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China celebrates Macron as U.S. and Europe fret over divisions

Critics say the French president’s comments after a state visit to Beijing undermined Western efforts to present a united front on Taiwan and other issues.
President Xi Jinping And President Emmanuel Macron Official Welcoming Ceremony - Beijing
Macron was given the ceremonial grandeur of a state visit in Beijing. Eliot Blondet / Sipa USA via AP

HONG KONG — Derided by concerned observers from Washington to Brussels, French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent trip to China did not go down well with allies. But he left his hosts feeling delighted.

Hundreds of cheering people were waiting to greet Macron when he arrived in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou this month, part of a high-profile state visit.

“He saw us and came right up to us and shook our hands who stood in the front row,” said Qiao Jiabao, a financial journalism student at Sun Yat-sen University, where Macron gave a speech. “I felt he was very gracious and proactive, even though we didn’t speak the same language,” Qiao told NBC News.

He said he and his friends joked that Macron, who has faced mass protests in France over his unpopular plan to raise the retirement age, had been treated so well in China that he might not want to go home.

When Macron returned to France, he faced another storm of criticism, this time over an interview in which he suggested that Europe should resist being drawn into a conflict over Taiwan and focus on “strategic autonomy” independent from both the United States and China.

Macron in China
Macron was greeted by crowds as he visited sites like Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou earlier this month.Gonzalo Fuentes / AFP - Getty Images

His comments drew a furious backlash and raised concerns that Beijing might be succeeding in sowing division between Washington and its allies as part of its push for a world in which America has to compete for dominance with multiple other powers.

But they were celebrated in China, where the state-backed nationalist tabloid Global Times said they signaled “a dead end for the U.S. strategy of luring Europe to contain China.” Lu Shaye, the Chinese ambassador to France, said Tuesday that Macron “spoke great truths” in the tradition of French independence.

“President Macron’s remarks have aroused a great echo at the international level,” he said on Twitter.

The status of Taiwan, a self-ruling democracy that Beijing claims as its territory, is the biggest flashpoint in U.S.-China relations, and Macron’s comments were published as China was conducting live-fire military exercises near the island in response to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s meeting in California with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.

“The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans should follow suit on this subject and adapt to the American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction,” Macron told Politico and the French newspaper Les Échos as he flew back from China. “Why should we go at the pace chosen by others?”

Macron later clarified that France’s Taiwan policy — recognizing Beijing as the sole legitimate government of China, while maintaining unofficial relations with Taipei, the same policy as the U.S. — had not changed. But he also defended his earlier comments, saying Europe had the right to act independently.

Being an ally “doesn’t mean being a vassal,” he said at a news conference in Amsterdam last week.

The White House has minimized Macron’s comments, saying it is “comfortable and confident” in the U.S. alliance with France, but they were heavily criticized by Republicans as underestimating the threat from China.

And Macron’s words were still reverberating as foreign ministers from the Group of Seven nations, which include the United States and France, gathered in Karuizawa, Japan, over the weekend. In a joint communiqué released Tuesday, the diplomats stressed unity as they said they recognized the importance of “engaging candidly” with China, the world’s second-largest economy, while working together on areas of common interest.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that the G-7 statement “grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs” and that it had protested to Japan, which holds the group’s rotating presidency.

“The communiqué reflects the group’s arrogance, prejudice and deliberate desire to block and contain China,” spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at a regular news briefing.

Macron is among a number of European leaders to visit Beijing in recent months, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. But Chinese President Xi Jinping lavished extra attention on the French president, personally traveling with him to Guangzhou.

Macron was warmly received not only by Xi, but also by the Chinese public, who showered him with praise on social media.

Zhao Qing, who works in retail in eastern China, said Macron’s visit was a friendly sign and gave a boost to Chinese relations with France, as well as other European countries.

“I had a good impression when my wife and I visited France before, and maybe I can go there again in the future,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron  in China
Critics said Macron’s comments undermined the image of European unity he was trying to project on Taiwan and other issues.Ludociv Marin / AFP - Getty Images

Macron and other leaders have good reason to visit China, said Wang Yiwei, director of the Center for European Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing, even as efforts to reschedule Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s postponed trip to Beijing appear to stall.

“The visit really emphasized that China is a partner of Europe, not a rival,” Wang said.

If Europe distances itself from China as well as Russia, “their energy issue, economics, safety will solely depend on the U.S.,” he said. “Is that good for Europe?”

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang told reporters last month that “China-Europe relations are not targeted, dependent, or subject to third parties.”

Critics said Macron’s comments undermined the image of European unity he was trying to project by visiting China at the same time as Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president.

 In the weeks since Chinese leader Xi Jinping won a third five-year term as president, setting him on course to remain in power for life, leaders and diplomats from around the world have beaten a path to his door. None more so than those from Europe.
Xi lavished extra attention on Macron, personally traveling with him to Guangzhou.Ng Han Guan / AP

The Continent has struggled with how to balance economic concerns and rising tensions over Taiwan, human rights and the war in Ukraine. But, at least in public, leading officials have stuck close to their U.S. allies.

In a speech on relations between the European Union and China last month, von der Leyen acknowledged Beijing’s might while calling on it to use that power responsibly on issues such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Beijing has refused to condemn.

“It was actually a very clear message she was trying to convey, and Macron blurred this message tremendously in my view,” said Maria Demertzis, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a think tank based in Brussels.

Unlike the U.S., the E.U. — China’s largest trading partner — has viewed Beijing as an economic partner more than a security threat, she said.

“It does not consider China the enemy in ways that I think the U.S. does,” Demertzis said.

Von der Leyen’s speech indicated that the E.U., which has long tried to balance its relations with Washington and Beijing, is now “not totally aligned but siding with the U.S.” in its approach to China, she said.

But unless it speaks to Beijing with one voice, Demertzis said, “I think Europe risks not being taken seriously, quite frankly.”

In another speech Tuesday, von der Leyen said the relationship with China was too important for Europe not to define its own strategy.

“I believe we can — and we must — carve out our own distinct European approach that also leaves space for us to cooperate with other partners, too,” she told the European Parliament.

“And the starting point for this is the need to have a shared and very clear-eyed picture of the risks and the opportunities in our engagement with China.”