Taipei, Taiwan – French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are scheduled to arrive in China on Wednesday for a three-day state visit during which they will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Macron will accompany a delegation of more than 50 CEOs and meet the French business community, but all eyes will be on how he and von der Leyen discuss the war in Ukraine with the Chinese leadership.
“The primary issue that Macron and von der Leyen would probably want to push is to help get some support from China in dealing with Russia and help advance on that front,” Zsuzsa Anna Firenze, associate research fellow at the Sweden Institute for Security and Development Policy told Al Jazeera.
“Realistically, I don’t think we can expect much, but I think clearly everyone agrees that’s the priority.”
China is officially neutral in the war but has supported Russia economically and diplomatically in the face of Western sanctions. Xi also has the ear of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he shares a close friendship that has spanned more than a decade. In March, the duo signed a Sino-Russian strategic partnership during Xi’s state visit to Moscow.
At the G20 summit in November, Macron called on China to play a “greater mediating role” in the war, but Beijing has not stepped up its role after issuing a 12-point peace plan that received a tepid response in Kiev and Western capitals.
Macron’s trip is his first to China since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, when Beijing effectively closed its borders to travel. The last time the French leader visited the country was in 2019.
His journey follows one he made German Chancellor Olaf Schultz in November but it has already taken on a different tone.
Schulze’s trip was widely criticized in Europe as being too conciliatory towards Beijing, with the German leader’s efforts to shore up the country’s commercial interests taking precedence over getting China to join the negotiating table over Ukraine.
But this time, Xi could expect a reversal.
On Wednesday, the Elysee Palace said that Macron and US President Joe Biden agreed in a phone call before the French president’s visit to engage China to speed up the end of the war in Ukraine.
“The two leaders indicated their shared desire to engage China to accelerate the end of the war in Ukraine and to participate in building sustainable peace in the region,” Macron’s office said in a statement.
During a speech in Brussels last week, von der Leyen publicly criticized Beijing’s “borderless” relations with Moscow in the face of the “brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine”.
Any peace plan that would actually promote Russian annexation is simply not viable. “We have to be frank on this point,” von der Leyen said, while also taking aim at China’s increasingly assertive stance on the South China Sea, the Sino-Indian border and Taiwan.
“How China continues to interact with Putin’s war will be a critical factor moving forward in EU-China relations,” she said.
Beijing said it was “disappointed” by its speech, according to its ambassador to the EU, Fu Cong.
Against this tense background, Macron is expected to ask China not to supply weapons to Russia. Beijing is not known to have supplied weapons to Russia despite Moscow’s requests, though US officials have warned of the possibility.
Macron’s trip will likely not be a watershed moment, said Mathieu Duchatel, director of international studies at France’s Montaigne Institute, but his diplomacy could deliver victories on the road to European security.
“It’s really about moving it a little bit in a positive direction and not having the unrealistic expectation that China can mediate,” Duchatel told Al Jazeera, describing the European view of China as a “swing state” in the Ukraine war.
Duchatel said that if China were to supply arms to Russia, it could tip the scales in Moscow’s favor as the war continues, while the opposite would be true if Beijing were to tilt toward Ukraine.
Macron will need to play a careful game, said Antoine Bondaz, a researcher at the French think tank La Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique. He said any poorly worded statement could inadvertently signal support for Beijing’s position and win the Chinese Communist Party, rather than convincing China of the dangers the war poses to European security.
Bundaz added that one of the points of cooperation may be the issue of nuclear weapons.
France, like China, is a nuclear power, but it does not participate in NATO’s nuclear exercises. Both are also opposed to sharing nuclear technology, Bundaz said, meaning France is in a “legitimate” position to “demand China’s official response to Russia’s declaration of its intention to deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus, and to try to prevent such an appointment.”
He added that Macron’s ability to achieve these goals would depend on whether China feared further sanctions from the European Union and the risk of deepening “transatlantic coordination” between Europe and the United States on issues such as Ukraine.
Some analysts believe Xi may try to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe, the latter of which has traditionally taken a softer approach to bilateral relations.
Despite being a founding member of NATO, France is not part of the US-led security blocs such as AUKUS – made up of Australia, the UK and the US – and QUAD – comprising Australia, India, Japan and the US – both of which are widely seen as They aim to counter China.
However, relations between the European Union and China have deteriorated sharply in recent years.
Aside from disputes over China’s claims in the South China Sea and crackdowns in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, Beijing’s attempts to punish EU member states such as Lithuania for its engagement with Taiwan and reciprocal sanctions on European parliamentarians have not gone well. In 2021, the 27-nation bloc put a major trade and investment deal with China on ice amid rising tensions between the two sides.
Firenze, an associate research fellow at the Institute for Security and Development Policy, said Macron and von der Leyen’s trip could be a first step toward improving those relations.
“Bilateral relations are deteriorating, and I think there is also an effort from Beijing to rebuild relations,” Ferenczi said, adding that EU leaders realize they have “actual leverage over China and that we need to talk more out of this situation.”
“China wants to continue cooperation, business and trade relations with the European Union.”
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