french visit undercuts u s efforts to control china

Allies don’t always see things the same way, as Emmanuel Macron’s cozy visit to Xi Jinping made abundantly clear.

President Emmanuel Macron of France complimented China’s top leader on the “very fragrant tea.” President Xi Jinping recalled “taking notes in order to understand” when he visited his father, then governor of the southeastern Guangdong province, in 1978. He also observed, extolling Chinese economic development, that the province now has “four cities with more than 10 million people.”

It was an exchange of remarkable intimacy, the two leaders, tieless, sharing pleasantries in what was once the official residence of Mr. Xi’s father. The conversation came at the end of a three-day visit by Mr. Macron that was notable for the exceptional attention showered on him, and for the commitment in a concluding joint statement to a “global strategic partnership.”

What exactly that will mean — beyond the commitments to the development of civilian nuclear power stations, the transition to carbon-neutral economies, sales of Europe’s Airbus aircraft and the promotion of pork exports — is not altogether clear.

But at a time when Sino-American relations are in a deep freeze, Mr. Macron staked out an independent European position, and both leaders repeatedly lauded a “multipolar world,” thinly disguised code for one that is not American dominated.

The visit, overall, said a loud “No” to the economic “decoupling” favored by the United States as a means to reduce security risks through sweeping export controls and reordered supply chains. It delicately balanced Western and Chinese views on the war in Ukraine without achieving any breakthrough. It was singularly quiet on China’s threat to Taiwan.

Ukrainian soldiers at a frontline position on Friday in Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine. During his visit with Mr. Xi, Mr. Macron spoke out strongly against the war, but made no progress in getting China to use its influence on Russia to find a road to peace.Mauricio Lima for The New York Times

Above all, in a new phase of history, one where the United States faces in China a competitor stronger than any it has confronted since becoming the world’s dominant power, Mr. Macron’s embrace of a Chinese partnership suggested that the battle underway to preserve the liberal institutions of the postwar order against an assault from Beijing and Moscow will be complex and nuanced. Not all of America’s allies look at it in the same way.

Through multiple allusions to the need to “reinvent an international order of peace and stability,” Mr. Macron appeared to inch France closer to the Chinese view that the world is undergoing “changes that haven’t happened in 100 years,” as Mr. Xi put it at the end of a warm visit to Moscow last month, even as the French leader hews to the American view that many of those changes are malign and must be resisted.

“In the context of a deepening Cold War with China, this shows that Macron definitely wants to go against the tide,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University. Mr. Macron, he said, was playing “the Gaullist card,” a reference to Charles de Gaulle’s bristling assertion of independence from the United States once World War II was won.

Mr. Macron, while appearing to embrace aspects of China’s worldview, was unequivocal about Russian aggression. He told students at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou that they should be worried about the state of the world. The main reason, he suggested, was Russia’s war against Ukraine, “a manifest violation of international law, a country deciding to colonize its neighbor.”

Mr. Macron meeting with students on Friday at the Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou.Ludovic Marin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At the same time, Mr. Macron accepted several terms that China included in its 12-point proposal for the “political settlement of the Ukraine crisis,” issued in February and dismissed by the United States.

Among them were the need for “a balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture” and the need to prevent “bloc confrontation,” which the Chinese regard as reflecting a “Cold War mentality.”

Because Europe’s current security architecture is built around NATO, the assertion that a new, balanced one is needed implicitly questions the Atlantic alliance.

In exchange, Mr. Macron and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, who traveled with him but never appeared publicly beside him, secured a vague undertaking from Mr. Xi that he would speak to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine at some unspecified date. Mr. Xi made no commitment whatsoever to pressuring President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to end the war.

A little over a year ago, a couple of weeks before the war in Ukraine started, Mr. Macron traveled to Moscow to meet Mr. Putin at either end of a very long table in the Kremlin. On the flight back, around a much smaller table, he told journalists he believed he had secured undertakings from Mr. Putin not to send the 130,000 Russian troops then amassed at the border into Ukraine.

Mr. Putin’s words proved worthless.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia meeting with Mr. Macron in Moscow in February 2022, weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began.Sputnik, via Associated Press

Whether Mr. Xi is serious about talking to Mr. Zelensky, and whether China can offer any effective mediation to end the war, will become clear over the coming months. Russia suggested this week that the time is not ripe; and Mr. Xi’s “no limits” friendship with Mr. Putin, with whom he has had more than 20 discussions over the past five years, suggests the overwhelming strategic priority of China is its anti-Western bond with Russia, which it sees as transformative on the global stage.

Another priority, however, as Mr. Macron’s visit made clear, is wooing Europe and ensuring that American “decoupling” does not also become European.

The Chinese economy has been hard hit. If the target of returning to 5 percent growth this year, from the anemic 3 percent of 2022, is to be met, Mr. Xi needs to retain and increase European investment and trade. In this, to judge by the agreements reached here, Mr. Xi has an enthusiastic partner in Mr. Macron.

On the issue of the island democracy of Taiwan, which China claims as its own territory in increasingly bellicose terms, Mr. Macron was notably reticent. He said that the issue was not for him to judge, that he did not detect any Chinese inclination to “overreact,” and that, during a visit where Mr. Xi had shown such unusual hospitality, it was not the moment “to mix everything up.”

The final communiqué reaffirmed the commitment of France to a “One China” policy — that mainland China and Taiwan make up a single nation.

Chinese soldiers on a warship during a military drill on Friday near Fuzhou, China. China waited until Mr. Macron had left to announce three days of military drills around Taiwan.Thomas Peter/Reuters

Within hours of Mr. Macron’s departure early Saturday, China announced that it would conduct three days of military drills around Taiwan. The drills were a clear response to the meeting days earlier of the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, with the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, in California.

The drills underscore the current fraught state of Sino-American relations. Since the cancellation of a visit to China by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in February, caused by a clash over a Chinese spy balloon that flew over the United States, no high-level meetings have taken place, and none are planned.

Sino-French relations are another matter. As they sipped tea at his father’s former residence on Friday, Mr. Xi said to Mr. Macron: “If you stay longer, you are welcome to live here.”

Keith Bradsher and Vivian Wang contributed reporting from Beijing.

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