Macron & Xi: The Dream Team

cartoon: Stellina Chen, refer, © No copyright infringement intended. All rights belong to their respective copyright owners

April 17 2023_Emmanuel Macron  concluded his recent speech in The Hague on European strategic autonomy with the words, “I am a dreamer.” For, European autonomy in international relations is mostly a very distant idea or mere wishful thinking, far removed from current realities. Macron clearly longs for more autonomy from the US,  but the war in Ukraine has again shown that Europe is really lacking in capabilities needed to defend itself. After years of deliberating, the EU has not even been able to bring up its socalled ‘rapid deployment force’ of 5000 soldiers.

As the only nuclear power in the EU, France is in a unique position militarily. However, Paris’ contribution to the overall war effort in Ukraine has been substantially smaller, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of gross domestic product than the US and several other European countries. If Macron wants to prove that he is really serious in creating a Europe that is capable of defending itself he should at least quickly demonstrate that France is willing to do much more to protect Europe against Russia. 

The fundamental problem with his idea of  strategic autonomy is that Europe does not really exist on a strategic level, nor is there any consensus on an EU worldview. With respect to China the EU member states still can’t agree among themselves that systemic rivalry is conditioning both partnership and competition with the PRC, while that constitutes the core of Xi Jinping’s Thought on diplomacy and foreign policy (习近平总书记外交思想). Xi’s is convinced that the PRC is in a position to lead and reform the international order and the global governance system. China’s modernization, Xi keeps on preaching, would fulfill the Chinese people’s dream of rejuvenating the nation, is absolutely superior to capitalism, and is a “model” for the modernization strategies of most developing countries.

This belief also lies at the heart of one of his current favourite slogans of ‘great changes unseen in a century’  (历百年未有之大变局)—a phrase originally dating back to the 19th century imperial China. The slogan has been revived under Xi, as demonstrated in his recent meeting with Putin…“Now there are changes that haven’t happened in 100 years. When we are together, we drive these changes,” Xi said. “I agree,” Putin replied, to which Xi said, “Take care of yourself, dear friend, please.”

The U.S.-China rivalry is but one dimension of the many challenges Beijing poses. China’s expansive totalitarianism is impacting and endangering democracies around the world. Its coercive behavior through military and economic means and via relentless cyber warfare is affecting the sovereignty, territorial integrity and economic security of countries even beyond its immediate neighborhood. Under the guidance of the Chinese President coercion has become an established part of the PRC’s foreign policy playbook, to be utilized in disagreements and disputes by an increasingly arrogant, aggressive and ultra-nationalistic party-state.

European leaders like Macron regularly lapse into treating these challenges as just a great power competition between Beijing and Washington, for example by framing the Taiwan problem, the most pressing security theme in the Indo-Pacific,  in such a way and by saying that we “Europeans must not become followers on this topic and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction”. To which he added that “the great risk” Europe faces is that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours” — including Taiwan.

The worst that Europe could do is to treat the Taiwan topic as a purely bilateral U.S.-China conflict: it would make the EU- and Paris in particular- irrelevant and embolden Xi in his goal to internationally isolate the democratic island that occupies such a vital position in the global economy. Macron’s recent statements on Taiwan have not gone down well in Japan, South Korea, Australia, and even in the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.  They severely undermine the Indo-Pacific strategy the EU has been so eager to build.

Meanwhile China’s EU policy invariably aims to prevent the EU from joining US-led initiatives targeting China and to stall or block the EU’s development of a more self-assured China policy.

The lesson to be learned from our relations with Russia is that we must not rely on the notion that mutual dependencies leads the other side to adopt our views on what behavior is rational. Putin’s behavior is a case in point. Just like Putin, Xi is predominantly driven by ideology and a quest for power. We must therefore anticipate that Xi Jinping will at some point decide to use force against Taiwan in order to fulfill that part of his China Dream. When exactly, we just don’t know, but we have to be prepared for such a worst case scenario.  Just as Putin wants to go down in history as the leader who restored much of the Soviet Union, no doubt Xi wants to be immortalized as the ‘Great Helmsman’ who united ‘the brothers and sisters’ in Hong Kong and Taiwan with ‘the motherland’.

Macron will soon be a minor footnote to history, an ambitious politician, yet a naïve dreamer and a rather ineffective, dysfunctional diplomat: but the overambitious Xi will do everything in his power not to become a footnote and realize his China Dream, he is in it for the long run. Xi, President for life, will stick to his strategic targets, while showing tactical flexibility on the international stage if needed, like his big inspirator, Mao Zedong. As Xi has repeatedly stated: “once our strategy is set, we must stick to it in the long term and not change it arbitrarily”

As wrote before, like-minded democratic governments around the world need to develop and execute  a deterrence strategy that tries or aims to influence or change the PRC’s thinking on coercive tactics by reducing the perceived benefits and increasing the costs, refer f.e. That strategy should be based on policies that forge deterrence in various shapes via resilience, denial and even penalties or punishment. It should be conducted on a national and multilateral level and include/involve political, business and academic communities in Europe and the US. Solidarity between like-minded partners will be extremely critical: diplomatic blunders a la Macron are to be avoided in view of  the divide-and-conquer tactics followed by China.

In the end it’s up to the Chinese leadership to decide if it would like to keep any positive agenda alive by behaving as a responsible stake-holder in the rules based international order or if it prefers to opt for a long term confrontational stance. We can just hope that a united deterrence strategy will ‘bring Xi to his senses’ to borrow a few words from our French dreamer, yet should not count on it.  The democratic world should face and compete with China from a position of strength and determination and not fall prey to fatalism. China has a lot to lose in losing access to Western finances, know-how and technology. At the same time Europe still has much to gain economically and militarily from more and closer cooperation and coordination between likeminded democratic countries.

The West incl South Korea, Taiwan and Japan is not in an irreversible decline nor is it guaranteed that in a few years time China will be the world’s number one economy and superpower, the irreplaceable lifeblood of the global economy. Other emerging powers such as India and Brazil are also looking for a spot on the global stage and are offering plenty of opportunities too. And let’s not forget that China has its own share of troubles which could seriously hamper Xi’s ambitions.

 Xi can have his dreams, but we don’t need European leaders like Macron to feed them…

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