Can the French be trusted not to mess up this week in Beijing? Pretty much everyone thinks not
There can be no doubt China’s President Xi Jinping is preparing a state banquet for French President Emmanuel Macron when he arrives on Wednesday.
Whether Macron eats or is eaten could depend largely on his plus 2 – the electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre, (the first Western musician to confuse a large crowd with music in 1981); and more importantly the feisty European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Macron is also taking along an eclectic mega-business delegation too (below). Some 60 or so of the best dressed, not-currently-striking leaders of French industry.
“We do not want to cut economic, societal, political and scientific ties,” Von der Leyen, the EU chief said to much acclaim last week.
What Brussels wants, like Paris, is to reboot being nice to one another and just get back to trading on an even keel, minus the spying and nasty words.
Francois Godement, an Asia expert at the Institut Montaigne think-tank, wrote on Twitter:
It is likely that there is a consensus with Macron on the eve of their trip to Beijing. Common analysis, accent on de-risking rather than de-coupling, low key but practical responses, do not insult China’s future. 6
— François Godement (@FGodement) March 30, 2023
But Macron will also be eyeing France’s fat footprint across our part of the world, the Asia-Pacific.
The former colonial power’s still got big interests out there – not least the 1.64 million citoyens who complain a lot about missing the good old days but do send a bunch of taxes back to Paris and keep hold of the French overseas territories.
From La Reunion off Madagascar, the Pacific islands (think Tahiti) of French Polynesia, to New Caledonia which is a very easy three-hour flight from Bris Vegas.
The AFP wrote ahead of the visit that thanks to “its vast population, abundant natural resources and economic heft”, the Asia-Pacific has become “the nerve centre of the planet” quoting a French Senate report on the APAC.
The visit has set alarm bells ringing in Eastern Europe, with Lithuania reminding Macron of the balls up he made in trying to play nice with the Russian President right before he then invaded Ukraine.
Lithuania, which knows a thing or two these days about shirt-fronting dictators, made a point of setting up a de-facto embassy in Taipei last year, incensing almost everyone.
China instantly slapped diplomatic relations with the wee Baltic state into the naughty corner.
Ahead of the trip Lithuania’s punchy foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis had some choice words for Macron to take with – basically that a tight economic partnership with Vladimir Putin’s Russia failed to deliver security for Europe and probably did the exact opposite.
“We should remember that attempts to contain Russia by offering economic partnership failed… Putin was, in fact, emboldened by our flexibility, not persuaded. Similar tactics would also embolden China.”
Last week the French economic daily La Tribune reported that Chinese and French energy companies inked a landmark first-ever liquified natural gas (LNG) deal in China – settled entirely in the Chinese yuan.
That’s huge for China, and pretty weak for Emmanuel.
Since forever Beijing has been wanting someone to take the renminbi seriously. Xi’s guys have been on a hiding for nothing in trying to increase the relevance of the yuan on global markets.
The deal for some 65,000 tonnes of LNG imported from the Emirates, is a real win for Beijing and its long-term goal of undermining the USD as the only “petrodollar” for gas and oil that matters.
The deal between the enormous China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) and France’s TotalEnergies, has China touting that “global resource procurement based on the yuan” could be great for all, according to the state-run China Daily.
TotalEnergies, seeming to grasp just how pissed off the Americans will be, “simply explained” to La Tribune that this unprecedented yuan transaction was only done after “a request from CNOOC”.
It’s not all Emmanuel’s fault, although a fair bit is. The fact is Europe is second fiddle to everybody and seems to believe it as much as everyone else does.
But this is no fruit basket of a union.
The EU’s combined gross domestic product (GDP) is a bit under US$17 trillion (in 2022), that’s pretty close to the world’s second largest economy’s $19 trillion (China).
The Americans make $US26 trillion even when they’re trying not to but the point is, the EU seems to make damn sure it doesn’t matter so much.
The whole Russia thing is happening in Europe, but the Europeans have busily provided heaps less aid to Ukraine that the Americans.
Washington’s assistance alone amounts to 63% of all provided. In military equipment, the comparison is even more embarrassing: EU countries are supplying less than half that of the US.
