Macron exposes Europe’s ‘fractured glass’ policy on China

For someone who thinks of himself as a champion of Europe, Emmanuel Macron certainly enjoys provoking divisive arguments for the continent. His latest came on the flight back from Beijing, where he had been treated to a red-carpet reception by Chinese President Xi Jinping. With much of the West nervous that Xi might use the chaos unleashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to make a grab for Taiwan, Macron made things worse by implying Europe and the United States should take different approaches to Taiwan. “The worst of things would be to think that we Europeans must be followers on this subject and adapt ourselves to an American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction,” he said. That would make Europe a “vassal” of the US, rather than a potential third pole in the world. Then, this week, came a row about the sovereignty of Crimea. Asked in a TV interview whether Crimea was part of Ukraine, Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, appeared to cast doubt not merely on Crimea, which is occupied by Russia but remains part of Ukraine under international law, but other ex-Soviet countries as well. “These ex-Soviet Union countries do not have effective status … under international law,” Lu said. Unsurprisingly, the first to protest were Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, three ex-Soviet countries that feel threatened by Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. Both blunders, or mini-crises, have exposed something that most in Europe and Asia understand but, especially in the context of the Ukraine war, it suits Europeans not to ponder too deeply: For better or worse, Europe has a “fractured glass” policy on China. Policies that look united and coherent from a distance turn out, on closer inspection, to have significant splits. Macron’s comments are, of course, the most notable of these splits. Coming after he had barely left Chinese airspace, his words weren’t interpreted as the philosophical musings of a statesman with a grand vision of European autonomy, but as a sign that Europe and the US can be divided over Taiwan. But Lu’s comments, or rather the response from European countries to them, perhaps better illustrate the fractured glass. Those countries that fear Russia most led the charge against the comments in the most forceful language; Latvia called them “completely unacceptable,” Estonia “incomprehensible,” and summoned the Chinese ambassador. But for others, the response was more muted. Germany asked for “clarification” and Italy’s foreign minister said he disagreed with the remarks. Neither appeared to have summoned the respective Chinese ambassadors for an explanation. The message was the same, but the way it was conveyed varied widely. For Beijing, such fractures, though small, are important. Highlighting differences The country’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy, a term used to refer to Chinese diplomats who speak in an unguarded and confrontational manner, is often seen as a reflection of China’s growing confidence in the world. Certainly, such language from representatives of a nation-state, especially when amplified by Chinese “troll” accounts, serves to frighten and cow critics. But it also serves to highlight divisions between allies, and offer up a sense of how some countries may react to other divisive Chinese policies. It is hard to interpret whether Lu intended to provoke or simply misspoke – as with Macron, both are experienced in their roles and it’s safe to assume they knew what they meant to say. For wolf warriors like Lu, continuously provoking at the edges of established understandings is itself valuable; it weakens the sense that the rules of the international order that are meant to constrain countries apply to China. For all the criticism of Macron, however – one major US newspaper wrote, “If President Biden is awake, he ought to call Mr Macron and ask if he’s trying to re-elect Donald Trump” – it’s not obvious that he is telling China something it does not already know. The divisions between Europe and America on some issues are well known – and Macron, more than any other European leader, has been open about saying so. He did this toward the end of last year when he went to the US and criticized America’s policy that raised gas prices in Europe. France felt that Europeans were bearing the brunt of a forceful American pro-Ukraine policy. Macron’s economy minister said something similar when he argued that the US was asking European countries to decouple from the Chinese economy – at the same time as US-China trade is increasing. “We don’t want to be the village idiots,” Bruno Le Maire said in direct language, “who get screwed and let other powers trade with China while we would no longer have the right to do so.” This points to a major difference in how these divisions are used by Macron and Lu. For Macron, musing out loud provokes an internal conversation among European countries. For China, it’s not merely the splits p

Macron exposes Europe’s ‘fractured glass’ policy on China

For someone who thinks of himself as a champion of Europe, Emmanuel Macron certainly enjoys provoking divisive arguments for the continent.

