When French President Emmanuel Macron returns home from his state visit to China today, he may just wonder, as he looks out of his plane’s window, “Have I just been played?”
He has certainly brought home the bacon by signing trade deals between France and China worth $15 billion, but President Xi Jinping managed to avoid any unwelcome talk about Hong Kong, intellectual property theft or the accusations of the mass detention of Muslims in northwest Xinjiang region.
These were issues that the EU, in particular, had hoped Macron would take a moment to address but having been warned by the Chinese to stay off the topics of Hong Kong and Xinjiang, which they insist are internal issues, it was a chance that went missing.
For despite the presumptions of the French president, recently dubbed ‘Emperor Palpatine’ after the Star Wars character by a political rival, China had Macron exactly where they wanted.
Sure, they signed off on some lucrative export deals, and they agreed to reaffirm their commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change (the same one Donald Trump has trashed). So, there are some economic and political gains coming out for both sides.
It was a massive win for China, seen to be doing lovely big trade deals with representatives from the EU while simultaneously engaged in a dispute with the US. And by the way, the French wine and steak were delicious.
But the thorny issues were left untouched.
So, is Macron left looking a little naïve? It might leave his go-it-alone diplomatic style open for further criticism from those, like Euro MP Phillipe Lamberts, who consider him “drunk with power” and a touch imperious.
They are accusations made since day one of his presidency. He upset the EU over immigration and the Italians over a nationalised shipyard all within months of assuming his role at the Elysée Palace in 2017.
More recently, he pushed for the EU to rethink its relationship with Russia, thwarted the hopes of EU accession for two Balkan states and intimated that he would veto a request from Britain for a further extension to Brexit. In every case, he’s upset someone with his unilateral action.
But that’s all in a day’s work for Monsieur Macron. While he is happy to do some of the heavy lifting for the EU (he took EU Farming Commissioner Phil Hogan and German Education Minister Anja Karliczek along on the trip), when push comes to shove, French sovereignty will always come out on top.
So, he had to consider if upsetting the Chinese premier would really be in France’s interests right now, while they were still waiting for the ink to dry on deals signed over energy, aeronautics, agriculture, and even the export of pig semen.
The EU will have to find someone else to do their dirty work with China. Maybe that will be Angela Merkel, who is planning a full 27-member EU summit with the Chinese next year during Germany’s rotating EU presidency.
But China will clearly be expecting this and, using the irresistible opportunities afforded to those nations it deems friendly enough to trade with, can pick off the low-hanging fruit among the EU members in the meantime and deflect any awkward conversations.
Donald Trump stared down the Chinese over trade and won a reboot on better terms so they will clearly respond to that approach. If only the EU members could agree to agree, they too might have a chance of having their concerns about the global power taken seriously.
By Damian Wilson, UK journalist & political communications specialist
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