France's Macron is sending China the wrong signals
More realistic posture would strengthen Paris' role in Indo-Pacific region
French President Emmanuel Macron's comment to reporters last week as he was making his way back from China that Europe should avoid getting dragged into a conflict in the Taiwan Strait caught many by surprise.
Distancing France from Washington's confrontational stance toward Beijing, Macron made clear that his priorities are preventing any uncontrolled escalation in Sino-U.S. tensions and enabling Europe to become a strategic player that can act as a third pole of power in the emerging world order.
This vision, however, is inconsistent and disconnected from the geostrategic reality of the Indo-Pacific region and could undermine France's credibility with area nations.
Firstly, this is because Macron gives the impression that he equates the U.S. and China, not distinguishing differences in values and political regimes while also overlooking the historical alliance that links Paris and Washington.
The president also seems to be forgetting key developments which set the grounds for the current tensions, such as the radicalization of President Xi Jinping's authoritarian regime, Beijing's crackdown on Hong Kong and repeated aggressive moves in the Taiwan Strait. As Macron traveled to China with a large delegation of businesspeople, he appeared to be prioritizing French economic interests over strategic messaging.
The stance Macron has taken is contested within the French government and strategic community, and many have already criticized his remarks as lacking lucidity.
His posture, disconnected from the risks and threats posed by China in the Indo-Pacific region, could raise serious questions about the credibility of French diplomacy, already in doubt after the failure of Macron's personal diplomacy to head off Russia's invasion of Ukraine, should any aggression take place soon toward Taiwan.
Second, Macron's position seems out of touch. To begin with, Europe has limited capacity and willingness to position itself as a third pole.
While the European Union may be a major economic power, it is still a geopolitical power in the making and there is currently no consensus among member states on how to deal with Beijing. In addition, the war in Ukraine has highlighted the essential roles of the U.S. and NATO as guarantors of security in Europe.
Macron's perspective would also tend to dismiss the important role of the countries of the Global South. The EU at most might be one pole, among several, in a multipolar world.
Moreover, the president's stance would appear detrimental to French interests in the Indo-Pacific region. It could provide Beijing with an opportunity to use his rhetoric to try to drive a wedge among the Western allies.
His remarks are already creating confusion among France's partners regarding Paris' commitment to the stability of the Indo-Pacific. In Japan, there are concerns that the French posture might complicate coordination with the U.S. for next month's Group of Seven leaders' summit in Hiroshima.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will certainly try to mediate trans-Atlantic gaps. Tokyo has recently been deepening its partnership with NATO and has high expectations about engaging Europeans in the Indo-Pacific.
France, because of its posture as a balancing power, finds itself caught in the Sino-U.S. vice. Paris should adopt a more modest and realistic stance by positioning itself as a constructive Indo-Pacific stakeholder, pragmatically advancing its interests and contributing to regional stability, while remaining lucid about its capacity and real influence.
Considering the rising tensions in the Taiwan Strait, Paris should underscore that it will not accept any challenge to the status quo and send clear signals that it will side with the U.S. and its allies in the event of any aggression or blockade.
Paris should also clarify that it shares Washington's core values but wants to retain some leeway as an allied but unaligned nation. France enjoys a certain aura in the Indo-Pacific, but this is gradually fading due to a lack of clarity in its approach.
Defining its interests in the region more precisely and designing a realistic China policy would help.
France might find inspiration in Japan's skillful approach to simultaneously navigating its alliance with the U.S. and managing relations with China over the years.
>> Read the whole article on the Nikkei Asia website