Dr. Salem Al Ketbi
Dr. Salem Al KetbiCourtesy

French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent trip to China stirred up quite a bit of controversy. The focal point of the uproar revolved around his remarks about Europe’s connections with both China and the US. While speaking in Beijing alongside various business leaders and heads of major corporations, he stressed the significance of beefing up collaboration with Beijing.

He also took the time to redefine the relationship with Washington, making it clear that an alliance with the US doesn’t entail being a “vassal” to it or “that we have no right to think alone anymore.” He went on to say, “France is in favor of the status quo in Taiwan” and “supports the One China policy and the search for a peaceful settlement of the situation.”

Macron’s staunch adherence to the notion of European sovereignty clashes with a statement from a French diplomatic source that verifies Paris as a dependable ally of Washington. The American interpretation of the concept of an “ally,” especially concerning Taiwan, doesn’t align with this idea.

Even Washington treats its closest allies as compliant, relying on its own interests rather than adhering to the bond that holds allies together. The Gulf Cooperation Council and the US’ Middle Eastern allies are the closest examples that illustrate the American approach to the strategic ally formula.

Macron appears to have picked up on this concept and is now handling the American ally using the same perspective, content to echo rhetoric without implementing it as actual actions or stances on the ground. The French President’s stance on Taiwan departs from the alliance that the US desires.

Washington wishes for its allies to adopt the same positions, particularly in specific cases such as Taiwan. The US faces a complicated crisis about how to handle China’s increasing influence over the island. President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks mark a significant shift in his position and a win for China’s economic and investment diplomacy.

Macron, who previously advocated for dealing with China resolutely, now calls for closer collaboration with China. He stresses that Europe should not interfere in crises that are not its concern, especially in regard to the Taiwan crisis between China and the US. He urges European unity and the pursuit of European interests amid the China-US conflict.

He even brought along the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, on his visit to China.

Macron’s remarks have sparked indignation and unease not just in the US but also in Europe, where certain European capitals dread that the US may desert them in the Ukraine crisis when everyone acknowledges that Europe is incapable of defending itself against any Russian military threat that goes beyond Ukraine.

This clarifies why some European politicians label Macron’s statements as a “disaster” for European foreign policy. There are those who claim that Europe doesn’t attach the same significance to Taiwan as the US does, whereas others contend that Ukraine isn’t as crucial to Washington as it is to Europeans.

Therefore, Macron should have had to be cautious and evade falling into the trap of implicit comparisons, particularly with the continuing conflict in Ukraine and no political resolution in view. Macron’s remarks were construed by some as France’s aspiration to lead the EU under the banner of “strategic autonomy,” and advocating for Europe to be a “third pole” independent of Washington and Beijing.

This corresponds with the German stance that surfaced during German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s trip to Beijing, where he also accompanied the heads of major German corporations and championed “Germany first.” Macron is also trying to hit back at the US position on the AUKUS alliance with Britain and Australia, and the danger of damage to France due to the cancellation of the French submarine deal with Australia, which Paris called a “stab in the back” worth $40 billion, as well as expensive American gas sales to its European allies.

Macron’s position doesn’t mean France is cutting ties with the US, but is a strategic move. France sees itself in a strong position in the Indian and Pacific Ocean region, where it’s the only European country with military presence, giving it the ability to support the US in its power struggle with China.

However, France cannot overlook China as a trade partner, ranking fifth on the list of France’s trading partners with a total annual trade volume of about $88 billion. Thus, France is trying to balance these factors in search of a “third pole” future, despite facing strong opposition within Europe.

Many see it as a mistake to damage relations across the Atlantic and undermine any progress made since Joe Biden took office

Dr. Salem AlKetbi is a UAE political analyst