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The French president ended a three-day trip to China on Friday, where he made the conflict in Ukraine the main theme of his visit. But the messages he wanted to convey were scrambled by communication errors, according to China specialist Antoine Bondaz.
Three days spent in China for Emmanuel Macron, including long hours in the company of Xi Jinping, to lead, Friday, April 7, to a joint statement at a minimum on the war in Ukraine. The two presidents pledge to “support any effort to restore peace in Ukraine”. The text does not mention Russia and does not condemn its military intervention in Ukraine.
A text “not very surprising”, according to Antoine Bondaz, researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) and teacher at Sciences Po, for whom the results of the French president’s state visit to China are “mixed”.
On Thursday, Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping had called for peace talks as soon as possible and rejected any recourse to nuclear weapons. But if, as we are assured on the French side, the Chinese president has said he is ready to call his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, Xi Jinping has specified that he will do so when he himself has chosen.
On Friday, Emmanuel Macron went to Sun Yai-sen University in Canton, the third largest city in the country with 15 million inhabitants. In the campus gymnasium, he denounced, in front of an audience of a thousand students, the military intervention of Russia in Ukraine. After this meeting, Emmanuel Macron joined Xi Jinping on the island of Shamian for a tea ceremony and a private dinner.
France 24: Ukraine was the main topic on the agenda of discussions between Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping. Was this trip useful?
Antoine Bondaz : You had to have realistic and therefore limited expectations. China only repeated its position, without offering any change in its line. Paris said Xi Jinping said he was ready to call Volodymyr Zelensky. But even that, we already knew, there is nothing new. So, from this point of view, there was no progress this week and that’s quite normal. Xi Jinping was not long ago in Moscow, he was not going to immediately announce a reversal in his foreign policy.
But the objective was not so much to know what China was going to say as to send messages. In particular, it was necessary to manage to dissuade Beijing from delivering arms to Russia while displaying the unity of the European Union.
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Did Emmanuel Macron manage to get these messages across?
Not completely. The message is blurred when Paris affirms that Beijing will distance itself from the Russian imperialist project because China respects the United Nations charter. Because in fact, Xi Jinping does not respect the UN charter, otherwise he would have distanced himself from Vladimir Putin a long time ago. We need to have a more direct speech. For example, it should have been clearly stated that arms deliveries to Russia would go against the security of Europeans: there, it is concrete and it is firm.
On the unity of the European Union, Emmanuel Macron tried and it was good to bring Ursula von der Leyen. There were comments to say that she was poorly received, but that was anticipated. It was to be expected that Beijing would try to divide Europeans, in particular by making a difference in treatment between Emmanuel Macron and Ursula von der Leyen. It was something we couldn’t control. On the other hand, it was important to control our communication, and even if Emmanuel Macron insisted on highlighting European unity in his speech, he could have done more. For example, he could have supported Ursula von der Leyen on her position of “reducing risks” in the relationship between the EU and China, which consists not in “decoupling” from Beijing, but rather in balancing the relationship by making watch out for its risks and the EU’s dependence on China. Today, there is far too great asymmetry between the two powers. This is something that Emmanuel Macron did not carry in his speech.
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Does this mean that this trip is a failure?
No, still not. Let’s say the results are mixed. There were very good sequences, like the one today at the university. Emmanuel Macron made an ode to knowledge and freedom of research. Obviously, this speech will have almost no impact in China, but in terms of image, it is positive because it is a message that must be conveyed to Chinese youth, just like the opening message.
Now, on the rest, not everything was perfect, especially the communication. There was a lot of talk on Thursday about the length of the speech of Emmanuel Macron, who spoke twice as long as Xi Jinping. It is certain that when you have the Chinese president who shows signs of annoyance because you speak too long, it is a communication error which we can do without. If there is a country where a small sentence or a small mistake can be instrumentalized against you, it is China.
The last unknown is how this trip will be perceived by our partners. We will have to wait a bit to find out, but we can already underline the “double standard” between the way Emmanuel Macron lectured African countries during his last tour by explaining to them that the Russia and the restraint with which he addressed Xi Jinping. There is a form of hypocrisy that could go wrong.