Macron’s Taiwan remarks expose EU divisions on China

French president seeks to reassure allies that Paris is not changing course after Beijing trip

Emmanuel Macron has sought to reassure allies that his policy on China and Taiwan remains unchanged but diplomats and analysts said his remarks as he returned from Beijing had hampered the European Union’s attempts to forge a coherent approach.

Days after suggesting that the EU should distance itself from Sino-American tensions over Taiwan, Macron used an appearance alongside the Dutch prime minister to insist his policy towards the island had not been altered and that he was working to “preserve EU unity with respect to China”.

His comments came as French diplomats were in their fourth day of damage control after Macron’s interview with Les Echos and Politico in which he said it would be a “trap for Europe” if it got “caught up in crises that are not ours”, in reference to the brewing tensions between the US and China.

To many analysts and diplomats, the French president’s remarks have created an impression of disarray over the EU’s China policy – the exact opposite of what Macron said he meant to achieve by inviting European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on the trip. This jars painfully with the bloc’s attempts to become a more convincing geopolitical player, forging a distinctive and coherent path in global affairs.


“The Chinese are great observers of every single nuance, of everyone who participates in the common shaping of the EU’s policy,” said one senior EU official. “I am never surprised by the capacity of big powers to divide the EU. They like to work on the divisions between member states.”

The EU has been at pains to formulate a coherent China position in recent months after multiple, independent trips to Beijing by a series of European leaders.

Those flying solo into the Chinese capital have included Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, who, like Macron, is anxious to preserve strong industrial ties to China. Among the other visitors have been Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister, and European Council president Charles Michel.

Macron had meant to showcase EU unity on his pomp-filled three-day state visit to China by bringing von der Leyen along.

Those efforts were undercut in his interview on his way back to Paris, however, when he argued that if there was a conflict between the US-China “duopoly”, then Europe “would not have the time or the means to build our strategic autonomy”. In that case, Europeans “would become vassals, instead of a third pole, if we had a few years to build it”.

Critics also slammed Macron for putting out a splashy and upbeat video documenting his trip to China, which contained no hint of criticism about Beijing’s military sabre-rattling or its oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province.

The film was in stark contrast to von der Leyen’s recent warning that Xi Jinping’s interactions with Vladimir Putin over the war in Ukraine would be a “determining factor” for EU-China relations.

Earlier this month, von der Leyen set out a detailed vision of how the EU should recognise China’s increasingly assertive posture and restrict trade in highly sensitive technologies.

The task now, say EU diplomats, is for the union to forge a clearer and more detailed common approach on China in the coming months – given plans, as yet unfinalised, for a summit between EU and Beijing’s leadership later this year.

“This was not a good look for the French president but as the EU, we do not have a problem here. We have a clear policy,” insisted one EU diplomat. “The von der Leyen speech set out a clear course.”

Anything that mars the impression of transatlantic unity is particularly worrisome in many eastern capitals at a time when Europe remains deeply reliant on US support in Ukraine and when some in the Republican Party have begun questioning the depth of America’s involvement in supporting Kyiv.

“Unfortunately, our geopolitical blindness has not yet been cured. We chose not to see the threat of Russian aggression and, now, we are choosing not to see the threat of Chinese aggression,” said Gabrielius Landsbergis, the foreign minister of Lithuania. “We are on the verge of repeating the same mistake.” The Baltic nation has faced the brunt of Chinese trade retaliation for allowing Taiwan to open a diplomatic mission in Vilnius.

Macron repeated on Wednesday that Europe should not get dragged into any escalation between China and the US after Beijing carried out large-scale military drills in the Taiwan Strait in recent days in response to the Taiwanese president making a high-profile visit to California.

“The position of France and the European Union is the same on Taiwan, namely to recognise one China, preserve the status quo and search for a pacific solution,” Macron said.

The French president also cast his country as a solid ally of the US by pointing to how France had sent a naval frigate to the Taiwan Strait to respond to Beijing’s drills. “When I hear some doubting France’s clarity on the topic, I would invite them to look at the actions of our frigate in the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “We act without provocation and with respect but I will not take part in verbal escalation that some are doing.”

Michel Duclos, a former high-ranking French diplomat now at the Institut Montaigne, said Macron was making similar errors in his diplomatic push with Xi as he did with Putin before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His solo diplomatic manoeuvring ended up leading allies to lose trust in France, while not presenting a united front.

“The president is again setting Europe back and not helping it,” he said. – The Financial Times