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Macron's comments in China cause concern in Japan

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
April 12, 2023

Analysts say the French president's suggestion that a Chinese attack on Taiwan would not require European involvement has undermined Japan's diplomatic efforts to preserve security in the Indo-Pacific region.

Emmanuel Macron
The French president met with Chinese President Xi Jinping earlier this monthImage: Ng Han Guan/AP Photo/picture alliance

Tokyo may be keeping a diplomatic silence in public, but Japanese political analysts are confident that Japan is seeking clarification on comments made by French President Emmanuel Macron about Taiwan during his recent visit to Beijing for talks with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Japan has been leading efforts to build a coalition of like-minded countries to resist China's expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea and Taiwan.

Accompanied by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Macron arrived in China on April 5 for a four-day visit that had been described as an effort to encourage Xi to intervene to halt the Russian war in Ukraine.  

Emmanuel Macron, Xi Jinping, Ursula von der Leyen stand in front of a row of flags
Macron and Von der Leyen both visited China last weekImage: Ludovic Marin/Pool AFP/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Von der Leyen reiterated the EU's position on Taiwan during a press conference in Beijing.

"We have a very clear interest in preserving the stability, the peace and the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. The threat of the use of force to change the status quo is unacceptable," she said.

France does not support 'accelerating' on Taiwan

However, Macron told the Politico newsmagazine in an interview on a French government aircraft that Europe as a whole should avoid getting "caught up in crises that are not ours."

"The question Europeans need to answer […] is it in our interest to accelerate on Taiwan? No. The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cues from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction," he said.  

The Taiwanese government has said it is contacting the French government to determine "the meaning of Macron's remarks." At the same time, the 200-strong Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, a body made up of lawmakers aimed at reforming how democratic countries approach China, accused the French leader of "ill-judged remarks" that give the impression of "indifference" over the future of Taiwan just as it comes under increasing pressure from China. 

The day after Macron left China, Beijing began three days of military exercises around Taiwan that included simulated assaults on the island, which Xi's government insists is Chinese territory that will one day be reintegrated into greater China, by force if necessary.

As well as demanding that Taiwan come under its control, Beijing has occupied atolls and reefs in the South China Sea and defied international pressure to leave, provoking confrontations with Japan, India and South Korea over territorial claims.

How could Japan respond?

Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, said he believes the French leader's comments are "disturbing and very disruptive of a lot of the work that has been done between NATO countries, the Quad security alliance and individual countries like Japan and South Korea to get together and make sure that the international order is based on law instead of unilateral actions."

France's Macron calls European sovereignty 'a necessity'

Hinata-Yamaguchi told DW Macron's comments were "odd," given that France has in the past been proactive in working with Japan to support the concept of a "free and open Indo-Pacific."

"To me, these comments sound indifferent to the fate of Taiwan, as if he is shying away from the problem that really lies at the crux of the entire question of freedom and peace in the region," he said.  

"This weakens the countries that have been working to constrain countries like China, Russia and North Korea that are all about upsetting the status quo and only serves to benefit those governments," he added.  

Hinata-Yamaguchi said Japan said nothing in public about Macron's visit to China, but expects leaders will ask whether his comments reflect an official change in France's policy toward Taiwan and the Indo-Pacific region.

Japan seeks international consensus on China

The EU and governments around the world have also condemned Beijing for human rights abuses of its Uyghur ethnic group and the demolition of civil rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.

However, Macron's conciliatory tone could serve to weaken European unity on China policy and send the wrong signal to Asian allies directly affected by Chinese aggression.

"Obviously, the Japanese government will have been badly shaken by these comments," said Hiromi Murakami, a professor of political science at the Tokyo campus of Temple University.  

"Macron's comments appear to be out of step with the consensus that Japan has been trying to build and would appear to be quite a shift from France's previous stance on the issue of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region," she told DW.

A Chinese warship
China carried out a simulated blockade of Taiwan earlier this weekImage: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Murakami added that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida recently traveled to Paris for talks with Macron in January, with a statement issued by Japan's Foreign Ministry stating that the two leaders "expressed their opposition to attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force in the East and South China seas. They also stressed the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait."

"Historically, France has pursued a foreign policy that is more independent of the US, and I imagine China would have wanted some sort of expression of support from Macron while he was in the country, but the reasons for what appears to be a radical switch in France's policies are not at all clear," Murakami said.  

"Japan and other countries in the region, like South Korea and Taiwan, will be watching what France does next very closely," she added.  

Edited by: Wesley Rahn