In a much-criticized interview with French news outlet Les Echos after his recent visit to China in April 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron indicated that strategic autonomy for Europe would be crucial to prevent the continent from becoming an American vassal, questioning if “it is in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan” for fear of a “Chinese overreaction”.
Subsequently, Macron urged for Europe to become a “third pole”, or “le troisième pôle”, as the Les Echos article reported in French. Furthermore, in another statement that ruffled feathers on both sides of the Atlantic, Macron asserted that the “worst thing” that Europe could do would be to “take our cue from the US agenda” to back Taiwan in the case of a Chinese incursion.
China regards democratically governed Taiwan as its own territory and has vowed to reunite the island with the mainland, by force if necessary. Taiwan’s government under incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen, has dismissed China’s claims.
Unsurprisingly, Macron’s frank remarks met with impassioned reactions from various Western politicians. For instance, Norbert Röttgen, a member and former chair of Germany’s Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, decried Macron for making his China trip “a PR coup for Xi and a foreign policy disaster” for Europe. Reinhard Butiköfer, a Green MEP (Member of the European Parliament) who chairs the European Parliament’s China delegation, labeled Macron’s China visit as a “complete disaster.”
During his subsequent trip to the Netherlands that began on April 11, Macron reiterated his view, while stating clearly that both France and Europe backed the Chinese-Taiwan status quo situation.
Undeniably, Macron was correct in that a military conflict over Taiwan would surely incur more losses than advantages for participants, amid superpower rivalries characterized by verbal hostilities and military pugilism.
However, by alienating its traditional allies and kowtowing to the communist regime in Beijing, France would not only weaken its standing in the global geopolitical landscape but also likely undermine peace in the Indo-Pacific region. Hence, in an apparent effort to do some “damage control”, France’s Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna has maintained there is no change of French policy on China and Taiwan.
China wants to divide and conquer Europe
Arguably, analysts have said that a divided Western front as well as a French appeasement of communist China would only embolden the Beijing regime to further assert its political, economic and military clout in the region, at the expense of other countries.
Pundits have opined that China’s lavish welcome of Macron during his visit was meant to woo him away from the American orbit, a move that has been widely interpreted of the classic communist strategy of “divide et impera”, or “divide and conquer”. By driving a wedge between France and US allies, China would then have a good laugh and perpetuate its military assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
Furthermore, Macron with his Jupiterian complex would be very much mistaken if he thinks he could get Chinese leader Xi Jinping to do his bidding. Rather, the Chinese leader has indicated that reunifying the mainland with Taiwan would be one of the hallmarks of his legacy.
To address the Russo-Ukraine crisis, Macron asked Xi to establish talks with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, the latter who is currently facing allegations of embezzling Western aid money, according to CIA analysts and investigative journalists like Seymour Hersh. In turn, Xi demurred on Macron’s request.
Barely had Macron left China did Beijing start three days of military drills to protest Tsai’s meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California. By 4pm local time on April 8, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry announced that 71 Chinese aircraft, such as fighter jets and bombers, as well as nine ships, had crossed the Taiwan Strait’s median line.
“This is a serious warning to the Taiwan independence separatist forces and external forces’ collusion and provocation, and it is a necessary action to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s Eastern Theatre Command declared.
Such Chinese actions were destabilizing and a risk to regional peace, notwithstanding EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s recent calls to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait during Macron’s China visit.
Recently, in an interview with CNN, Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu also hinted that Taiwanese readiness for any possible war with China was and still is a deterrent against Chinese military aggression.
“Chinese leaders will think twice before they decide to use force against Taiwan. And no matter whether it is 2025 or 2027 or even beyond, Taiwan simply needs to get ready,” Wu said.
While Wu pointed out that “defending Taiwan is our own responsibility,” he singled out Taiwan’s ties with the US in protecting the island in the event of a Chinese incursion.
“The United States seems to be more determined than ever in creating a situation (so) that China would know that its military attack against Taiwan is going to be associated with a heavy cost. And we appreciate the United States for having this posture,” Wu added, implying that Taiwan’s willingness to stand up for itself, coupled with American military backing, would deter China from launching any military assaults. Otherwise, a weak Taiwan that is unsupported by allies could encourage China to take military action.
China lacks credibility and transparency
Additionally, observers have posited that given China’s history of contradicting or reneging on pledges made to foreign countries, any politician or diplomat dealing with Beijing would have to exercise extra vigilance.
In a 2020 opinion piece in Market Watch, former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten advised against trusting Communist China, given the latter’s draconian measures in Xinjiang. For example, although Chinese authorities initially rebuffed claims that internment camps in Xinjiang existed, an Australian Strategic Policy Institute report proved with satellite images that China did construct 380 internment camps by that point in time. Subsequently, some Chinese officials posited that most people detained in the then newly-discovered camps have already returned to their own communities, a claim that Patten doubted.
Similarly, Xi told then American president Barack Obama in 2015 that China was not pursuing militarization in and around the South China Sea. Yet the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, released satellite images that revealed that the Chinese military had mobilized huge batteries of anti-aircraft guns on the islands.
Therefore, knowing fully well the consequences of a splintered Western alliance, top diplomats and ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) countries gathered in Karuizawa, Japan, from April 16 to 18, in a show of unity after Macron’s remarks about Taiwan and China.
During the meeting, Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi told his counterparts that “the unity of the G7 is extremely important”, with Monday’s (April 17) first session again addressing China and regional challenges. Apart from urging his counterparts to “demonstrate to the world the G7’s strong determination” and preserve the “international order based on the rule of law”, Hayashi has placed Chinese activity around Taiwan and the South China Sea as one of the top priorities on the agenda.
During Monday’s talks, the US Navy revealed that it had sailed a guided-missile destroyer through the Taiwan Strait in a freedom-of-navigation operation, with Beijing claiming it had tracked the vessel. To boot, Macron’s remarks would cast a spotlight on the wording that would be used by an eventual joint statement at the conclusion of the G7 gathering on April 18.
To be fair, not appeasing China does not equate to excessively provoking China by constantly issuing statements that could incite Chinese military action. To that end, the onus remains on Taiwan, the US, as well as Taiwan’s allies to keep a close tab on China, while doing their part in maintaining Indo-Pacific peace.
Photo credit: iStock/ Alexandros Michailidis. Matryoshka dolls of Xi Jinping (left) and Macron for sale in souvenir shop in Budapest, Hungary, December 21, 2022.