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2024
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Visit of Xi Jinping to France - 2024

France Adapts to an Era of Strategic Competition With China in: "European Elections: Setting the Tone for China-EU Relations", ISPI Dossier, 5 June 2024

Under Macron, France is positioning itself as a "balanced power," carefully navigating the complexities of engaging with China. 
 
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France’s approach to China is noticeably taking on a stronger dose of realism. When taking office in 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron already sought to pursue a more complex, “less naïve” approach to China, as later reflected in the European “triptych” adopted in 2019 that considers China as a partner, a competitor, and a systemic rival. Recently, important divergences with Beijing, particularly in the geoeconomic and geopolitical spheres, have put a strain on the triptych approach. Indeed, the gap is widening between a constructive engagement policy that the French president continues pursue and a deepening set of underlying concerns and tensions that are leading France to push policy in the opposite direction, both in the economic and the strategic realms. The result has generated misunderstandings about France’s position on China and a degree of confusion among its partners.

Necessary dialogue

For France, China is and remains an unavoidable player in a range of areas where vital French and European interests are at stake – from international security to climate change. Paris considers, for instance, that China’s rapprochement with Russia in light of and despite the ongoing war in Ukraine makes Beijing an important interlocutor, if not as a potential (and highly unlikely) source of influence over Vladimir Putin, then at least as an actor that must be dissuaded from more direct forms of support for Moscow’s war efforts. Managing global challenges such as climate change or biodiversity also require an invested participation from China, as the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses today, but also a key producer of technologies that drive the energy transition.

France has thus made concerted efforts to maintain regular, high-level dialogue and pursue a degree of constructive engagement with Beijing, while explicitly tying French interests into those of the EU. At the same time, France’s insistence on dialogue with China can also include an avoidance of what Paris considers to be unnecessary antagonism or provocation, as witnessed for instance by France’s opposition to the opening of a NATO liaison office in Tokyo.

 

The strains of distorted economic competition

Yet, under the veneer of high-level exchanges and diplomatic niceties, France has steadily moved forward with policies meant to more robustly defend national and European interests, ultimately putting the relationship with China on a more confrontational track. The economic realm is one critical point of departure, wherein France has moved squarely in support of bolstering the resilience and sovereignty of Europe through more aggressive trade policy and a broad-based economic security strategy. While it is a global approach that is not aimed only at Chinese interests, the policies France has supported, which include a strategy of “de-risking” relations with China, have heightened tensions with Beijing. It is a choice that Paris has assumed.

Indeed, France has long pressed for greater protections for European technological innovations, critical infrastructure and industrial sectors through the development of foreign investment screening, a 5G toolbox, public procurement rules, anti-subsidy instruments or an anti-coercion mechanism. As these instruments are now being put into practice, confronting Chinese economic policies has become the natural starting point. For instance, the European Commission has launched investigations into Chinese subsidies for electric vehicles, high speed rail or wind and solar sectors, which could result in the imposition of higher tariffs later this year. France has stayed the course in support of these investigations, despite heavy diplomatic pressure and being threatened by retaliatory measures by Beijing in sectors such as brandy and other spirits.

In parallel, France has also pressed for a transformation of European competition rules to unleash the investment power of European governments and has pushed for the development of a robust industrial policy to support European competitiveness in strategic technology sectors. Ultimately, for France, the digital and energy transitions must become a source of renewed economic competitiveness and prosperity rather than a source of strategic dependence and vulnerability, particularly on China. It is less a question of confronting China than one of bolstering European resilience and economic sovereignty. As Beijing’s distortionary industrial policies seem unlikely to change, geoeconomic competition is set to be a consistent source of friction as time goes on.

 

A growing strategic competition

China’s increasingly assertive global posture has also led France to press for a more strategic European presence globally, particularly in the Indo-Pacific. A resident nation of the Indo-Pacific, France was the first European country to adopt a regional strategy in 2018. Paris has been advocating for an open, inclusive Indo-Pacific based on respect for international law and multilateralism. Unlike the US, Paris has been careful not to adopt a confrontational approach towards China, but instead aims to maintain a robust dialogue and partnership with China while also checking Beijing’s influence in the region.

In reality, the China factor looms large in the genesis of France’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Chinese maritime expansion in the South China Sea, violations of the Law of the Sea, and challenges to the principle of peaceful resolution of disputes are core concerns. Paris has been consistently sending ships to the region since 2014 to defend the freedom of navigation, including through the Taiwan Strait, unlike some other European states that might be more cautious. French strategic reviews since 2017 acknowledge the risks of China’s rise, including its strategic ambitions, growing assertiveness and opacity, the rapidity of its military buildup, and challenges to the rules-based order. The perception of China as a systemic rival has grown since the COVID-19 pandemic, with the radicalization of Xi Jinping's authoritarian regime, revelations about human rights violations in Xinjiang, the crackdown on Hong Kong's democracy, repeated frictions in the Taiwan Strait, and the growing strategic convergence between Beijing and Moscow. Finally, President Macron has repeatedly emphasized, especially during his visits to France’s overseas territories in the region, the risks of Chinese hegemony and predatory moves. France’s Indo-Pacific strategy is thus clearly informed by a balancing and hedging approach towards China.

Despite this, Macron argues that France should be a ‘balanced power’ (puissance d’équilibres), not aligned with the US, but acting autonomously and offering an alternative to the bipolar confrontation, which is seen as a destabilizing factor. Considering the role of the China factor in the French Indo-Pacific approach, this advocated ‘balancing approach’ has sent some confusing messages about Paris’s ambitions and role in the region.

Ultimately, structural divergences between China and Europe, particularly in the fields of trade, international security and global order, are a growing source of friction. Xi Jinping’s most recent visit to France in May 2024, marking the 60th anniversary of bilateral relations, which included a visit to Macron’s roots in the Pyrenees, demonstrated that Paris remains keen to keep the channels of dialogue open and maintain a degree of stability in the relationship. At the same time, France’s firm defense of its commercial and strategic interests suggests that it is shifting toward a more realist footing. 

 

This piece is part of the Dossier "European Elections: Setting the Tone for China-EU Relations" published by the Instituto Per Gli Studi Di Politica Internazionale (ISPI).

>>> Read the article on ISPI's website.

Keywords
Emmanuel Macron European elections 2024 Indo-Pacific Strategy Sino-European Relations Sino-French Relations Xi Jinping China European Union France Indo-Pacific