All eyes on von der Leyen and Macron’s high-stakes trip to China

Following European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s calls last week to reassess EU diplomatic and economic ties with China, all eyes are now on her joint trip with French President Emmanuel Macron to Beijing.

Von der Leyen will hold a trilateral meeting with Macron and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday, on the sidelines of the French leader’s state visit to Beijing. 

Commercial ties including market access and fair competition practices are expected to be discussed then. The EU has accused Beijing of using bullying tactics to blackmail smaller countries into downplaying criticism of Chinese policies. 

In 2022, China was the third largest partner for EU goods exports and the largest partner for the bloc’s imports of goods, an important indicator of where relations between the two really lie.

For Alicja Bachulska a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), the trip will be exploited by Chinese President Xi Jinping in order to convince some European leaders to return to business as usual.

“We have the biggest players, such as Germany and France, and the business circles in these two countries, which have very vast, really, really vast interests in terms of returning to business as usual,” Bachulska said in an interview with Euronews.

“With Macron, this business delegation, it’s definitely a signal towards Beijing that economic cooperation is still very high on the agenda in Paris, but also, you know, at the level of the EU as a whole. And this was very visible in Von der Leyen’s speech, Europe is not about decoupling, this American-style decoupling.”

Von der Leyen has described it as de-risking rather than decoupling, but Bachulska added that this will not easy.

“This will be very, very difficult in practice, given the scope of Xi Jinping’s revisionism, the way our economy has been politicised in the recent decade and also given his ambitions, you know, create this dependency to also shield China from external shocks,” she said.

Macron wants to deter China from getting even closer to Russia, but some analysts warn that there is not much room for manoeuvre given that the nature of relations between Beijing and Moscow is highly strategic.

Antoine Bondaz, a senior lecturer at Sciences Po Paris, told Euronews that what the French President and his European Commission counterpart can do, is warn China of possible consequences in case of further military support to Russia and also try to get more clarity on the likeliness of Russia deploying nuclear weapons in Belarus.

“President Macron, of course, has the legitimacy to ask and raise the issue with China for two reasons. First, France is, of course, a nuclear weapon state. And second, France, unlike the US and the UK, is not part of any nuclear sharing agreement as these two countries are,” Bondaz said.

“The French president must be and should be very aware of the limited leverage he has over Xi Jinping. France, compared to China, is a lightweight today, even though France is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. 

“The relationship is very asymmetric and there is little that Macron can convince Xi Jinping of. It’s good to try. It’s good, of course, to leave channels of communication open, but we need to be very realistic in our expectations and to keep very limited expectations.”

At the same time, both experts agree that sensitive technologies are key to this relationship, but this does not mean that China has the upper hand, as China is still an export powerhouse and it is very much dependent on maintaining these exports and having access to European markets.

On the other hand, European policy will focus more on having its own strategy to maintain these cutting-edge technologies instead of being dependent on one actor or another.