His latest came on the flight back from Beijing, where he had been treated to a red-carpet reception by Chinese President Xi Jinping. With much of the West nervous that Xi might use the chaos unleashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to make a grab for Taiwan, Macron made things worse by implying Europe and the United States should take different approaches to Taiwan.

“The worst of things would be to think that we Europeans must be followers on this subject and adapt ourselves to an American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction,” he said. That would make Europe a “vassal” of the US, rather than a potential third pole in the world.

Then, this week, came a row about the sovereignty of Crimea.

Asked in a TV interview whether Crimea was part of Ukraine, Lu Shaye, China’s ambassador to France, appeared to cast doubt not merely on Crimea, which is occupied by Russia but remains part of Ukraine under international law, but other ex-Soviet countries as well.

“These ex-Soviet Union countries do not have effective status … under international law,” Lu said.

Unsurprisingly, the first to protest were Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, three ex-Soviet countries that feel threatened by Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.

Both blunders, or mini-crises, have exposed something that most in Europe and Asia understand but, especially in the context of the Ukraine war, it suits Europeans not to ponder too deeply: For better or worse, Europe has a “fractured glass” policy on China.

Policies that look united and coherent from a distance turn out, on closer inspection, to have significant splits.

Macron’s comments are, of course, the most notable of these splits. Coming after he had barely left Chinese airspace, his words weren’t interpreted as the philosophical musings of a statesman with a grand vision of European autonomy, but as a sign that Europe and the US can be divided over Taiwan.

But Lu’s comments, or rather the response from European countries to them, perhaps better illustrate the fractured glass.

Those countries that fear Russia most led the charge against the comments in the most forceful language; Latvia called them “completely unacceptable,” Estonia “incomprehensible,” and summoned the Chinese ambassador.

But for others, the response was more muted. Germany asked for “clarification” and Italy’s foreign minister said he disagreed with the remarks. Neither appeared to have summoned the respective Chinese ambassadors for an explanation. The message was the same, but the way it was conveyed varied widely.

For Beijing, such fractures, though small, are important.

Highlighting differences

The country’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy, a term used to refer to Chinese diplomats who speak in an unguarded and confrontational manner, is often seen as a reflection of China’s growing confidence in the world.

Certainly, such language from representatives of a nation-state, especially when amplified by Chinese “troll” accounts, serves to frighten and cow critics. But it also serves to highlight divisions between allies, and offer up a sense of how some countries may react to other divisive Chinese policies.

It is hard to interpret whether Lu intended to provoke or simply misspoke – as with Macron, both are experienced in their roles and it’s safe to assume they knew what they meant to say.

For wolf warriors like Lu, continuously provoking at the edges of established understandings is itself valuable; it weakens the sense that the rules of the international order that are meant to constrain countries apply to China.

For all the criticism of Macron, however – one major US newspaper wrote, “If President Biden is awake, he ought to call Mr Macron and ask if he’s trying to re-elect Donald Trump” – it’s not obvious that he is telling China something it does not already know.

The divisions between Europe and America on some issues are well known – and Macron, more than any other European leader, has been open about saying so.

He did this toward the end of last year when he went to the US and criticized America’s policy that raised gas prices in Europe. France felt that Europeans were bearing the brunt of a forceful American pro-Ukraine policy.

Macron’s economy minister said something similar when he argued that the US was asking European countries to decouple from the Chinese economy – at the same time as US-China trade is increasing.

“We don’t want to be the village idiots,” Bruno Le Maire said in direct language, “who get screwed and let other powers trade with China while we would no longer have the right to do so.”

This points to a major difference in how these divisions are used by Macron and Lu. For Macron, musing out loud provokes an internal conversation among European countries. For China, it’s not merely the splits per se that it benefits China to notice; it’s the process of making them public.

If the West wants to look at its differences with China through a glass, darkly, it suits Beijing to make sure, on the contrary, that all the fractures of the glass are plain to see.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Follow him on Twitter @FaisalAlYafai