In a bone rattler of an address last week which Xi will find hard to forgive, the ex-cabinet member and former defence minister during the German Chancellorship of Angela Merkel finally did what Emmanuel is entirely incapable of – she actually put conditions on a trade deal by forewarning the Chinese Communist Party that she sees how it plays Putin’s war in Ukraine as “a determining factor for EU-China relations going forward.”
Von der Leyen damned Xi by dredging up the phrase coined immediately before the invasion in February 2022 (one Xi is either loving or hating) – saying “…far from being put off by the atrocious and illegal invasion of Ukraine, President Xi is maintaining his ‘no-limits friendship‘ with Putin’s Russia”.
The EC President did a great job of balancing the praise and face-giving necessary to make it through the front door in Chinese diplomacy*. But she laces it with enough real politik to make at least one European politician not seem like a total pushover. Take a look below. I also like her use of repetition, body language, her prounciation is great and the lack of any back lighting is Amateur Night in Brussels (again) but fab for her hair.
(*In fact, you know Ursula is winding up to take a few real digs when she mentions the big three Chinese ancient inventions – the compass, gunpowder and printing.)
Go from about 3.05:
She implied, for the first time, that the EU could terminate pursuing a landmark trade deal with China, which was clinched in 2020 but subsequently stalled by the European Parliament after some of its members were sanctioned by Beijing.
Chinese Ambassador to the EU, Fu Cong, who since his job began in December had tried to put on a friendly face, was a little nonplussed when he get ahold of the text, but was diplomatic enough to blame the writer:
“That speech contained a lot of misrepresentation and misinterpretation of Chinese policies and the Chinese positions… Whoever wrote that speech for President von der Leyen does not really understand China or deliberately distorted Chinese positions.”
Macron hasn’t absolutely bathed himself in shame in Chinese eyes – certainly not like he has at home by leaving for Beijing while Paris is in flames over his plan to lift the age of retirement by 24 months.
France has experienced weeks of protests and strike actions related to a rise in the pension age, which was passed last week. Paris, which is a bit on the nose at the best of times, is a total dump right now, the height of summer and striking garbos who haven’t been doing what garbos don’t do very well anyway.
The former banker previously endorsed the EU characterisation of China as a “systemic rival” back in 2019.
He’s had a real go at Beijing on its human rights policy, especially in Xinjiang, and has allowed semi-official delegations to visit nationalist Taiwan.
The bristling French navy is a vital part of Western military exercises aimed at deterring China’s warships in the South China sea … for all the good they do.
Most importantly Macron has been burned by his failed efforts to placate Russia’s Vladimir Putin and he won’t be able to sidestep the fact that Xi is playing silly buggers in pretending to mediate in the Ukraine war, while getting fat off the vast amounts of cheap-as Russian gas and oil.
According to the Elysée Palace, Xi is going to treat Macron to a “surprise” dinner somewhere at an undisclosed location in Guangdong, where the Chinese President’s Dad was governor, before getting dragged out and reduced to nothing during the Cultural Revolution.
How that dinner goes depends largely on how another meal progresses in Los Angeles, California the night before.
Sharing a meal with the US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on Wednesday night will be Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen. She has the head Xi would most like to have on his desk, dipped in gold and filled with Baijiu.
Xi won’t be able to ignore that and Emmanuel will either get an earful or Xi will have a bellyful of his French counterpart.
The tough part for Macron is he has to mention human rights, while making deals.
There are relatives of French nationals stuck in the nightmare that is Xinjiang and the pressure is on to get these guys back to France.
His point of difference could be TikTok. Might as well leave that to the Americans if they’re so determined to blow it all up.
Likewise, the White House doesn’t have a heap of faith in the way the French go about their business.
Eyeballs were rolling down both aisles of US politics last year when Macron’s failed attempts to act as a peacemaker with Putin were compared disdainfully to the British PM Chamberlain whose very name evokes appeasement (diplomacy’s greatest crime) on the eve of Russia’s invasion.
Naturally, American minds turn to what happened next in 1939, and then again in 1991 and 2002. The fact is the Biden administration will have as much faith in Macron’s fidelity as it has certainty in France’s potential to wind up drinking too much, forgetting who’s waiting at home across the Atlantic and compromising everyone.
French fraternising with Beijing at a time when Washington and Beijing aren’t answering each other’s texts could be a little victory, but just what Xi wants.