The visit Emmanuel Macron is starting today in China promises to be a difficult one, as he is confronted to contradictory imperatives. There are perhaps four of them. First, that of French national diplomacy, which aims at delivering a global message at a time when the multilateralist space is shrinking. Climate change and biodiversity protection will be more favorable grounds for this than the WTO reform, where China is clinging to its special statute. Then there is Europe, where Emmanuel Macron must confirm the message that he had delivered to China during Xi Jinping’s Paris visit last March: he had then invited Jean-Claude Juncker and Angela Merkel to take part in Xi’s reception. This kind of gesture demands continuity, even more so as Chinese leaders tend to believe in deeds rather than in words.
The French president must also present itself as a defender of universal values – at a time when human rights are particularly under challenge in China. The dehumanizing treatment of Uyghurs, Kazakhs and more generally Muslims and some Christian communities in western China is a major issue. Even if it is less dramatic for the time being, the fate of Hong Kong is worrying. Finally, the commercial imperative has not disappeared. Mr. Macron has to sell planes (here also in the name of Europe), reach for contracts, including in the nuclear industry, and advocate more opening of China’s services and public markets.
How are these goals manageable in today’s charged international environment? In Europe, a Commission that has reached its end is nonetheless not completely replaced, thus inevitably creating a period of wavering. Certainly, EU civil servants are busy implementing the changes that were – finally – decided by the Juncker Commission: screening foreign investment, countering lobbying and, most importantly, reforming competition policies and support for innovation, which are the two positive changes that the EU can bring to match China’s entry inside Europe. An interim EU report on the security threats associated with 5G, has a running thread in the narrative that points towards the special risks from Chinese companies in this sector. It seems that Europe has got its act together to face the challenge and pressure from China’s hybrid economy. And France has been instrumental in this change of attitude and shift towards new rules.