Macron in China: Horse diplomacy

The French president, making his first visit to Asia since coming to power last year, arrived in China on Monday to a warm welcome

 

The United States and the United Kingdom, both in the grip of political chaos at home, are also in retreat on the world stage. In Germany, a reluctant global power-broker at the best of times in the Merkel era, political energy is consumed by efforts to put together a coalition government. Across the European Union, member states are either embracing right-wing nationalists or anxiously mulling how to hold them back. All of this has left a leadership vacuum – one Emmanuel Macron has been happy to fill.

The French president, making his first visit to Asia since coming to power last year, arrived in China on Monday to a warm welcome from a regime that must see him as one of the few solid, stable interlocutors it has left among the West’s leading powers. Macron paid due deference to his hosts, flattering President Xi Jinping with the gift of a horse from the presidential cavalry corps – a French take on “panda diplomacy” – and acknowledging Chinese achievements. In return, Beijing rolled out the red carpet, agreed new business contracts and hailed Macron as an ally. “Bilateral relations will be further enhanced if he remains pragmatic,” the Xinhua news agency remarked.

But Macron must also use his current strength to bring Beijing messages it may not want to hear. On this score, he made an encouraging start. Speaking in Xian, the city where the Silk Road began, he praised Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road project, which aims to connect China by land and sea to the Middle East, Europe and Africa, but pointed out that the project – regarded by many in the West as a means of extending Chinese influence – must work both ways. “These roads cannot be those of a new hegemony, which would transform those that they cross into vassals,” Macron said bluntly. “If they are roads, they cannot be one-way,” he said. Alluding to France’s massive trade deficit with China, he spoke of the need for “reciprocity” in trade ties between China and Europe. As Xi intensifies his crackdown on human rights and Beijing continues its expansionism in the South China Sea, however, more difficult conversations lie ahead.

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