukraine. When he left China, the headlines focused instead on Macron’s call for “strategic autonomy” from both the US and China when it comes to defining French and, by extension, EU foreign policy. “The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans should follow suit on this subject [US-China relations] and adapt to the American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction,” Macron told the French press as he flew back from China. “Why should we go at the pace chosen by others?”

While ostensibly signaling a posture resembling strategic neutrality, Macron’s statements represented a serious blow to the US’ concerted effort to draw the EU into its own policy goal of containing China. Macron’s proposal that the EU play the role of a “third pole” in the US-Chinese relationship echoes similar arguments by the French president in 2017-18, when he called for Europe to avoid having its national security held hostage by US policy, and instead forge its own strategic relationships with Russia and China. The Russian invasion of Ukraine put an end to such ambitions, however, compelling France and the EU to side decisively with the US in opposing the Russian actions and providing extensive financial and military assistance to Kyiv.

The situation in Ukraine, where Western-led efforts to push back Russia have so far failed, loomed in Macron’s rearview mirror as he headed to China. This prompted the French leader to deviate from the policy course outlined by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in speeches and talks delivered at a variety of forums last month. There, von der Leyen called on China to use its influence to bring an end to the war in Ukraine, which China has refused to condemn. She hinted that while Europe did not consider China an enemy, Beijing’s failure to act on Ukraine could prompt Europe to side with the US on issues such as Taiwan and trade.

Instead of aligning France with the policy of getting China to pressure Russia on Ukraine, Macron instead issued a joint appeal with Xi for the “international community to remain rational and calm.” The Chinese leader reiterated his longtime position that “all sides” in the conflict have “reasonable security concerns” — statements that constitute a major deviation from the US position that the Russian action in Ukraine was completely unprovoked. Worse for von der Leyen was the fact that Macron, who was accompanied by a delegation of some 50 French business leaders, left China with a 51-point joint declaration promoting economic and political ties with China. The commission president, who flew to Beijing for a joint meeting with Macron and Xi, left with nothing.

Toeing the Line

Macron’s posturing did not go unopposed among the European old guard. Fresh from her visit to China, von der Leyen criticized Beijing in an address to the European Parliament that emphasized the need for European unity. “A strong European China policy,” she declared, “relies on strong coordination between member states and EU institutions, and on a willingness to avoid the divide and conquer tactics that we know we may face.”

“We have already in the recent days and weeks seen those tactics in action,” von der Leyen added, saying that “it is now time for Europe to move to action, too. Now is the time to demonstrate our collective will; it is time to jointly define what success looks like, and to show that unity that makes us strong.”

But von der Leyen’s address belied the reality that the EU’s Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China — negotiated throughout 2019, signed in 2020 but put on hold in 2021 after China sanctioned EU lawmakers — was effectively dead in the water (the Comprehensive Agreement represented the only consensus-based expression of EU policy toward China). The best she could do in terms of policy articulation was to reiterate the EU’s commitment to the “One China” policy, which recognizes the People's Republic of China as the sole government of China, while opposing any potential Chinese military action against Taiwan.

This policy vacuum was reflected in a statement by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, in a video address to the G7 Foreign Ministers‘ meeting in Japan. Borrell declared that China is “a partner, competitor and systemic rival” to the EU, and that the direction of EU-Chinese relations “will be determined by China’s behavior.” Missing from the equation was the fact that, in the face of the collapse of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, the EU no longer had a unified policy around which to build a response to any behavioral stimulation on the part of China, good or bad.

The “look tough but mean nothing” stance assumed by both von der Leyen and Boerell was echoed by Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, who also flew to China this month, on the heels of Macron. This was supposed to be a joint mission with Borrell, but Baerbock had to fly solo after the EU High Representative came down with Covid-19. Baerbock’s mission appeared to be to conduct damage control following Macron’s visit, by indicating that China would be held accountable for any military action targeting Taiwan. The German foreign minister ended up advocating a policy based on balancing the need for the EU to constructively engage with China while opposing any Chinese military action against Taiwan.

Missing from any aspect of Baerbock’s analysis was the role played by the EU in facilitating and encouraging the US policies that have triggered China’s more aggressive posturing. This made her pronouncement that the EU’s strength rested in its ability to “pursue joint strategic approaches on the central issues of our interests and values” seem as hollow as it in fact was. Vacuous policy pronouncements of this sort are what makes Macron’s goal of “strategic autonomy” simultaneously resonate and disappoint. France cannot, despite the elevated ambitions of its leader, chart such a course on its own. Europe, however, continues to be bound to a US-driven policy of containment and confrontation regarding China which, for the time being, effectively blocks any notion of genuine European strategic autonomy.

Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer whose service over a 20-plus-year career included tours of duty in the former Soviet Union implementing arms control agreements, serving on the staff of US Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf during the Gulf War and later as a chief weapons inspector with the UN in Iraq from 1991-98. The views expressed in this article are those of the author.

Alternative View, Security Risk , Military Conflict
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