By Lisa Bryant
April 04, 2023
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron before a working lunch, April 3, 2023, at the Elysee Palace in Paris. The leaders will travel to China this week.
PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrive in China Wednesday for a three-day state visit aimed at discussing trade, human rights, and especially Ukraine with President Xi Jinping, amid ever closer ties between Beijing and Moscow.
The trip will be Macron’s first to China since 2019, and von der Leyen’s first as head of the European Union’s executive arm. Analysts and officials have downplayed expectations for any major outcome, though the two leaders will likely prod China to limit its support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“My understanding is it is very much about reengagement,” said Tara Varma, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, who specializes in Indo-Pacific issues.
Macron and von der Leyen are expected to hold talks with President Xi on Thursday. Macron is also scheduled to visit the southern city of Guangzhou.
The trip aims to present a common European front toward China, analysts say, amid growing friction on several fronts. The stakes for improving ties are high for both sides, including China’s position as a top EU trading partner.
In a recent speech that Chinese officials criticized, von der Leyen warned Beijing against directly supporting Moscow in its war on Ukraine and described EU-China relations as “more distant and more difficult.”
Von der Leyen characterized China as becoming “more repressive at home and more assertive abroad.” And she dismissed hopes of resuscitating a stalled investment deal with China, saying it had to be “reassessed” within Europe’s larger China strategy.
Von der Leyen, however, also said the EU did not need to “decouple” from its relations with China.
“That was the hardest hitting and most critical speech that we’ve had on China from a European leader in recent decades,” said Andrew Small, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and author of a recent book on China, titled, “The Rupture: China and the Global Race for the Future.”
“Although there are elements of this visit that will be about diplomatic reengagement, I think she laid out pretty starkly where the balance of European thinking is really moving,” he added.
Macron, who had earlier hoped to visit China at least once a year as president, appears to have greater ambitions for success.
At a minimum, the French presidency reportedly wants China to draw a red line on providing arms to Russia while the war rages in Ukraine.
“Macron also has this hope to secure some form of Chinese support for a peace process, for putting pressure on Russia,” analyst Small said, even as he characterized broader European expectations for that happening as “extremely low.”
Last month, Beijing laid out a 12-point plan to end the war that included calls for a cease-fire, peace talks, and an end to sanctions against Russia. But it did not label Moscow as the aggressor in the war and offered no specifics on its stance toward Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Last week, von der Leyen said any peace plan that consolidated Russian seizures of Ukrainian territory was not viable.
Still, Small said, “there is value in delivering a strong message to the Chinese side that says, ‘The relationship with Europe will be conditioned by how you handle the Ukraine question and your relationship with Russia.’”
Along with Ukraine, Macron and von der Leyen will focus on human rights and economics.
Macron is accompanied by a hefty business delegation, composed of CEOs from the energy, transport and aviation sectors. The Reuters news agency reports Macron’s visit coincides with talks on a possible new Chinese order for Airbus planes.
The Europeans have been pressing for a more level playing field when it comes to trade and investment. For its part, China is particularly eager to resurrect an EU investment deal put on hold three years ago, Brookings analyst Varma said.
“I’m pretty sure the Chinese authorities will put the issue to both President von der Leyen and President Macron,” she added. “But there will need to be some guarantees provided by the Chinese authorities in terms of a level playing field, and reciprocity in terms of market access — which is not the case today.”
Ahead of the trip, European Commissioner Thierry Breton warned of the EU’s capacity to inflict economic damage on China as a major market for Chinese goods.
“China is a trade partner, but China is also a systemic rival,” Breton told French radio, “If the (EU) internal market ever closes to China, which I hope will not be the case, that’s four to five GDP points fewer for China.”