European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and French President Emmanuel Macron seek to represent a united European front during the trip to China on Wednesday (5 April), while Europe struggles to define its relations with Beijing between ‘de-risking’ economic dependencies and broaching thorny issues like Ukraine.
Macron will be accompanied by von der Leyen, who last week warned in a speech that how Beijing approaches Russia’s President Vladimir Putin over his war in Ukraine will be a “determining factor” for the future of the relationship between China and the EU.
For both leaders, it will be the first visit to the country since 2019, with a joint meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday being the diplomatic balancing act.
Commission officials, however, stressed von der Leyen is pursuing an entirely different program than Macron, who is visiting regional parts of China and bringing a large delegation of business leaders with him.
Von der Leyen will also conduct a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Qiang and meet with the EU Chamber of Commerce.
Since 2019, relations between Europe and China have soured over the stalled Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) in 2021 and Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Macron invited von der Leyen on the trip as a way to project European unity after French officials criticised German Chancellor Olaf Scholz for going solo to China late last year.
Macron’s advisers said he has pushed the EU to be more robust in trade relations with China and is broadly supportive of von der Leyen’s stance. However, the French president has publicly refrained from using strong anti-China rhetoric, with Beijing being prone to bilateral retaliatory measures.
Von der Leyen, for whom it will be the first China visit since becoming European Commission president, has said the EU must cut risks in ties with Beijing, including limiting Chinese access to sensitive technology and reducing reliance on key inputs such as critical minerals, as well as batteries, solar panels and other clean tech products.
Taking aim at von der Leyen’s remarks last week on the risks of trade with China, the state-run Chinese nationalist media Global Times warned on Monday that Europe would suffer from any attempt to cut economic ties with Beijing.
“The EU is in a difficult struggle as it is under great pressure from the US to adjust its economic relations with China. China and EU decoupling will only serve US interests, but make both China and Europe suffer,” it said.
Macron, meanwhile, will be accompanied by his Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, as well as business leaders from about 50 companies, including nuclear energy group EDF, Alstom, water and waste group Veolia and Airbus, which is negotiating a big plane order.
Critics have pointed out that the arrival of such a large French business delegation and ostentatious deal-signing might be sending the wrong message while trying to de-risk trade dependencies with China.
“Going to China with a 50+ delegation of CEOs and announcing business deals after Xi and Putin [met] in Moscow is quite remarkable. Will there be a backlash in France as there was in Germany with Scholz?” Noah Barkin, an analyst with Rhodium Group, asked.
However, in her speech, Von der Leyen also called for the need to “de-risk not decouple,” making clear that Europe still needs and wants to do business with China.
“We must get serious. De-risking is a much-needed quick fix, but we must also be ready for what might follow,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis questioned the strategy.
“We are woefully unprepared for the possibility that Xi’s trajectory might ultimately leave us no choice but to decouple,” he added.
The flurry of European visits to China – from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last year to Spanish President Pedro Sanchez and the Von der Leyen-Macron visit – come amid high tension between Beijing and Washington over issues ranging from Taiwan to bans on semiconductor exports.
The trips by EU leaders contrast with the decision of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to cancel a visit to China in February.
China is eager that Europe does not follow what it sees as a US-led effort to contain its rise and has repeatedly stressed its support for “strategic autonomy”, for Beijing a synonym for not following Washington’s tougher line.
Beyond trade, both have said they want to persuade China to use its influence over Russia to bring peace to Ukraine or at least prevent Beijing from directly supporting its ally.
“If there is a single country that can lead Moscow to change its calculations, it is China,” an Elysée official said ahead of Macron’s three-day state visit.
The official added that Beijing would have the unique capacity to “have a game-changing effect on the conflict” but added that it could help or harm depending on its choices.
China earlier this year proposed a 12-point peace plan for the Ukraine war, which called on both sides to agree to a gradual de-escalation leading to a comprehensive ceasefire.
After brokering a surprise detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia last month, Beijing has been eager to present itself as a global peacemaker and an alternative to the US, which it says is fanning flames by sending weapons to Ukraine.
But the West largely dismissed Beijing’s peace plan due to China’s refusal to condemn Russia, and the US and NATO warned China might be considering sending arms to Russia.
Suspicions over China’s motives only deepened after President Xi Jinping flew to Moscow for meetings with Putin last month on his first overseas visit since securing a precedent-breaking third term as president.
While Beijing has denied those claims, the EU has maintained that China had not crossed any red lines in supplying arms to Russia and wants to “minimise the risk of being associated with Russian military activities”.
Macron has said he is also keen to stress to Xi, who he will meet alongside von der Leyen on Thursday, that Europe will not accept China providing arms to Russia.
“Considering China’s proximity with Russia, it’s obvious it is one of the few countries, if not the only one, which could have a game-changing effect on the conflict, in one way or another,” one of Macron’s advisors said ahead of the trip.
Macron and von der Leyen are also expected to echo the message that Xi should also talk to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, with whom the latter spoke ahead of her visit to China.
“Ukraine will be an important topic of my meetings with President Xi and Premier Li,” von der Leyen tweeted after the call.
“The EU wants a just peace that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” von der Leyen added.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]