Ukraine will be high on the agenda when Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen arrive in Beijing on Wednesday, hoping to persuade China to put pressure on Russia to end the war. But the composition of Mr Macron’s entourage, which includes more than 50 executives from some of France’s biggest companies, also reflects China’s position as Europe’s biggest trading partner.
Announcing the visits this week, China’s foreign ministry was clear about the pecking order, saying that Mr Macron was coming to Beijing “at the invitation” of President Xi Jinping whereas Ms von der Leyen’s visit was “agreed between China and the EU”. Mr Macron has a full, three-day programme including a state dinner with Mr Xi in Beijing on Thursday and a supper with him in Guangzhou on Friday.
Mr Macron and Mr Xi will have a bilateral meeting on Thursday before they are joined by Ms von der Leyen and she and Mr Xi will meet later one-on-one. By bringing the European Commission president along with him to Beijing, Mr Macron is sending a message to his Chinese hosts that the EU has a united position on Ukraine.
European leaders are unhappy with Beijing’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said on Tuesday that China’s position on the war would determine the quality of its relations with Europe.
“There is a clear expectation from a permanent member of the security council to stand up in defence of [the] international rules-based order and China has a moral duty to contribute to a fair peace. They cannot be siding with the aggressor. They cannot be militarily supporting the aggression,” he said at a meeting of Nato foreign ministers in Brussels.
China published a 12-point position paper on the war in Ukraine in February, calling for a ceasefire to facilitate peace negotiations and an end to unilateral sanctions. In a speech on EU-China relations last week, Ms von der Leyen dismissed any peace proposal that did not involve the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine.
“Any peace plan which would in effect consolidate Russian annexations is simply not a viable plan,” she said.
During a visit to China last week, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez told Mr Xi that Spain supported Ukraine’s peace proposal which would require the restoration of all annexed territory including Crimea. But he noted that the Chinese position paper said that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected and warned against any use of nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict.
Mr Macron will hope to build on these shared positions as he seeks to persuade Mr Xi that a constructive Chinese role in pressuring Russia to end the war will make it easier for the EU to adopt an approach to China that is independent of the United States. In her speech last week, Ms von der Leyen spoke about “derisking” rather than “decoupling” economically but she made a hawkish argument for limiting trade with China on national security grounds.
But Mr Macron’s delegation of business leaders from Airbus, EDF, Alstom, BNP Paribas, Michelin and other big firms represents one of the most powerful cards in China’s hand: its economic importance to an EU that is struggling with low growth, inflation, the impact of the war in Ukraine and the legacy of the coronavirus pandemic. So any move to limit the EU’s trade with China is likely to meet resistance from member state governments.
Mr Macron’s advisers believe that Mr Xi is perhaps the only figure on the world stage who can exert real influence over Russian president Vladimir Putin and that he could play a key role in ending the war in Ukraine. The war is poisoning relations between Europe and China, and the prize for both sides will be immense if peace can be secured.
Nobody is predicting a breakthrough in Beijing this week but the three leaders’ meetings could lay the groundwork for co-operation in the future when Russia and Ukraine are ready to talk about peace.