What are the French Presidency’s key objectives in relation to China?
It is a first of all a continuation of previous policy: cooperation, competition and systemic rivalry, as outlined in the EU Commission policy paper in March 2019. During the German presidency, Mrs. Merkel came down more strongly than expected on the side of engagement, for example promoting the signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. President Macron has not disagreed with that. I think the French are waiting to see what the exact balance in the German coalition government is. And for that reason, there is restraint regarding the idea of breaking away from some of the patterns of negotiation with China of the previous Presidency.
What have been the key issues driving the French China policy during Macron’s presidency?
Again, it’s continuity, in three directions. The overall turn in French policy started under President Sarkozy. The key event was the 2008 Beijing Olympic clash with China over Tibet. Relations never went back to the old days after this. France has sought to diversify its partnerships among emerging economies, and to create economic defenses at the level of the European Union. And although President Macron gave an enthusiastic speech about the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in February 2018, the fine print was on the need for China to follow European and international rules. Finally, there is “strategic autonomy” for Europe.
President Xi Jinping has talked consistently about China's hope that Europe will pursue the “correct understanding of its strategic autonomy”. How does Paris view this?
The idea that strategic autonomy means dis-alignment with the US is a traditional position of the Chinese. I don't think they put much hope in it, but they never cease to hint at the potential rewards. What I look for is, are there any strong Chinese offers that would be a justification for the EU moving to a new stance? So far, I haven't seen them.
What recommendations would you give officials involved in shaping China policy for 2022?
The perception of China has changed – people have realized that China is playing hardball. There is always the temptation to say that if you reengage China, it will alter its path and pay back for reengagement. But that has not happened up to now. The track record is that the Chinese interpret European engagement as weakness. The other issue is the notion that you can confine the problems at the EU level, while dealing bilaterally with China on your own economic, commercial and investment interests. That doesn't work. Italy learned it the hard way after being the first G7 country to sign a memorandum on the BRI. So, my current recommendation is to reinforce the tools that allow Europeans to withstand Chinese coercion and counter the asymmetry of rules: to create sticks, not only carrots. If Europe has a stronger and faster capacity to act, its economic leverage in relations to China will become very significant.
More on the topic: Listen to the full version of this interview in the latest episode of the MERICS EU-China Podcast.