Macron provoked a backlash in the United States and Europe when he called on the European Union to reduce dependence on the US and cautioned against being drawn into a crisis over Taiwan driven by an “American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction”.
Many European politicians, diplomats and analysts saw Macron’s comments in an interview with Politico and French daily Les Echos as a gift to what they called Beijing’s goal of dismantling transatlantic unity.
As a result, the stakes of the inaugural trip by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock have risen, with many EU members hoping Berlin will use this opportunity to set out a clear and united EU line on China, analysts said.
Macron was widely seen as taking a weak line on Taiwan by warning that Europe should not get “caught up in crises that are not ours” – although his office insisted this was not his intended meaning and his position on Taiwan and China had not changed.
“Now it is about damage control to a large degree … But the cloud of Macron’s visit is very big and still it’s very unclear how this balance will play out in the end,” Alicja Bachulska, a China-EU relations researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Warsaw, told Reuters.
Even without Macron’s remarks the trip would have been delicate for Baerbock, who has been more hawkish on China than Chancellor Olaf Scholz and is drafting a China policy aimed at reducing Germany’s economic dependence on Beijing.
“She was sort of perceived as being a troublemaker. I’d be surprised if this does not play a role at all in her visit,” Tim Ruehlig, China expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, told Reuters.
Baerbock must now make Germany’s position on Taiwan clear during her visit, German foreign policy parliamentarian Nils Schmid told Reuters, adding Macron’s remarks had destroyed a hoped-for impetus for a common European China policy.
The foreign minister is due to meet her counterpart Qin Gang and China’s top diplomat Wang Yi on the two-day trip.
Speaking ahead of her visit, Baerbock said the top of her agenda would be reminding China of its responsibility to influence Russia to end its invasion of Ukraine and underlining a common European conviction that a unilateral change in the status quo in the Taiwan Strait would be unacceptable.
Europe’s view of China as partner, competitor and systemic rival is the compass of its policy, she added.
“It is clear to me that we have no interest in economic decoupling … but we must take a more systematic look at the risks of one-sided dependencies and reduce them,” Baerbock said.
Some EU capitals – particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, which cherish their ties with the US – will be hoping Baerbock’s stance is closer to the one expressed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who visited Beijing at the same time as Macron.
Many analysts drew a contrast between Macron’s remarks and those from Von der Leyen that were widely seen as more critical of Beijing. Just days before the visit, she said Europe must “de-risk” diplomatically and economically with a hardening China.
“More Von der Leyen than Macron should be her guideline,” conservative foreign policy legislator Johann Wadephul, who will join Baerbock on her trip, told Reuters.
(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa, Andreas Rinke and Andrew Gray.)