Macron’s words had a singular merit, neither expected nor sought: no European leader now will be able to express indifference about Taiwan or to imagine a third way between America and China. As with the French president’s futile pre-invasion flirtation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, he has given the impression of an attachment to an obsolete strategic conception, this time about China.
Macron often seems to give precedence to “great powers” over other nations. He never visited Kyiv until a few days before the Russian invasion. He is now blamed for seemingly valuing the People’s Republic of China more than Taiwan, the world’s eighth-most democratic country, according to The Economist. His implicit conception of a hierarchy among countries explains why he paid little attention to past warnings about Putin’s Russia issued by Central and East European countries and by many experts at home.
The French president embraces the idea that countries matter more than regimes, which in the case of Russia led him to refuse to consider the security dangers associated with Putin’s revisionist and destructive ideology. After painting himself as a defender of freedom in a 2017 speech to the UN General Assembly, and having emphasized that human rights are universal and not cultural in 2018, he has done little to defend these values against dictators.
Macron pretends to imagine that it is possible to play dictatorships off against each other. At the beginning of his first term, he engaged Putin’s Russia to counter China and to prevent the Kremlin from falling into its lap. Now he thinks it is possible to move forward with China on its so-called Ukraine peace plan — a non-starter. Ukraine does not need a mediator. It needs only allies to help it defeat Russia’s criminal invasion.
China has its own reasons for propping up Putin. A regime change would make Xi Jinping fear democratic contagion. Chinese control over Russia — and Central Asia — will be easiest if Russia is led by a dictatorial regime. A free Russia, helped by the democracies, would be difficult prey. Finally, China needs Putin’s regime to form of ad hoc alliance of revisionist powers to undermine the rules of international law and fundamental freedoms.
The French President’s remarks threaten dangerous consequences.
First, as the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center Andrew Michta pointed out, they fuel anti-European sentiment in the US Congress that could undercut Washington’s commitment in Ukraine. By underlining the supposed “ingratitude” of the French president, anti-European congressmen aim to give exclusive priority to Asia.
An American U-turn from Europe is dangerous. Europe’s security is crucial to the US national interest because Russia and China together form a global threat to democracy. It’s little wonder that Russian and Chinese propaganda outlets have taken great pleasure in highlighting Macron’s statements, attempting to drive a wedge between Europe and the US and between European countries themselves.
Second, while the French president’s statements rightly aimed at affirming the need to strengthen European defense, previous ambiguities on Russia and current ones on China could weaken Europe’s long-term security efforts. Some EU partners, notably Poland, seem tempted to base European defense solely on ties with the US.
And yet, the French President’s verbal gaffes represent, perhaps paradoxically, an opportunity for Europe to strengthen the transatlantic alliance without undermining a strong European commitment to its defense.
The continent now can and must unambiguously affirm that a state’s democratic character governs our understanding of international relations. This is as true for Ukraine and Moldova as for Taiwan. The island appears today as the only democratic China. Its institutions are free; political alternation is possible; its society is modern and committed to human freedoms — Taiwan was the first country in Asia to recognize same-sex marriage in 2019; it is finally facing up to the dark pages of its history, and in particular the abuses committed by Chiang Kai-shek’s regime, which neither communist China nor Russia have done. If we let a democracy disappear, it would send a strong argument for dictatorships about the inconsistency and spinelessness of democracies.
Taiwan also is strategic. About half of the global container fleet passes through the Taiwan Strait. The island plays an indispensable role in the supply of semiconductors: it produces 59% of the world market, versus 12% for the US and 10% for Europe. If Europe aims to limit its dependence on China, Taiwan represents a major asset.
Already, positive signs are visible. France moved to reassure its allies by sending a frigate to patrol the Taiwan Strait during the most recent Chinese military exercises. Illusions about Europe’s quest for strategic autonomy — a polysemous notion actually — on this matter have been disabused. The French President and his advisers took pains after the trip to China to say that there can be no policy of equidistance between Russia and China and that they still stand for the status quo regarding Taiwan.
As much as important differences divide Europe and the US on trade — notably the Inflation Reduction Act — or even on certain foreign policy issues — the second Gulf War in 2003 — Europe realizes that transatlantic ties remain essential when faced with existential security threats. The notion often used by the French president of creating a “balancing power” has no relevance in meeting such threats. Our common will to ensure Ukraine’s victory and Russia’s total defeat constitutes a test that our allies in Asia will be watching.
Nicolas Tenzer is a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and guest professor at Sciences Po Paris (Paris School of International Affairs). He authors a blog on international and strategic affairs Tenzer Strategics.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.