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Can Macron and von der Leyen smooth EU-China relations?

Priyanka Shankar
April 6, 2023

The EU and China have agreed that peace talks in Ukraine should begin, and their trade relations should be rebalanced. Analysts remain cautious.

French President Emmanual Macron is seen with Chinese President Xi Jinping and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen
French President Emmanual Macron, Chinese President Xi Jinping and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen met in BeijingImage: Ludovic Marin/AP/picture alliance

All eyes in the European Union were on China on Thursday, as French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen held meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials, hoping to coax China into playing a bigger role in attempts to end Russia's war in Ukraine.

The two are the latest among the 27-member bloc's big guns to try to persuade the Chinese president to condemn the Kremlin's actions.

"I know I can count on you to bring Russia to its senses and everyone to the negotiating table," Macron told Xi during their bilateral meeting in Beijing. Von der Leyen shared similar sentiments with the Chinese president.

But the EU leaders failed to convince China to condemn Russia. 

'Maintain dialogue'

Officially, Beijing claims that it is neutral on the war in Ukraine. But Xi's meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on March 21 ushered in "a new era of cooperation” between Beijing and Moscow, and EU leaders have expressed concern that China could support Russia militarily. Some have even called on the bloc to reduce its economic dependency on China.

However, both Macron and von der Leyen told reporters in Beijing that "maintaining dialogue" with China was important, given its close ties with Russia. After their meeting with Xi, they said that Russia-Ukraine peace talks should take place "as soon as possible" and reiterated that nuclear weapons should not be used.

Dolls displaying the faces of China's Xi Jinping and Russia's Vladimir Putin are seen
China and Russia renewed their "no limits partnership" in MarchImage: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images

According to Chinese state media, Xi Jinping said that China and France had the ability and responsibility to rise above their differences and obstacles, and hailed Macron's visit as one which would "inject new momentum and bring new vitality to China-Europe relations."

While the Kremlin said that it saw no "prospect" for China to mediate in Ukraine, von der Leyen told reporters that after her meeting with the Chinese president that he had repeated his willingness to speak to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy — something the Chinese leader has yet to do.

"Chinese leaders are convinced, as Xi told Putin in his recent meeting, that the world is currently undergoing 'great changes unseen in a century,' which, simplified, is code for the decline of the US and the strengthening of China and other powers," Mareike Ohlberg, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told DW.

"Macron is free to give it a shot, but I frankly don't see China fundamentally changing its behavior of offering official neutrality while providing mainly rhetorical and diplomatic support for Russia. I also don't see China brokering a peace deal, much less an acceptable one,” she said.

Macron accompanied by huge French delegation

After arriving in Beijing on Wednesday, Macron highlighted that Europe must reject what some have cast as an "inescapable spiral" of tensions between China and the West, and also resist reducing trade and diplomatic ties with China.

According to an Elysee source, France is keen to reconnect and find new parameters in its bilateral relations with China, after a volatile period marked by Beijing's zero-Covid policy and the ongoing Ukraine war that has influenced China's relations not only with France but also the EU. 

French Economy Minister Bruno le Maire and Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, as well as business executives from companies such as Airbus, EDF and Veolia, and representatives from the France's arts and culture sector, including electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre and film director Jean-Jacques Annaud, who made the film "Seven years in Tibet," were all part of Macron's delegation.

French President Emmanual Macron is seen with China's Xi Jinping
China and France have shared close ties for many yearsImage: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Airbus announced  it would open a second final assembly line in China, which would allow it to double its production capacity in the country, shortly after Macron's meeting with Xi ended.

Not everyone in the EU is convinced that the "business as usual" approach can work with China in the current geopolitical climate.

"At a time the debate in Europe focuses on our suicidal dependency on China and Chinese interference, the message is inopportune," Raphael Glucksmann, a left-wing member of the European Parliament, had written on Twitter before Macron's visit.

Von der Leyen acknowledges imbalances in EU-China relations

Von der Leyen, who defended a tougher EU stance towards China last week at a conference in Brussels, was also assertive after her meetings with President Xi and other Chinese officials in Beijing.

In a trilateral meeting with Macron and representatives of the European Commission she said that she did not see "decoupling from China" as a viable or desirable strategy for smoothing China-EU relations.

But she warned that there were a number of risks and critical imbalances in their economic relationship that should be addressed.

Relations between the EU and China have been frosty since 2021, when negotiations about the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), which sought to benefit both parties, stalled.

Joerg Wuttke, the president of the EU Chamber of Commerce in Beijing, who met von der Leyen before her meetings with the Chinese officials, told DW that the ratification of the CAI was key for Chinese companiees since it would benefit them. But he said that currently addressing trade imbalances in a geopolitical minefield was the main objective for von der Leyen.

"Europeans just love Chinese products and Chinese sales to the bloc have been incredible. Last year, they shipped 6.4 million containers to Europe, while the EU shipped only 1.6 million containers," he said, adding that the EU's investments in China had gone down by as much as 50%.

Von der Leyen acknowledged these issues and told reporters after her meeting with Xi that she had called for the resumption of the EU-China economic dialogue.

Tensions in the Taiwan Strait

Besides trade and the war in Ukraine, von der Leyen and Macron's visit also took place amid tensions in the Taiwan Strait.

"Stability in the Taiwan Strait is of paramount importance," von der Leyen told reporters, underlining that nobody "should unilaterally change the status quo by threat of force in this region, and tensions should be resolved through dialogue."

According to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, Xi said that China and the EU should establish "correct" mutual understanding and avoid misunderstanding and misjudgment.

‘I think there's no benchmark where success starts and where failure begins,” Wuttke told DW. "For the Chinese, Macron and von der Leyen are two very important interlocutors to talk to under current circumstances where tensions between China and the US are very high. They're aware that the Americans are leaning heavily on Europe and trying to steer it away from China. So finding common ground and understanding each other through in-person dialogues is integral."